(Peyton Reed, 2015)
It's one thing Marvel taking established, popular characters like Spider-Man, Captain America and Iron Man and turning them into hugely successful film franchises. But the way they have transformed that success into the ability to take third (or fourth) tier characters and make their movies into hits too - that is genuinely impressive.
In both the cases of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, a big part of the process appears to be the way they have empowered the filmmakers to make something different from what would generally be expected of a Marvel movie. That might sound funny given the fact that the original writer-director of Ant-Man, Edgar Wright, quit the project over interference from Marvel. But the finished film still feels like something new to the studio; smaller in scale (no pun intended), quirkily funny, inventive and loose in certain particulars. For much of the first two acts, it feels more like a ramshackle bro-comedy than a super-hero movie. That is down to the presence of Paul Rudd, but also the fact that he and Adam McKay worked on the script is obvious in the way some scenes stretch out once they find a comic groove. Rudd plays Scott Lang, just released from prison after a stretch for burglary (he broke into the offices of a corporation and released some secrets to the world) and trying to go straight so that he can be a part of his daughter's life.
He is noticed by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a genius scientist and creator of the "Pym particle" which allows people wearing a customised costume to shrink to insect proportions (and beyond). Pym's old protege Aaron Cross (Corey Stoll) has taken over his company and found his own version of the shrinking process, which he hopes to sell in weaponised form as the Yellowjacket, a battle armour capable of shrinking. Pym and his skeptical, partly estranged daughter Joy (Evangeline Lily) want Scott to break into Cross' facility, destroy the armour and all of the research, without being spotted.
What we ultimately have here, then, is a heist movie. Scott assembles his crew of ex-con mates, led by a winning, hilariously broad Michael Pena. The make a plan, they prepare, there is a training montage, everything goes well...until it doesn't anymore.
Ant-Man takes longer to get to the super-hero action than any Marvel film since Iron Man, but when it comes it is genuinely different and arresting. The scenes of Scott in shrunken form, surfing on a wave of ants or riding on the back of one are among the best in the movie, and the now-you-see-me combat style he has developed has visual impact and provides for a few good gags (the final Yellowjacket vs Ant-Man fight is as funny as it is exciting). The best moment is near the end when Scott enters the "Quantum Realm" and floats through a subatomic universe where time and space have lost all meaning. That this 2001: A Space Odyssey quotation co-exists within a film also setting up a new Spider-Man movie is genuinely exciting.
Largely, Ant-Man works because it sets itself up as a modest film with modest goals. The characters can be a tad dull (Lilly and Stoll both struggle with their parts) but the actors generally sell it, the Marvel easter eggs are mostly subtle and intriguing, and the climax is excellent.