(SFX, Future Publishing)
Ant-Man starts with our hero, played by Paul Rudd, seeming hopelessly outmatched in a prison brawl with a mountain-sized convict. It foreshadows the challenges he’ll face when he’s insect-sized, dodging stamping feet and monster rats. But it also acknowledges Ant-Man’s underdog status as the most preposterous Marvel film hero yet; a shrinking superhero leading a loyal ant army, who must appeal to fans of Iron Man and Black Widow. And yet he triumphs, borne on wit and wonder. One minute we’re laughing at his ludicrousness, then he’s dazzling us with a rollercoaster ride through a drain on a raft of ants, or hurling toy trains and building blocks with Hulk-scaled gusto.
Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man is unknown outside comic fandom, but his history – a bit involved for a summer blockbuster – is laid out excellently. We start with ex-con Scott Lang (Rudd) being released from San Quentin, where he’s done time for brilliant burglaries. Scott wants to go straight but he’s unemployable; he also faces losing contact with his adorable little daughter from a former marriage. Tempted back to crime, Scott burgles a billionaire’s house, finding nothing but a strange body suit. When Lang puts it on, he has his first terrifying experience of shrinking and learns he’s drawn the interest of the suit’s owner, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Pym once went under the name of Ant-Man and is now seeking a successor…
Ant-Man was introduced in a 1962 issue of Tales to Astonish (spot the comic’s cute namecheck in the script). The film was developed for eight years by Britain’s Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim, the ‘Cornetto’ trilogy), who was due to direct before his much-publicised departure last year. He’s still credited as co-writer, while the new director is Peyton Reed, known for comedies like The Break Up and Bring it On. Heaven knows what Wright’s version would have been like; maybe there’ll be a documentary film about it one day. But from a viewer’s perspective, Reed does a magnificent job of channelling Wright’s humour and sensibility. The tone’s breezy, the dialogue zings, and any fears that Marvel has straitjacketed Ant-Man vanish about the time that one chap gets turned into a blob of jam and flushed down the loo.
Comedy actor Paul Rudd follows likeably in the everybloke footsteps of Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. Unlike Pratt, though, Rudd’s Scott is unused to the wonders of the Marvel universe, reacting with amusing incredulity to, say, the smart ants serving him sugar for his coffee. The film’s a great entry-point for anyone who hasn’t seen a superhero film. (For everyone else in the audience, Scott asks the obvious question – why doesn’t Pym just call the Avengers to help? – and gets a convincing answer.)
Michael Douglas is great fun as Pym, dry and sardonic, yet sincere in his emotional moments that are hilariously deflated by Rudd’s artless reactions. Evangeline Lilly is terrific as Pym’s estranged daughter Hope, furious at her dad choosing Scott as Ant-Man. The show-stealer is Michael Peña as Luis, Scott’s fast-talking Latino partner in crime; Peña delivers Edgar Wright-ish fast-cut monologues which ramble delightfully from the point. The weak link is a one-note baddie, Corey Stoll from House of Cards, as a sociopath developing his own Ant-Man suit. But unlike Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man’s action and characters are tightly integrated despite the vacuum left by the weak villain.
Some viewers may chafe at Ant-Man’s long character set-ups before the action cuts loose, but believe us, it really cuts loose. In particular, the climax contains the most deranged ideas of any Marvel film, piling up and up in Gilliamesque style; a fight in a falling suitcase, a Thomas the Tank Engine bit. Maybe the lunacy will be toned down when Ant-Man joins the Avengers, but for now he’s the craziest superhero on screen, and also the most fun.