Sometimes it pays off big to make a few small, albeit risky departures from convention. Take the case of Marvel Comics and Disney’s joint leap of faith with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this sprawling collection of stories and characters dependent upon the idea of a shared world in which heroes of all types — chemically enhanced super soldiers; brilliant inventors using technology to do the impossible; spies trained to push their bodies and abilities beyond human limits; mythic god-like figures able to command the elements; and, soon, practitioners of mystic arts — unite against common foes to defend the planet.
What works well on the page in hand-drawn comic panels does not always translate so easily onto moving frames with live action competing with CGI for the ultimate supremacy — the transporting sense of true gut-level believability. Who — and I’m not just talking about comic book fanatics — doesn’t want to be a superhero? Who doesn’t want to have astonishing powers and the sometimes-crushing responsibility that comes with them?
That’s why man creates myths, movie stars and, yes, superheroes.
And that is also why, and how, those heroes can be compromised when transferred from one medium to another. We want the imagined, and maybe we want, without even knowing it, to shrink them down to a more manageable size and scale. But if we change them too much, we lose the initial intrinsic appeal.
Writer-director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and his creative partner Joe Cornish (director of Attack the Block) had a dream — long before such things were practical — to bring one of their favorite comic book superheroes to life. They wanted to bring Ant-Man to the big screen, so they set about the task of penning a screenplay for Wright to helm. The pair imagined Paul Rudd as their heroic little Ant-Man, a burglar named Scott Lang seeking a shot at redemption and to provide for his young daughter.
As is the case with Hollywood productions, business decisions forced Wright and Cornish off the project, with Peyton Reed (Bring It On, The Break-Up) brought in to complete the assignment. Rudd remained, and this new and improved Ant-Man (with script punch-ups from Rudd and Adam McKay) was slotted into Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe. Up to now, Marvel movies have gone big in terms of scale and scope and box office dominance; they have become tentpoles in the seasons of their release. And each new movie has had to deal with the crushing weight of higher and higher expectations.
Ant-Man, on the surface, is no different. Yet the movie that Reed and company have created is so very unique, it dares to stretch the mold. It starts off comfortably in the Marvel narrative tradition, with scientist/inventor Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) seeking to protect his discovery — the Pym Particle, a formula that shrinks living cells and tissue while allowing for density and mass to remain intact. S.H.I.E.L.D. wants to weaponize the science and create an army of super soldiers. Years later, after Hank Pym has retreated from his own company with his secrets held close to the vest, his protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is on the verge of repeating Pym’s success and selling the goods to the highest bidder.
Rather than fighting fire with fire, Pym settles upon the idea of stealing the new tech and destroying it before the sale goes through. Enter Lang and his ragtag crew of criminal associates (Michael Peña, T.I. and David Dastmalchian — scene stealers, one and all) who team up with Pym and his frustrated daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who would rather handle the situation on her own. This Ant-Team turns out to be surprisingly smart as well as full of heart and soul.
Lang learns to communicate and command his loyal army of ants through trial and error experiences that run from mundane tasks like moving sugar cubes to facing off against an Avenger (nope, not spoiling the cameo for you).
What Ant-Man proves to be is a capable independent heist movie — think Mission: Impossible meets Fast Five with weird and wacky dollops of The Usual Suspects and To Catch a Thief thrown in for good measure — that also happens to be a wonderful Scott Pilgrim twist on what a Marvel superhero should look like. Every detail, both big (Michael Douglas) and small (Peña), works to alter our perceptions of we mean when we talk about this genre and those crazy expectations.
Who knew going small would pay off in such a major way? (PG-13) Grade: A- (tt stern-enzi)