If all comic-book movies are just extensions of adolescent afternoons spent manipulating action figures, then Ant-Man takes the concept to a literal, if not brilliant, new level. At one late point in the new film, our titular hero is facing off against the villainous Yellowjacket, with both of the characters shrunk down to the size of, well, you know.
Their battleground of choice: a toy train set, complete with a battery-powered Thomas the Tank Engine and various playthings. While the pair duke it out in typical Marvel fashion – lasers! punches! quips! – the camera pulls back, showing their battle royale as merely a blip in a child's bedroom, an epic struggle that will be swept away when it's time for bed. The scene is quick, but just one of many metafictional digs director Peyton Reed takes at the Marvel machine.
As the latest instalment in the studio's assembly line factory, Ant-Man occupies a curious place on the company's toy shelf. For one, it was never supposed to exist, at least not in its current form. Conceived back in 2006 as a vehicle for Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright – and, presumably, his excessive genre sensibilities – the film was put through so many development speedbumps and studio tinkering over the course of a decade that the filmmaker left the project in frustration last May.
Yet Ant-Man was the final entry in Marvel's so-called Phase Two wave of films, and apparently such an integral part of their heavily plotted release calendar – which has films slated from now until July 12, 2019 – that to abandon it would set off a chain reaction of events that would alter the course of our very universe (i.e., studio shareholders' expectations). Reed was quickly shuffled into place, with a new script by star Paul Rudd and his Anchorman director, Adam McKay.
It was always whispered that what Wright was planning for Ant-Man was either too subversive or off-base for Marvel's middle-of-the-line tastes. The news that Reed – best known for his peppy, if conventional, Bring It On – had taken the reins was disheartening for those anticipating something even the teensiest bit different from the comic-book industrial complex.
Against all odds, though, Reed has made not just one of the more entertaining Marvel movies – infinitely better than Joss Whedon's overstuffed Avengers: Age of Ultron – but a genuinely fun and clever deconstruction of the genre, too. The beats are familiar: A broken man (Rudd here, but Robert Downey Jr./Mark Ruffalo/Chris Hemsworth/Chris Evans elsewhere) discovers a gift of great power, and uses it both for personal salvation and the greater good.
Yet in Reed's world, everything is a bit twisted. Rudd's Scott Lang is a smirking crook, fully aware of the ridiculousness surrounding him, but with such an amiable oh-what-the-hell attitude that we're happy just to take it all in stride. The power here is also not innate, such as Thor's alien strength or Tony Stark's ultra-genius, but a shrinkable suit fuelled by a serum created by another man entirely. It's the superhero mythos distilled through a bro-comedy lens. I half-expected Ben Stiller to show up as Derek Zoolander and utter that film's trademark, "What is this? A centre for ants?!" joke. But, alas, Reed can't deliver everything.
What he can produce, though, is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of pop: The little blockbuster that could, wrapped in a few neat genre guises. Ant-Man is a comic-book movie, naturally, but it also smashes up against the heist film – with its Ocean's 11-like plot of charming outsiders infiltrating a high-tech compound – and even the tightly wound family melodrama, with a pair of father-daughter tales at its emotional, sometimes mushy, core.
By the film's winking climax near Thomas the Train Engine's tracks of doom, it's clear that Reed has done the impossible: surviving, and thriving, while inside Marvel's restraints. That's no small feat.