I am already tired of the conversation about what would have been different if Edgar Wright had stayed onboard to direct "Ant-Man," the latest movie from Marvel Studios. As the writing credits on the film reflect, much of what Edgar did with his co-writer Joe Cornish is still intact, and they were the ones who cracked the way to bring one of the strangest members of the Avengers to the screen for the first time.
There is plenty of director Peyton Reed and co-writers Paul Rudd and Adam McKay on display here, too, though, and one of the things that makes "Ant-Man" stand out is that it's one of the most effortlessly charming films that Marvel has made so far. It was a big part of the appeal of last year's "Guardians Of The Galaxy," as well, although this film has a very different sensibility. In basic structure, the film hits some of the same beats as "Iron Man," with a disgruntled second-in-command trying to stage a hostile takeover using a modified version of the hero's weaponry. But when you look at the difference between the way the two films feel, it's clear that there is still plenty of room to make these films feel individual.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a career criminal who's just getting out of his latest stint in prison, and he's determined to go straight this time. After all, he's got some pretty strong motivation in the form of his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson, who seems omnipresent these days). His ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) has moved on, and the guy she's picked as a replacement for Scott, Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), is pretty much his polar opposite, a cop. Scott's intentions may be good, but he finds himself frustrated at every turn, and it doesn't help that he's living with his former prison cellmate Luis (Michael Pena), who has some ideas for how he and Scott can put their skills to good use.
When Scott does finally give in to temptation, it brings him to the attention of Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), an eccentric but well-known scientist whose company is no longer under his control. Instead, Pym Industries is being run by Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), and they're working to perfect a military application for a miniaturization process that was based on some of Pym's early work. Fans of the comics already know that Pym played a pivotal role in the early days of the Marvel universe, and there's an opening scene that hints at that role, and it features a startlingly realistic young Michael Douglas, de-aged digitally by the same team who put Chris Evans's head on a skinny body. The work here is almost spooky, especially since we know what a young Michael Douglas looked and sounded like.
"Ant-Man" has one of the slower starts to a Marvel movie, and it takes a little while to really find its rhythms. Once Scott is in contact with Hank and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily), the movie really hits its stride, and for fans of heist films in general, there's a fun attitude that the movie strikes. The characters are clearly drawn, and simply motivated, leaving plenty of room to just enjoy the undeniably weird side of the entire concept. After all, this is a superhero who shrinks to bug size and who can communicated telepathically with ants.
The film builds and builds, with a third act that is preposterous fun both because of how it is staged and because it keeps the emphasis on the personal. This may be the most intimate movie so far in the main Marvel movie universe, even though it ultimately proves to be an essential puzzle piece in many ways. We learn a lot in this film about characters we have yet to meet as well as characters we've known for a while now, and there are two separate post-movie stings. One comes mid-credits, and one is at the end, and they're both pretty great. In the first one, Evangeline Lily delivers the single most meta line in any of the Marvel movies so far, one that should have female fans cheering and that speaks to where the movies could be heading soon.
Reed's touch is most firmly felt in the way the characters relate here. There is a relaxed comic energy to the film that really works, and Paul Rudd is a perfect Scott Lang. He's nothing like the standard issue Marvel hero so far, and the movie is better for it. He has tremendous chemistry with Michael Pena and with Evangeline Lily, and both of them walk away looking great thanks to the roles they're playing. The film has a very different visual feel than the last few Marvel films, with the decision to use largely real macro-lensed photography to create the backgrounds for the miniature sequences paying off beautifully. There's also an introduction of a new dimension, the Quantum Realm, that is flat out gorgeous, and a fascinating new plaything for storytellers working at Marvel.
There's something gratifying about a film like this, where most of the third act takes place inside a child's bedroom, after seeing a movie as gigantically scaled as "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." It is a reminder that just because these movies all come from Marvel, there is no obligation to make them all feel like the exact same movie. I like the way the film thematically deals with the promises and the heartbreak that exist between fathers and children, and I love a middle-of-the-movie sequence that folds into "Ultron" in a most unusual way. "Ant-Man" has its own voice, no doubt thanks to all of the talent involved, and it stands as a surprisingly sturdy success for the studio, a delightfully weird little movie that has no business working this well.
"Ant-Man" is in theaters July 17th.