Scott Lang vs. the World
A few days ago I found myself thinking back to the heady days of Summer 2000, which don't really feel like that long ago (not if you're my age, anyway). The big event at the cinema was the release of the first X-Men film, and I recall my genuine sense of excitement and anticipation: after so many years of half-hearted TV movies with people like David Hasselhoff, someone had finally made a proper full-blooded adaptation of a Marvel comic book! I could hardly believe it.
These days, of course, we live in a different world – it's been a long time since a blockbuster season has gone by without a Marvel adaptation making its cash-hoovering debut, and you could readily argue that superhero movies, and in particular the ones from Marvel Studios itself, are the defining influence on summer films in general.
Things have got to the point where virtually all of Marvel's most famous characters have some kind of established screen presence, with the company turning to really quite obscure second- and third-stringers for new movies. Thus we have the release of Peyton Reed's take on Ant-Man, starring and co-written by Paul Rudd. Rudd plays Scott Lang, an electronics engineer turned Robin Hood-ish burglar, who as the film starts is being released from prison in San Francisco. The world being as it is, Scott finds it hard to find a legit job, but he desperately needs money if he is to get access to his young daughter. This leads him to contemplate one last extra-legal excursion, breaking into a vault in the basement of a retired millionaire. But all he finds within is a very peculiar suit...
It turns out the millionaire in question is Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), ex-SHIELD agent and scientific genius, who back in the 80s was rumoured to be very tiny special forces operative Ant-Man. Now Pym is concerned that his less principled former protege (Corey Stoll) intends to duplicate his research into shrinking technology, and needs someone to take on the mantle of Ant-Man and steal the prototype of the new equipment. Hank's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is somewhat aggrieved at not being offered the gig herself, but the trio nevertheless set about preparing Scott for his mission...
You would think, given the only place that Ant-Man is really prominent is in the A-Z index of the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe, that this movie was conceived relatively recently – certainly well after the start of Marvel Studios' rise to dominance. But no: I distinctly recall having a conversation about the fact it was in development while going to see Casino Royale at the back end of 2006 (the general tenor of the conversation being 'why on Earth are they making a movie about Ant-Man...?). This film has spent a long time coming to the screen, with a development process you would have to describe as troubled.
For a long time this was going to be Edgar Wright's Marvel movie, with a script co-written by him and Joe Cornish, but director and studio parted company due to an inability to agree on the tone of the film. This was taken by many observers as an indication of the meat-grinder nature of Marvel Studios' operations, with genuinely creative directors not being allowed to bring their own sensibilities to what is at heart a corporate franchising operation.
And yet it would seem otherwise. Wright retains not just a story and screenplay credit, but is listed alongside Stan Lee as executive producer on the film (how much he was genuinely involved it's hard to say, of course), and there are sections of this film which really do feel like they have his fingerprints on them: mostly some drolly comic scenes concerned with Scott's largely useless team of accomplices, but also some inspired sight gags as well. Visually, this film does seem genuinely inventive – having a protagonist who spends much of the film only half an inch tall does allow for a new perspective, of course.
On the other hand, there are other elements of the film which do feel very much like business as usual for the company: I'd be prepared to bet that a sequence in which Ant-Man takes on one of the Avengers never appeared in any draft written by Wright and Cornish, while certain aspects of the central conflict do recall elements of the original Iron Man, flipped and twisted around a bit. But on the whole, the wider universe and the ongoing meta-plot are handled with a light touch – in some ways very subtly indeed, with some of the cameos and references possibly slipping by unnoticed by the casual viewer.
The film handles Ant-Man's somewhat tangled history with commendable skill, as well, finding a way to incorporate the original Ant-Man (Pym – also, in the comics, the creator of Ultron) and his replacement, without it all feeling needlessly complex and involved. Some have grumbled about the non-appearance of the Wasp in this movie, but the door is left very wide open for the future.
In short, a few moments of tonal uncertainty excepted, there really isn't very much wrong with Ant-Man at all: the balance of characterisation, humour, action, and spectacle is almost perfect, resulting in a film which is simply great fun to watch. It has a lightness of touch that simply wasn't there in Age of Ultron, which often felt like it was in danger of collapsing under its own weight. Even if Ant-Man looks set to do only relatively modest business by the company's standards, it is – as with Guardians of the Galaxy – the more obscure and off-the-wall property which has provided Marvel with its most creatively successful film of the year. Get going with that Squirrel-Girl adaptation, guys!