Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website. 

Ant-Man has the smallest world-building of any of Marvel’s films, which is both fitting for its character and decidedly different from the tone set by their previous effort, May’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Maybe that’s a good thing. After hearing for the past year and a half about the troubles behind bringing the smaller-than-life superhero to the big screen, I was one of the most skeptical in assessing whether this would be Marvel’s first true misfire. Grumblings about Edgar Wright’s vision and being kicked off of the film due to creative differences led me to believe that Marvel was getting too corporate in their filmmaking, pushing away visionaries in favor of puppets that could morph the film into a property to further their brand. And while Ant-Man admittedly still acts as such, it develops into one of Marvel’s strongest standalone entries. Paul Rudd is a terrific lead and the script by Adam McKay and Paul Rudd (with the story from Edgar Wright and frequent collaborator Joe Cornish) is astutely funny and surprisingly emotional. I felt for these characters, and that’s big.

The story follows thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who recently served three years in prison for robbing a company of millions after it did the same to its consumers. He’s greeted by his long-time friend, Luis (Michael Peña), who has been down on his luck in the time that Scott’s been away. But now they finally have a chance to begin again, although Scott wants to repair his fractured relationship with his ex-wife (Judy Greer), her cop husband (Bobby Cannavale), and his own daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). But after a difficult job market puts Scott down, he must find a way to earn money, so he turns to thievery despite telling himself that he cannot. Luis had been tipped on a good house to rob where a millionaire would be gone and have a safe full of cash, but Scott finds out that it was all a hoax. Inside the safe is merely an “old motorcycle suit,” which we find out was left by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the previous user who called himself Ant-Man. The suit allows the wearer to shrink down to the size of an ant, and can command his fellow insects using his brainwaves. He also has superhuman strength at that size, making for a formidable foe.

Hank’s former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), has finally discovered that technology that Hank had kept from him for years. Now, he can finally meet the potential that Hank had set for him. Of course, he wants to use the suit and its power for evil motives, namely selling to the military or Hydra if given the chance. Darren is close to Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Hank’s daughter, which complicates things as she decides that she cannot follow a madman anymore. This leads to the recruiting of Scott to save the world since Hank is too old, and the rest is history. If this sounds like the conventional Marvel storyline, that’s because it mostly is. Yet the thing that defines Ant-Man as its own singular vision is the engaging writing, springing from scene to scene like a spy caper with humor deriving entirely from its characters. It’s intelligent, even if much of the supporting cast outside of Scott, Hank, and Hope are left as rather one-dimensional characters. Still, the script mostly relies on its own narrative rather than fitting into the grand scheme of Marvel’s world that it feels decidedly smaller than previous fare. It’s refreshing, considering bigger is considered better by studio’s standards.

Yet remember that corporate feel I was worried about? It still exists beneath the surface. There’s a grating, awful scene in the film’s first ten minutes that features Scott working at a Baskin-Robbins. It spurs one decent joke about a man asking for hot food, but only relies on promoting Baskin-Robbins and their smoothie that needs to be mentioned contractually by name multiple times. While the scene shows how tough the job market has been for Scott, couldn’t one line of dialogue sufficed? It’s a moment so out-of-place from the rebellious nature of the rest of the film that it can be forgiven. There’s a good tie-in with The Avengers when Scott interacts with the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who’s given a pretty good cameo considering none of the other big stars show up. And Corey Stoll’s villain, known as the Yellow Jacket, is admittedly a bit cartoonish. Yet the big fight scene near the end of the film is played with laughs first, emotion second, action third, which is perfect for the overall feel of the world. Director Peyton Reed brings that zippy feel from his previous work (including Bring It On, which is indeed underrated) and makes Ant-Man an enjoyably moderate Marvel film.

Grade: ½ (out of 5)

Written by Eric Forthun