In the spring of 2015, I sat across Bruce Timm, the mythic executive producer who gave the world Batman: The Animated Series and other influential DC Comics cartoons. During our interview, we veered into the still-ongoing success of superhero films and TV when Timm said with both excitement and bewilderment: “We’re actually getting an Ant-Man movie.”
Timm’s statement underscored everything 2015’s Ant-Man represented: A co-existing juxtaposition of confusion and unbound promise. For critics, Marvel’s big-budget Ant-Man seemed like there was no end in sight for superhero movies. For fans, Marvel’s big-budget Ant-Man seemed — well, like there was no end in sight for superhero movies. Both were correct. But while Marvel’s first real attempt at comedy had good reviews and a sizable box office gross, enough to greenlight a sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp this summer, there’s an ineffable notion that Ant-Man is kind of a forgotten Marvel movie.
That’s unfortunate. Though not the absolute best of the genre, Ant-Man deserves a better place in the rankings of Marvel movie canon. Funny, and at times inventive, Peyton Reed’s film deftly walked the tightrope between spoof and genre mash-up, combining heist films with Marvel, a brand that wrote and then rewrote the playbook of superhero movies.
Based, obviously, on the Marvel hero, Ant-Man stars Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, an ex-convict who steals a high-tech suit that can diminish the size of the wearer while increasing their strength (“You’re like a bullet,” Evangeline Lily’s Hope Van Dyne tells Scott). The suit also lets the wearer talk to ants, a quirky holdover from a cornier age of superheroes that somehow works in the blockbuster film. Trained by the suit’s inventor and original Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), Scott must stop a ruthless entrepreneur from mass producing a lethal version of the Ant-Man suit.
Although he was a founding Avenger, Hank Pym/Ant-Man never penetrated pop culture the way Peter Parker did. And his origin story, published before the Hulk’s in 1962, is way familiar. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A genius scientist makes a breakthrough that gives him superpowers. Am I talking about Iron Man or Ant-Man? Surprise, I could be talking about either, or dozens of other comic book characters you’ve never heard of.
A perfect storm of things enabled folks to doubt Marvel and Ant-Man, either in spite of or because of Marvel Studios’ reputation for quality control at the sacrifice of risk. First, it was the unceremonious exit of original director Edgar Wright. Wright, whose grasp of cinematic rhythm and visual jokes remain undisputed (watch Hot Fuzz and see how fast two hours whizz by), was replaced by Peyton Reed, whose comic sensibilities are still clever but miles more commercial. Put another way: Wright made Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Reed made Bring It On. Suddenly, film geeks who had been excited about the Marvel movie were a lot more lethargic.
Second, there was Guardians of the Galaxy, released a year prior, that cast a shadow over Ant-Man. In August 2014, Marvel proved it could make a movie about anything, in this case a tree and a raccoon in space. Downside was, now audiences had seen anything done before, and where do you go from there? Post-Guardians, Pratt starred in the Saturday Night Live sketch Marvel Can’t Fail, which bothered to point out how crazy Ant-Man sounded. It called attention to how Marvel looms over its own half-baked ideas; would anyone care what Marvel’s Pam is about? “Doesn’t matter,” says the voice over narrator, “Pam will make three billion dollars.”
Betting odds were against Ant-Man leading up to its July 2015 release. Several times the internet hivemind predicted it will be Marvel’s first “flop,” and even after it opened people still asked if it bombed. But Ant-Man wound up being fine. Good, even. Though critics who didn’t like the movie were harsh — The Atlantic said it was “well below par for the studio” — the film sports a comfy 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 86 percent audience score. The comments section of YouTube reflect this positivity. “This film is criminally understated,”, reads one comment. “I didn’t think I was going to like this but it turned out to be really good,” reads another.
Ant-Man made $520 million worldwide and was the 14th highest-grossing film of 2015. Not bad, for a half-baked idea. But soon the movie vanished from fan canon, brought up only in the context of the sequel, or Captain America: Civil War, which Rudd played a minor role. The biggest legacy it left looked like the memes it inspired, mainly of Michael Pena’s scene-stealing Luis, whose inability to explain anything was as mesmerizing as it was hysterical.
A movie is more than its memes. And Ant-Man is more than one funny character. At its best, the movie is a clever parody of Marvel tropes and plotting, which only recently has explored new avenues. At its worst, it’s just another fun superhero movie. Hardly cause for silent treatment.
Buoyed by Rudd’s screen presence, which plays well against the hardened veteran Douglas, Reed is his hottest when he lets loose with the gags. In making use of the premise — a thief who can change size — Reed retains the scope of a Marvel movie, with apocalyptic set-pieces and soaring orchestral leitmotifs, while literally keeping it small. Ant-Man and Yellowjacket battle inside a briefcase, an iPhone scoring their fight, before ending on the rails of a Thomas the Tank Engine set. Everything is big, until the camera pulls back to a toy train’s toot-toot.
Of course Ant-Man isn’t perfect. It’s still a sore spot fans had to wait three years for Evangeline Lily to suit up as the Wasp, and I had to Wikipedia some of the other characters’ names. And maybe Wright would have made this good movie, great.
But Ant-Man is still very good. In a separate interview I did last year, with former Marvel producer Margaret Loesch, she told Inverse how much Stan Lee believed in Ant-Man, behind only X-Men and Spider-Man. “Everyone laughed him out of the room,” Loesch recalled about Lee’s efforts to get Ant-Man made in the Eighties. “When it finally got done, I was so pleased for Stan. He always told me Ant-Man was a great character.”
If Ant-Man’s greatest flaw just being another Marvel movie with an unlikely leading hero, that was also its greatest strength. There’s nothing wrong with a small movie, in the scheme of things.
Ant-Man and the Wasp will be released on July 6.
If you liked this article, check out this video of a real-life Iron Man suit.