If Marvel movies have lost anything specific during the studio’s meteoric rise to Hollywood elite status, it’s surely the element of surprise. With a familiar formula and a branded identity that stifles individual directorial vision, Marvel has been comfortably churning out product that relies on being not only exactly what their audience wants, but also exactly what they expect. So it’s with a friendly tap on the shoulder that Ant-Man suddenly sidles up, ready to share its lovable personality, excellent cast, and creatively accomplished visuals in a movie based on a lesser known property about both the joys and dangers of super-shrinking. It’s all, more than anything, quite sweetly surprising.

Part of the surprise comes from the fact that Marvel has seemingly responded to certain criticisms of blandly homogenizing their properties, now unleashing a comically clever adventure with unique imagery rendered on a comparatively teensy scale. But the main reason to scratch one’s head is that Marvel has found their groove so playfully in a pic about something as endearingly silly as insects that can obediently sweeten your tea without you having to lift a finger.

Ant-Man is about much more than communicating with ants, of course, as Marvel still needs an emotional hook or two to bolster the drama. Although even in the instances where the score swells and a tear is shed onscreen, director Peyton Reed deftly skirts around the sentimentality and finds something genuinely tender in this tale of fathers trying desperately to be heroes to their daughters. He also finds plenty of opportunities to let loose with the silliness and Reed balances the drama and comedy with impressive stability.

There’s a potent comic energy here that Marvel has been more actively applying to their template of late and that decision has greatly benefitted their adaptations of lesser-known titles like Guardians of the Galaxy and now Ant-Man. It’s not that Ant-Man is just a jovial collection of chuckle-inciting one-liners, but that the movie’s comedy is so inventive and well executed.

When ex-adventurer and brilliant inventor Hank Pym (an absolutely top-of-the-line Michael Douglas) recruits good guy ex-con and expert burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, all puppy dog charm) to become the titular hero in order to thieve some dangerous tech from sneering villain and Pym’s old protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, extra sneer-y), the obviousness of the impending training montage is counteracted by an upbeat grab-bag of deliciously edited gags. Reed toys with the shifting visual experience of Scott shrinking down to meet his ant allies in Hank’s backyard and then bursting back to full size when things get too intense for his tiny self, finding relatable humour in the situation by embracing the absurdity.

From Scott yelling at his flying ant transportation partner for a “time out” while being swatted around by unwitting bystanders to Hank’s cool, collected daughter Hope (a superbly steadfast Evangeline Lilly) kicking Scott’s butt as he jokingly mocks her during his fight training, Ant-Man finds success by poking fun at its concept while being clearly in love with it. The result is something fresh, fast, and fun because the self-deprecating attitude both finds a match in Scott’s character and is smartly juxtaposed against a technically complex and rather beautiful commitment to the core idea of shrinking as an emotional and exciting superpower.

Marvel always aims to tinge their lighthearted comedy with some gravitas and Reed’s pic is no exception, but like the equally often silly charmer Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man’s dramatic weight has some impressive pull here. Hank has a tragic backstory that is the impetus for harsh conflict between Hope and himself, while Scott’s days spent languishing in prison after a Robin Hood-esque hacking endeavour have left him divorced and without visitation rights to see his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). The doors are wide open for the treacle to flow, but Reed keeps the sap at bay thanks mainly to the astonishing abilities of his cast.

Casting has always been a particularly strong point for Marvel, who turned Robert Downey Jr. of all people into a superhero and made Chris Evans, who previously played mostly cocky characters, a convincing All-American boy scout superhero. But shticks run dry and even great actor/character pairings need strong scripts to stay sharp, so the performances in Ant-Man actually feel like a cut above what we usually get in these superhero yarns. Perhaps it’s that we’re meeting these new characters for the first time, considering that Guardians of the Galaxy found similar bouts of success while leaning on its lovable, gifted ensemble. The tighter, more intimate scope likely helps, too.

Either way, Reed gets the whole cast on board and no one seems content to just phone in their part. In particular, Douglas is glorious, a screen titan who achieves more here than other acting greats like Jeff Bridges and Robert Redford could in their Marvel roles. Douglas gets to run the gamut, being angry, funny, sorrowful, defensive, and effortlessly cool. He’s also the subject of the best digital de-aging yet seen on the big screen, unveiled during a prologue that mainly exists just to show off the quality of the technology.

Beyond Douglas, Lilly is fantastic as the damaged Hope, who seemingly should be another throwaway character for the female lead position, but instead proves a key piece of the movie’s emotional lattice. Lilly nails the tough resolve that makes her character an intimidating figure, especially alongside Scott’s lighthearted stature, but when it comes time to show a more vulnerable side, Lilly navigates the turn poignantly so that her character feels rounded and real, her arc meaningful when it could easily be mechanical instead.

Rudd puts his deadpan style of relatable comedy to great use as our eyes and ears for this whole wacky adventure. We get to experience the intensity and excitement of the shrinking experience for the first time as Scott does, so we’re quickly aligned with his sensibilities, able to feel the progression from a frightening lack of control to a joyous command of his newfound powers. Rudd makes an excellent audience surrogate, able to poke fun at himself one moment and grab hold of the grandness of the adventure the next. He gets extra comic support from Michael Peña, playing his burgling buddy Luis, who steals the show at a couple opportune times with his knotted rants about relayed information, told in hilariously energetic flashbacks.

Of course, all these good guys need a bad guy to go up against and it’s here that Ant-Man finds itself weakened by the usual Marvel kryptonite. The studio often handles its heroes well, but really struggles with villains, except for when they have whole swaths of time and patience to develop them, as in the Netflix series Daredevil. Stoll’s Darren Cross gets the usual pittance of screen time that Marvel allots for its feature film antagonists and is defined by the generic motivation of simple greed. We know he’s evil because not only does he look like a jerk, but he performs a science experiment on a cutely bleating lamb, reducing it to a tiny puddle of goo. Sure, he already did the same to one of his employees simply because the guy showed a lack of enthusiasm for Darren’s big project, but it’s the innocent lamb that really sells his villainy.

Even here, though, Ant-Man deals with the flaw better than most Marvel movies and when it comes time for hero and villain to engage in size-altering fisticuffs late in the picture, the stunning use of the camera and expert editing provide visual inspiration that makes up for the blandness of whenever else Darren is onscreen.

The occasional slips into regular Marvel territory feel entirely forgivable (or better yet, warranted) considering how Reed and his cast address the usual shortcomings that come attached to most Marvel movies. Visually, this is arguably the most spectacular Marvel pic to date and the ending is not only the best of any movie in their catalog, it also shows a willingness to get cheeky with the company’s obsessive world-building strategy.

The heroes are both funny and dramatically resonant and the themes are intimately attended to. Ant-Man really feels like an evolution for the superhero studio that seemed to be playing a little too safe with its formula of late. Marvel has been acing the execution of their business plan for years now, so them taking a chance on this weird little tale about dads and daughters and insects feels unnecessary from a business perspective and therefore encouraging from an artistic one. Their latest pic is movingly human and creatively energized, the kind of self-aware and self-improving entertainment that packs a big punch and really sneaks up on you.

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