Friday night I saw Fantastic Four and spent Saturday in a deep movie depression (read the full Flashback/Backslide review of Fantastic Four here). Little did i know that my treatment had already been in theaters for weeks. Ant-Man is everything Fantastic Four isn’t. The final film in Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man was neglected by the Marvel/Disney marketing giant in favor of the Avengers: Age of Ultron (maybe it was just my grocery store that didn’t stock Paul Rudd cereal boxes but a few months ago you couldn’t buy a box of Frosted Flakes without looking at Thor’s biceps or the Hulk’s grimace). Fantastic Four didn’t get much press either despite its flagship status as a major Fox reboot. Unfortunately for Fox, the lack of press had more to do with the quality (the awful, awful quality) of its own movie. Fox needed to film Fantastic Four to avoid forfeiting the rights of the characters back to Marvel. Marvel itself could’ve picked any one of a dozen properties to bring to life (see the list of Phase 3 movies for proof) but took its time to film one of its original super-team members. Both films ran into issues in development but its easier to imagine that any version of Ant-Man would’ve turned out well and it takes a lot of imagination to come up with a palatable version of Fantastic Four.
What Ant-Man strives to be first and foremost is entertaining (another difference from Fantastic Four which aims for…foreboding? gloomy?). While most summer movies spend time with exploding cities and end-of-the-world scenarios, Paul Rudd punches toy trains and eats waffles. You could take the thirty minutes of Michael Peña scenes alone and end up with the funniest movie of the summer. Darren Cross, played by Corey Stoll of House of Cards fame, fills in as the movie’s villain and sadly fall victim to the same issues of other MCU baddies. Cross never appears to be the threat our heroes fear and wades a little too far in the melodramatic side for his own good. But he plays his role well and avoids capsizing the film like Whiplash of Iron Man 2 or Abomination in The Incredible Hulk. Guardians of the Galaxy one of the MCU’s biggest hits, poked fun at all this melodrama with its villain Ronan the Accuser who Chris Pratt challenges to a dance-off just as the villain delivers his final monologue.
Ant-Man is the twelfth movie in the MCU and by now the studio has perfected its formula. Even when it shifts genres (ie space opera with Guardians, espionage thriller with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and now heist movie in Ant-Man) it still blends humor and joy into its films. Part of that is because of lessons learned in the storytelling. Fantastic Four spent the majority of its screen time laying down origin story details, taking ridiculous short cuts to try to trim the fat. Ant-Man deals mainly in the creation of its hero but that background is focused almost entirely in preparing for the film’s heist. So the time in “origin story” is more like the lead up to the heist in Ocean’s 11 than the “Who am I? Why is this happening to me?” in Fantastic Four. And shortcuts here make sense and feel organic. Very early in the film, Rudd’s boss at Dairy Queen reveals that he knows about Rudd’s checkered past. Rudd begs to keep his job saying that this is the only job he could get. The rest of the scene is spent making jokes at the boss’s expense and in detailing how Dairy Queen can’t be fooled. In less capable hands we would watch Rudd being rejected in interview after interview until we finally get to the Dairy Queen scene (this time devoid of jokes). The difference between the Marvel version and the Fox version is small but keeps the pace brisk and doesn’t waste time with useless brick-laying.
Bottom-line: A streamlined superhero/heist film, Ant-Man doesn’t take itself too seriously in a genre that almost always does. Also, any movie would be better with Michael Peña. Imagine him as Luis Corleone in The Godfather. Sollozzo would be making his pitch to the family with Luis Corleone cutting in to talk about how crazy Sollozzo’s plan is and telling Sonny to chill. He could be one of the visitors to the original Jurassic Park whose crew suddenly drives into a T. Rex when Peña quietly tells the driver to “back it up. Just back it up. Back it up.”