Minor spoilers follow.
The MCU has a problem. When it started out, it was just Iron Man, doing his thing. Then Nick Fury came onto the scene, and a cinematic universe was born. Government agencies, decade-long conspiracies, Norse gods from outer space. What started off as one hero fighting to make amends for his own violent history has turned into a sprawling behemoth. By Age of Ultron, the Avengers were trying to stop a genocidal robot from literally wiping out most human life on Earth. With Infinity War on the horizon, plus the Guardians of the Galaxy’s integration into the wider MCU, the stakes are primed to climb to ever more (pardon the pun) astronomical heights.
As more and more films are added to the MCU, the world expands. That’s normal, and it’s not bad. But when no major characters are allowed to die (saving Quicksilver, introduced approximately two hours before he was offed), and when nothing too bad is allowed to happen without the main characters swooping in and mopping it up, stuff starts to get a little… cartoony. A bit less emotionally grounded. I’m not saying pull a Warner Bros. and go all “gritty,” but I do think Marvel’s continuing insistence on “bigger is better”—as seen in the gazillion-plotline, “we have to set up five different movies” mess that was Ultron, and potentially in the absolutely massive Civil War cast list—could really hamstring Marvel in the future, in terms of quality, if not box office gross.
All that is to say: God bless Ant-Man.
In the lead-up to this film, much of the attention surrounding it has been followed around by a niggling but persistent “…but.” That’s thanks to the high-profile departure of original director (and geek favorite) Edgar Wright, whose original vision for the movie, which he’d been working on years before Iron Man came out, departed from what the MCU came to need.
“…But what would Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man have looked like?”
“…But what does this say about the MCU’s preference for bland studio films over directorial autonomy?”
“…But will this be the MCU’s first flop?”
God willing, it shouldn’t be, because Ant-Man got right (if not “Wright,” haha) what Ultron fumbled on. Ant-Man’s story is, no pun intended, small. Original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is determined not to let his one-time protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), develop his own version of the “Pym particle,” which enables a human to shrink down to the size of an ant while still retaining all the physical strength and power they had as a full-size adult. With the help of his estranged daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Pym enlists Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), an ex-con with a Robin Hood complex, to put a stop to Cross’ plotting. As with Iron Man, in which Obadiah Stane wanted to take advantage of Tony Stark’s arc reactor tech to earn big bucks, there are larger implications if Cross succeeds. But, at its heart, Ant-Man is a heist movie with some family drama thrown in. There are no alien armies falling from the sky.
(There’s a moment I really loved that lampshades this, though it’s possibly just a throw-away line that I’m reading too much into. A character mentions that the Avengers can’t be called on for help, because they’re dealing with bigger stuff, like cities falling from the sky. “Man, who the hell knows?,” I heard. “They’re over there dealing with secret Neo-Nazi groups infiltrating the highest level of government and possible extinction events and all that shit. They don’t have time to engage in such minor quibbles.”)
To be sure, Ant-Man has a substantial problem, which is that its first act, before the heist starts going down, is a bit of a slog. The set-up is clunkily handled in a way that makes it fairly obvious that a lot of different people (four are credited) worked on the script. OK, let’s start with a flashback scene to explain some of Pym’s backstory. Now let’s see what Scott’s deal is. Now we move on to Darren Cross. Oh, shoot, we need to establish Scott’s daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson). Check. Check. Check. The first third or so of Ant-Man feels in some ways like a completely different movie than the rest of it.
Still, once you get through that—which is no terrible burden, because despite being a bit sloppy, it’s nowhere near as sloppy as Ultron, and there are still many good elements—Ant-Man really kicks into high gear. The big heist set piece is the best thing Marvel’s done since… well, since Guardians, which was a year ago, but you get my point. In fact, the second half of Ant-Man has more in common with Guardians than it does with any other MCU film. It’s a self-contained story with a light, humorous touch (there’s one bit with a briefcase that… no, I won’t spoil it) that draws its drama more from interpersonal relationships than bombastic, potentially world-ending events. (There was one of those in Guardians, of course, with Ronan and the Infinity Stone, but that whole scene played out more as the Guardians coming together as a family than ACTION! ACTION! ACTION!)
When Ant-Man sets up elements for future movies, it does so in an unobtrusive, natural way. There are no “Thor going on a vision quest” moments. (Can “going on a vision quest” be the new “nuking the fridge” or “jumping the shark”?) You get the sense that, while you’re watching a movie that’s part of a larger universe, you’re supposed to care more about what’s going down on-screen now than whatever Thanos will be getting up to in four years. INFINITY STONES! DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE INFINITY STONES?!
So, no: Ant-Man isn’t perfect. But nor it is a festering boil on the reputation of Marvel Studios. I’d put it in my top favorite MCU films (with Iron Man, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: Winter Soldier) based on the strength of Michael Peña alone. I know Rudd, Douglas, and Lilly are the bigger names here, but Peña’s character is, bar none, the best part of this movie. He is why Marvel One Shots were invented. Luis, I love you forever.