imagesAnt-Man (2015)

Director: Peyton Reed

Screenplay: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd

Story: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish

Comic Book: Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby

Scott Lang/Ant-Man: Paul Rudd

Dr. Hank Pym: Michael Douglas

Hope Van Dyne (Pym’s daughter): Evangeline Lilly

Darren Cross/Yellowjacket: Corey Stoll

Paxton: Bobby Cannavale

Maggie Lang: Judy Greer

Cassie Lang: Abby Ryder Fortson

Luis: Michael Pena

Sam Wilson/The Falcon: Anthony Mackie

The Marvel universe provides virtually unlimited resources for storytelling, but that is not enough. The best stories feature archetypal themes, interesting and appealing characters, dynamic rather than static characters, peril, resolution, and perhaps above all, the willingness of central characters to sacrifice for the good of others. Heroism isn’t truly heroic unless the hero risks something of great value, perhaps, everything.

At its heart, Ant-Man is a story about redemption–on multiple levels–and love. That’s what takes what one might reasonably believe to be a weak premise the distance necessary to make it an enjoyable and compelling movie.

In many ways, I became an English teacher because of Marvel comics. I read them all during my adolescence, and then as now, they had a college-level vocabulary. Their universal plots inspired me to read more demanding literature. It is only in recent years that computer graphic technology finally caught up with the imagination of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Marvel’s other artists and writers. There was, however, one comic to which I paid scant attention: Ant-Man. It was therefore with some trepidation that I laid down my hard-earned dollars this afternoon on the first day of general release for the movie.

The movie opens in the past: 1989. SHIELD HQ–destroyed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier–is under construction, and Dr. Hank Pym–the original Ant-Man–confronts Howard Stark (played by John Slattery), and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, about their intentions for his technology. He breaks with SHIELD and Stark wisely lets him go.

Fast forward to the Marvel universe present where the company Pym founded has been taken over by the evil Darren Cross, Pym’s former protégé. Working for Cross, but secretly informing Pym is Pym’s daughter, Hope. Cross has invented an Ant-man-like suit called Yellowjacket and it’s clear he plans to use it for evil. Like all good, leering villains, Cross has invited Pym to the unveiling of his nearly complete technology. Pym is less than thrilled because the technology he has worked so hard to protect and hide all those years can destroy the world (sound familiar?).

Enter Scott Lang, who has just been released from prison. Yes, he’s a felon, but he committed a particularly noble crime. He also has an adorable daughter–Cassie–an ex-wife–Maggie–who hopes he’ll reform and do well, and her fiancé–Paxton–who happens to be a cop. Scott can’t see his daughter unless he gets his act together, which means money, a job, and respectability.

What follows is essentially one of the primary plot devices of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Scott, like Huck, is a loveable rogue, who happens–unlike Huck–to have a master’s degree in electrical engineering. No matter what mischief Scott commits, it all turns out well in the end: he always ends up doing the right, moral thing. It helps, in this case, that Dr. Pym is manipulating Scott, and everyone else, behind the scenes–for good, of course.

In the act of retrieving a piece of old Pym technology from what they believe to be an old Stark warehouse, Scott arrives to discover the new Avenger’s headquarters. He plunges headlong into a confrontation with the Falcon, defeats him without hurting him, and gets the tech, which allows the next step in the movie: destroying the Yellowjacket suit, blowing up the facility and all computer memory of it, and stopping Cross.

As the movie is still brand new, I won’t go farther into the plot, except to say that it is, action packed in the best tradition of Marvel movies. The CGI work is impressive in every way imaginable. After the first few instances of Scott shrinking to the size of an ant and back, disbelief is suspended, and director Peyton Reed skillfully winds humor and surprises into those moments. A fight sequence between Cross as Yellowjacket and Scott as Ant-Man on a child’s train set is particularly delightful, funny and imaginative.

The performances are all first-rate. Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang is a dynamic character whose inherent nobility is revealed. Even though it’s clear to the audience that he’s the stereotypical “felon makes good” character, watching him earn redemption is exciting and satisfying, particularly when it means he finally becomes the hero his daughter has always believed him to be. Rudd plays him with humor and determination, even when he has moments of doubt. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope is lean and beautiful, and also happens to be a martial arts

expert who teaches Scott necessary skills. Hope has always been conflicted over the death of her mother, who was also an ant-like superhero with Pym, and knows Pym is not telling her the truth about her death. But Pym redeems himself in her eyes too. It turns out her mother died in the process of an act of selfless heroism.

Michael Douglas demonstrates that he has learned a great deal about acting in his long career. His Hank Pym is a man carrying many great burdens and working hard to prove himself worthy of them. Michael Pena as Luis is an actor many will recognize. Among his other familiar films are Shooter and more recently, Fury. In this movie, he is Scott’s loyal friend, and while mostly goofy, comic relief, he is also highly competent and altruistic when it counts. He is also the sort-of leader of a group of three criminals that help Scott commit crimes for the good of all mankind.

Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross is a satisfyingly menacing and psychotic bad guy who thinks he is a step ahead of Pym and Scott. He gets his comeuppance via an outdoor bug zapper, and when Scott makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his daughter. Of course, Scott is the good guy and is necessary for what will surely be a sequel, so through ingenuity, he saves himself at the last moment.

Uncredited are Scott’s helpers: the ants of various species. When Scott’s flying ant steed gives his life, few eyes in the house were dry, which is an impressive bit of scripting. One ant ends up greatly enlarged and becomes a sort of under-the-radar pet for Cassie, in another delightful scene. Stan Lee has his usual cameo appearance, which is, as usual, wryly funny.

As the closing credits roll, stick around a bit. There is a brief scene–this has become a habit in Marvel films–that makes it clear we’ll be seeing much more of Hope in the sequel, which is a very good thing. Oh yes, the Falcon is also looking for Scott. Perhaps a link-up with The Avengers is also in the offing?

Production values are first rate, and there are no slow, dragging scenes. The movie unfolds at a fast, but not frantic, pace. Reed’s direction is sure and confident. The smart script obviously helps.

In a time when our own “leaders” can’t tell the difference between good and evil, and as a result, evil too often wins, it’s good to see a story where the good guys triumph, the bad guys are defeated–of course, Hydra is involved–and the future looks promising. It’s a shame that there aren’t great heroes like Ant-Man and the Avengers out there saving the world regardless of who is in the White House. We need them.

But for now, about two hours of respite from the cares of this fallen world is available. We all need to know that redemption is possible, and of faith, hope and love, the greatest is still, love.

Ant-Man is definitely worth seeing in the theater, and worth owning on DVD. It is marvelously entertaining, and while it falls short of being good art, it has many of its elements, and considering all of the movies made these days, truly entertaining movies that have something for the entire family–including no obscenities, graphic violence, sex or nudity–are good things indeed.