“I saw the punch coming a mile away but I just figured it’d be all pathetic and weak,” sneers Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross, nursing a sore jaw. “Then you figured wrong,” comes his lightning-fisted opponent’s riposte.
Hold that thought, because Marvel’s Phase 2 closer might be the sucker-punch few expected this year. Much-discussed, much-debated, mildly dismissed… Saw it coming, right? Wrong. Caught on the back-foot, Marvel has delivered a clip round the ear to its doubters: a fun, fizzy, confident and almost self-contained MCU semi-reset with, minor niggles aside, some nifty moves to play.
Age Of Ultron’s $1bn-plus returns suggests these doubters are in a minority, but itchy issues with the MCU have seemed in danger of becoming fiery irritants lately. Do we need another Climactic Airborne Slug-Fest? Or another two hours spent seeding plot-points for aggressive franchise expansions? Did Marvel really need to play directors’ musical chairs with Edgar Wright (out) and Peyton Reed (in)? And was Joss Whedon’s usually laser-eyed focus faintly dulled by the city-sized excesses of the otherwise enjoyable Ultron’s – yes – Climactic Airborne Slug-Fest?
Whatever your answers are, Marvel had more to prove with Ant-Man than any other post-Iron Man MCU entry – and the good news is, it knows it. Hence a witty gag about Team Stark’s city-smashing antics; hence too, Ant-Man’s theme of change. Paul Rudd’s ex-con Scott Lang is driven by the need to change in the eyes of his ex-wife (Judy Greer), the stake being access to his young daughter (a winning Abby Ryder Fortson).
As for Marvel, Team Feige upholds the studio’s policy of a new genre per film. After The Winter Soldier’s conspiracy curves, Ant-Man arrives as a comic caper pic, riffing smartly on the set-up of the crook trying to go straight who reverts to crime because the only post-prison job he can get (briefly) is a McJob.
Divorce, estranged fatherhood, societal alienation… If the pitch sounds more like a Bruce Springsteen ballad than a summer sizzler about a guy in ant-duds, Marvel is thinking ahead again. Comic relief is judiciously dished out, aided hugely by ace support in the often show-stealing shape of Michael Peña as Lang’s dizzy partner-in-crime.
Despite Marvel’s wobbly recent record with directors (Wright, Ava DuVernay…), its casting copybook stays clean. Substituting Sex Panther for cat-burglary, Rudd brings average-Joe charm without smarm to the nimble-fingered Lang. As for Michael Douglas, techno-babble about sub-atomic particles and quantum realms drops from his gob as vermouth-voiced wisdom: this is, after all, the man who once convinced a generation to skip lunch.
Resuming Wall Street-ish mentor mode and adding wrinkly warmth, Douglas sells every line as Hank Pym, the inventor with a past who takes Lang under his wing: the mission, should Lang choose to accept it, being to retrieve Pym’s incredible shrinking “particle” from Pym Tech before Darren Cross gains a weapon even deadlier than his frankly horrible gun.
The pace crawls initially, more Snail-Man than off-with-a-bullet Ant-fella. But the time is well spent on setting fresh character connections. Those links are plotted with satisfying symmetry across a pattern of fathers/kids and mentors/protégés, fleshed out further by the fraught history between Hank and daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, punchy and pitch-perfect in a pivotal role).
True to form, Ant-Man gives that past due attention without becoming bogged down, brazenly utilising quip-power to kick-start the plot after moments of revelation and reflection (and sly franchise-setting-up…).
Marvel-watchers cried “No!” when Yes Man helmer Reed replaced Wright, but Wright’s imprint sticks in gentle touches of almost Aardman-esque drollery – and his replacement doesn’t botch the job. Reed might lack the pop-art pizzazz and unruly ambition Wright might have provided (yes, that’s a lot of “mights”…), but he nails the comedy/drama/action balance and slam-dunks the set-pieces.
A cool-as-ice burglary is just the entrée. Once Lang downsizes, the best bathtub sequence since Paddington uses dizzying, immersive plummet-o-vision to capture his diminishing PoV as he dodges death by DJ, hoover and rat. With faintly rote training montages and use-the-Force-style lessons in ant-control (free your mind and your ants will follow, essentially) out the way, the cool shit arrives with the palate-cleansing emphasis on inventive smarts over size.
A ruck with a guesting Avenger and various bustles of dazzling business with ants play giddy games with proportion. Balanced by the small stuff, the bigger gambits seem refreshed: one sight gag (clue: enlarged vehicle) brought the house down at our screening.
Even the near-Climactic Airborne Slug-Fest benefits from an ingenious, briefcase-based spin, followed by another roof-raising gag at a poolside punch-up and a toy-town stand-off that’s even more fun - and trippy - than the trailer hinted. Factor in some carefully placed teasers about Ant-Man’s screen future, add two sharp stings and you’ve got a refreshing proposition: a heavyweight studio boxing clever. In a super-sized summer, the dinosaurs and Arnie-bots won’t know what hit them.