Ant-Man was always a film that very much captured my interest from the start. Amongst the sure-fire crowd-pleasers and action-fests that filled up most of Marvel's Phase Two output, there were two films that were substantially riskier lined up for release. The first was Guardians of the Galaxy - which ended up as one of the most popular and joyous films in the whole MCU, far outshining the likes of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Iron Man 3. The other obscure original property on the slate was Ant-Man, and with Guardians' mighty precedent having been set, all eyes were on this film, watching carefully to see whether lightning could strike twice.
Unfortunately, Ant-Man's history was not a smooth one and fans had good reason to worry about the fortunes of the film. One of the most exciting aspects of the film was its choice of director - Edgar Wright, geek icon and the man behind Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The appointment of Wright guaranteed that Ant-Man would be rather different in tone to what we would normally expect of Marvel, and his strong track record suggested that the film would satisfy at the very least. This all came crashing down following Wright's unceremonious exit from the project, and his replacement with relative unknown Peyton Reed. Couple that with the lukewarm reception that greeted Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the general weariness with comic book movies that this ushered in, and the knives were well and truly out for Ant-Man. Could this be the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first failure?
Thankfully reception to the film was very strong, and despite its messy production and the almost willing acceptance of the audience that the film would be bad, Ant-Man won pretty much everyone around. So, how come Ant-Man managed to turn out so well?
We'll start with the most prominent and obvious element to the film's success - the lead trio of Paul Rudd as the titular Ant-Man, Evangeline Lilly's frosty Hope Van Dyne, and Michael Douglas' turn as legendary tech genius Hank Pym, the man behind the Ant-Man suit. The dynamics between the three are what really bring the film to life. Rudd's performance as cat burglar Scott Lang, a deeply cynical wise-cracker who nonetheless has a big heart underneath, has it all - he is at once hilarious, likeable and also convincing as a superhero. A truly inspired bit of casting. Lilly is as dependable as ever, turning what could have been a highly bland role into a rather interesting and damaged character who has many more layers to peel away than what is revealed here. Michael Douglas also shines as Hank Pym, with real and obvious enthusiasm for the role on display. He is a wide-eyed, lively but calculating figure who just about avoids becoming Captain Exposition and always functions well as a character in his own right.
The cast isn't the only great thing about Ant-Man. Those who were concerned about Edgar Wright's departure had no reason to worry, because much of his fingerprints are still there. The tone and pace of the script is delightfully tongue-in-cheek, strange and packed with jokes - many of them going for a much more real-world vibe than we've seen in the past. The running joke with Baskin Robbins and the antics between Scott's cat burglar gang are good examples of this - reminding us that despite all the high-octane thrills of the MCU and scenes of epic struggle, there are still normal people in this world, who can be just as entertaining as our heroes.
And that's really the key to Ant-Man's success - it is deliberately and quite proudly small-scale, not just in name but in nature. It's rather fitting that a film that revolves around a man shrinking in size for a closer interaction with the world around him is itself a work that shrinks itself within the Marvel universe, taking a closer look around at the world in which these films take place.
One of the key factors that makes this effect work is that, for once, the references to and appearances of other Marvel characters actually make sense within the story, giving us a very accurate view of how outside characters are perceiving all this guff about "dropping cities from the sky" and so forth. The cameo from the Falcon at Avengers headquarters is not forced and frames the story well within its wider context, subtly seeding Ant-Man into the next phase of Avengers films without making the point too obvious.
Nevertheless, Ant-Man is not a perfect film and it does have its fair share of problems. Chief amongst them is Corey Stoll's Yellowjacket, a villain so generic, moustache-twirling and absurdly evil that it's very hard to take him seriously. Amongst all the other believable and engaging characters on show, Yellowjacket comes across as a caricature who appears to be a bad guy just.. because he's a bad guy. Another problem is that the story gets needlessly messy and convoluted, throwing in all sorts of brand new mythology like the back-story between Hank Pym and his wife the Wasp, later referenced in a highly forced post-credit scene that is pure sequel bait and nothing more. A little more focus would have been nice, and at times the script struggles with the temptation to make the story needlessly larger.
However, the good far outshines the bad in this light, brisk and always fun examination of a wonderfully simple idea - what if people or objects could become vastly bigger or smaller on command? - that really makes the most of this scenario in its climax in Scott's daughter's bedroom. Ant-Man and Yellowjacket take part in a take on a wild-west railroad showdown - except it's actually taking place on a children's railway set travelling at 1mph. As part of this sequence, we have what is for my money, one of the single most hilarious moments in the whole Marvel universe, as a Thomas the Tank Engine toy is accidentally enlarged, and an enormous Thomas comes crashing through the wall of the house. The absurdity and madness of this moment really does sum up the film's wonderfully wacky sense of humour.
It's worth noting that this style of superhero film appears to be catching on. Just six months later came the release of Deadpool, which really is strikingly similar to Ant-Man in terms of tone, plot and budget, albeit somewhat ramping these aspects up to eleven in comparison to Ant-Man. Both films are explicitly aimed at a more mature audience than usual, both feature a highly cynical, morally ambiguous hero at the helm, both feature a cameo from another superhero within their universe, and both share the same self-aware, fourth-wall-breaking sense of humour. Could Ant-Man be the start of a new genre of superhero movie? We'll have to see, but at this point in time it looks like Marvel may be really onto something here.
With a sequel already on the way - Ant-Man and the Wasp is set for 2018 - it's safe to say that Ant-Man was a certain success against the odds, rounding off a strong era for Marvel Studios. Let's hope we get a lot more similarly low-key superhero movies like this in the future... but who knows whether they'll appear?
Baskin Robbins will know. Baskin Robbins always finds out.
Andy Markham is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast. Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the subject. Follow Andy on Twitter.