After a talking space tree and a robot legion trying to drop a lump of Eastern Europe on us, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) needed to turn its madness down a few notches in Ant-Man – the film about a shrinking burglar who can talk to ants.
Miraculously, it has. Ant-Man is refreshingly small scale, and that's not just a pun. This is a film that takes place in one city, with action sequences that take place in a bath, on a toy train set and inside a briefcase.
The scale is small but the action is spectacular, with multiple set pieces that will be ranked among the best Marvel has ever produced. While there may not be planets at stake, there are certainly stakes and it's the film's cast of characters that make these work. Ant-Man's trio of protagonists are also more relatable than Marvel's have been for some time.
Michael Douglas's Hank Pym is a man who has made mistakes and wants to do right by his daughter, Evangeline Lily is that daughter – a woman being held back by her father's protective nature - and then there's Paul Rudd as Scott Lang – the new owner of the Ant-Man suit - who may be Marvel's best big-screen hero to date.
Marvel Studios' principal cast of heroes each has an element of otherworldliness, whether that's literal in the case of Thor or in other facets of the characters, like Bruce Banner's gamma-eradiated rage issues, Tony Stark's money, Captain America's status as a spritely 97-year-old or Black Widow's life as a spy.
The other founding Avenger Hawkeye is perhaps the most "normal". He has no superpowers and as we found out in Avengers: Age of Ultron has a young family. Prior to this twist I was excited for Ant-Man because Paul Rudd's Lang also has a child, something very few superheroes ever have which would offer him and the film a unique twist.
Hawkeye having a child doesn't lessen the effect of this part of the story, if anything Ant-Man makes it work to better ends because Lang is the main character and it's a key part of that character from the off. He becomes a hero so he can provide for his young daughter – something more genuine and believable than simply wanting to fight the good fight - but he's still a good guy who will fight the bad guys when required.
Ant-Man's path to superheroism sort of starts off as a viable (if bizarre) alternative to a job in retail –which is brilliant, and certainly not a path you'd expect to see someone like Thor take. He's the everyman more so than anyone in the MCU. His criminal past also gives him a moral edge some characters have, but which has only really worked with Stark and his history in war-profiteering.
With Lang it's a history as a burglar, but one who operated in a Robin Hood-esque fashion. His crimes were still crimes however, and after a stint in prison he finds himself back in the world trying to make ends meet without turning back to life as a criminal.
Some characters are clear-cut – Captain America is the ultimate good man, Thor can be arrogant but he's a good God, Hulk and Bruce Banner's morality is a literal split personality and so on – which makes them instantly less relatable and easy to understand personally than a character with a weakness for willingly doing the easy but wrong thing and who wants to improve as a person.
Not every character needs to be relatable, but it's this quality in Lang that may make him the best hero Marvel has – if not the best character quite yet. He's aspirational with aims normal people can relate to (short of learning to control an army of ants), a hero who is heroic in a way that seems real and who enters the bizarre world Marvel has created as though he were one of us.
Save for I Love You Man and Role Models, Paul Rudd's leading roles have been disappointing until now. A superhero might once have seemed odd for the man who played Brian Fantana, but it's a fine showcase of his comedic talents which also proves his worth as a bona fide leading man.
Lang is an adult character who makes adult choices. Rudd's affable charm and hint off goofiness may well appeal to younger people, but so will the more grown up parts of the character. A lot of films present protagonists who are themselves young, or who are adults that behave immaturely (see Chris Pratt's Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy) but Lang belongs in another category, becoming the kind of good person a young person might want to be, and who they could actually be: someone who makes mistakes but strives to be better.
In real life heroes are normal people who do extraordinary things. In movies we want extraordinary people who do extraordinary things, but Paul Rudd's Ant-Man is a more genuine kind expression of that. He may communicate with insects and shrink down to a centimetre in height, but underneath it all he's a plausible person – which is exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe needs to juxtapose with the insanity of its galaxy of madness.