I’ve grown rather cynical of the Marvel films. They just don’t say anything. Each time, the heroes are only motivated out of obligation to save the world and I couldn’t even tell you what the villains’ motivations are. Robot computer man Ultron seemed to be going through some accelerated teenage angst – not very becoming for a super-intelligent machine.
So it wasn’t with very high hopes that I walked into the cinema and surreptitiously upgraded myself to a gallery seat. But Ant-Man was a pleasant surprise: it at least presents its hero as an underdog fighting vested interests, a refreshing change from the tools-of-the-state that are the Avengers.
No matter how many jokes Joss Whedon puts in about not knowing what an iPod is, there’s no getting around the fact that Captain America embodies the jingoistic McCarthyism of an era best left forgotten. And Iron Man is little more than a celebration of America’s obsession with unbridled free-market enterprise as a reasonable totem around which to organise a society. In comparison, not only is Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man a newly released felon, but one that went to prison for trying to give back money stolen from his employer’s customers in a Robin Hood inspired burglary. The tie-in shorts go further into this backstory, poking fun at the West’s corporate-owned news media. The questionable morals of the rest of the Avengers is actually nicely alluded to in the film, with Michael Douglas’ original Ant-Man remarking that he’s spent a considerable portion of his life making sure his shrinking technology stays out of the hands of groups like them.
So the film has some actual bite to it. But vaguely anti-capitalist comments do not on their own a good film make. Fortunately there’s still enough on offer to keep Ant-Man ticking along. Although the main villain of the story is cut very much from the same cloth as other Marvel films — a businessman who’s gone a bit mad – it’s not enough of a focus to cause too much stumbling. The emotional meat of the film comes from a well-drawn relationship between original Ant-Man Hank Pym and his estranged daughter (Evangeline Lilly). While they both start the film as familiar superhero film archetypes — an eccentric, reclusive inventor and an austere businesswoman – the actors find enough room within to provide a human believability. When they reconnect it’s surprisingly moving and credit should be given to the Douglas and Lilly for making it work.
Equally, Lang’s (Paul Rudd) primary motivation is to support and impress his now estranged young daughter. While the male fear of another man usurping a father’s household position is already well explored by Hollywood, the quirkiness of their father-daughter relationship offers enough genuine warmth to keep you rooting for Lang for the duration.
Perhaps it’s because the concept is more-or-less original, but the sequences in which Ant-Man goes tiny are somehow still impressive after decades of decadent CGI. Whereas Marvel’s other ‘heroes’ have abilities that basically allow them to injure people very easily, Ant-Man’s escapades employ skill and ingenuity; the choreography of the unfolding heists delights throughout. There’s just something oddly satisfying about hundreds of ants working together to infiltrate a building.
Overall, Ant-Man comes off a bit like the goofy younger brother of the Marvel Cinematic family and that, I suppose, is exactly what its writers — Edgar Wright among them – aimed for. Ant-Man shows how a superhero film can refresh the genre by journeying off the beaten path, and it’s a lesson I hope Marvel Studios learns from intently.