Ant-Man ★★★★

"Are you a monster?" asks a little girl late in Marvel's Ant-Man to the mad industrialist Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). "Do I look like a monster?" Cross queries back. It's one of several moments in the film that get at what Marvel is exploring here: namely the blurred line between heroes and villians. It's new territory for them as Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is the first hero in their cadre outside of Black Widow (who hasn't had her own movie) who starts out as a criminal.

We first meet him in prison and we see him operate in opposition to the police for most of the film. Lang's real desire is to put his past behind him and get back in his daughter Cassie's (Abby Ryder Fortson) life, but the film acknowledges the ways society is set up to deny ex-cons a second chance and how easy it is to go back to what sustained them. It's a story in which everyone is shades of grey. Scott remains friends and partners throughout the film with old prison buddy and active heist-maker, Luis (brilliantly played by Michael Peña with perfect comedic timing). It would have been easy to turn Paxton (Bobby Canavale), the cop whom Lang's ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer), has remarried, into a pure antagonist. He's a foil to Lang, for sure, but the film doesn't treat him with contempt. Paxton is just trying to do what is best for his family.

Even Cross himself, who has gone full villain by the time the film starts, is a character born out of his frustrated inability to impress his mentor and father figure, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas).
The relationships between fathers and their children is also at the heart of the film, as Scott is repeatedly told to be the hero his daughter already considers him. Meanwhile, Pym's daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) considers him a coward and a failure for retreating following the death of her mother. Pym's decision to recruit Lang in an effort to stop Cross from copying his shrinking tech and unleashing it on the world is alternately an offer to make Lang a hero and redeem him for his daughter, something Pym was never able to do himself. But in the eyes of a child Lang doesn't need redemption. "He's so ugly! I love him!" Cassie says of a grotesque stuffed rabbit Lang gives her as a birthday gift. Children can live with contradictions.

The relatively small (pun intended) scale and straightforward plot feels refreshing in light of recent Marvel films like Avengers: Age of Ultron that feel bogged down by their own mythology and stage-setting for sequels. In fact, this might be the simplest and most purely enjoyable for its own sake Marvel film since the original Captain America. It suffers from the typical Marvel problem of a bland villain, but its relatively complex treatment of characters, humour, and visual inventiveness make it feel at once right at home in the Marvel Universe and different from anything to come out of the studio so far. Edgar Wright's fingerprints are still all over the film despite his absence as director, but it has been smoothed to fit the Marvel brand. All things considered, the production issues may have ultimately benefited more than they harmed the film. Peyton Reed handles things remarkably well for having come in mid-filming. The final 30 minutes that comprise the heist portion and final showdown are just tonally perfect: exciting, funny, and packed with fresh visual and comedic ideas that make great use of the difference in perspective of heroes battling at the macro level and those observing them from full-size.

Ant-Man is continued proof that no matter how weird Marvel's ideas sound on paper, they can make them work. Bring on Doctor Strange.