Sooner or later, the wheels are going to come off the Marvel gravy train. No one can maintain the level of quality and success that the studio has had since 2008 with the first Iron Man, not in an environment where as many things can go wrong as can go wrong in big-budget film-making.
But seeing as even a film this "doomed" by any conventional wisdom can be as good as it is (which is, make no mistake, quite good), I'm not sure what can derail Marvel.
Because Ant-Man is yet another winner.
"How is this movie this good?" is a question I've asked more than once this year, but that's for good reason. If you want an example of just how bad things can fall apart, just look at the development history of Marvel's newest film - Ant-Man began planning well before the original Avengers film (or its three immediate predecessors) hit theaters, a passion project of geek icon Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, The World's End). But Wright left the project just as filming was about to start, leaving the studio with a script they wanted reworked and a release date they very much didn't. The last time that sort of thing happened to a superhero movie, the result was X-men: The Last Stand.
So why didn't that happen here?
What is arguably the crucial reason for Ant-Man's quality may or may not still belong to Wright himself - or, more accurately, the story concept he scripted with co-writer Joe Cornish. The film takes a different approach to the standard "origin story" of a superhero's intro film, establishing all the necessary tech and backstory of the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) as a given, then passing these tools - and the hero's mantle - to reformed(ish) crook Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). It's the same trick that The Mask of Zorro used to such great effect, allowing a "learning the tools of the trade" sequence without feeling like there's an extended period of time before the characters know everything the audience already knows about the hero.
The other trick the film pulls is structuring it story as a heist, which is about as close as you can come to slam dunk in terms of action film pacing without being a tournament movie (just ask Die Hard). Everything builds to the heist, so you already have a natural finale. Need someone for the audience care about? The heist needs various people to do various jobs, so there are your characters. Need an action beat? The abilities needed for the heist need to be practiced or something necessary for the heist has to be acquired. Need a wrinkle to keep it from getting boring? Something during the heist goes wrong and the characters have to improvise. The film also borrows more than a little from Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man in terms of laying out "Guy down on his luck, gets abilities, has to learn how to use abilities, becomes a hero with said abilities because of direct impact on his immediate family" beats.
Where Ant-Man steps up from the pack of serviceable, however, is how it handles its characters and emotional stakes. The obvious tactic to take with a hero who literally shrinks himself is to tighten narrative focus to match, so the film has a core cast who all have meaningful connections to each other either before the start of the film, or quickly formed by the necessities of the character's roles in the heist. There's a particularly smart generational parallel between Hank and his distant daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly, getting more substance here in less than 120 minutes than she did in 5 hours of the Hobbit trilogy) and Scott and his own broken family. Literally all the film's emotional stakes rest on these two families - even the odd man out, Corey Stoll's villainous Darren Cross, is cast as a "discarded" surrogate son. And the cast sells the HELL out of the "I just want a better world for my kids" stakes, as well as the humor. Paul Rudd has an affable, slightly self-deprecating wry humor that allows him to avoid getting lost in the shuffle of "Marvel Heroes Who Look Good Without a Shirt," and he has several moments where his vulnerability makes for immediate empathy. And for all that Hank is a supporting character, the film also reminds us why Michael Douglas used to be such a big name among leading men. With any luck, these characters get at least a couple more movies to play off each other.
Director Payton Reed (Bring It On) has a rare command of the tone throughout the film - Ant-Man is fun and slickly paced, but has a couple major emotional wallops that work because the movie also takes time to let the characters breath. At the same time, it never feels like the film is making time for this, as there's a relaxed gait to the film that lingers just long enough on a joke or an exchange to make escalation feel completely natural instead of breathless. And the film climaxes in a one-two punch of set pieces that feature some of the most imaginative action that's come out of Marvel - or indeed, superhero movies in general - to date.
After several years of universe-threatening elves, falling cities, planet-destroying magic stones, and toppled government agencies, it's refreshing for a film as intimate as this to come out and remind us that the reason we care about the big stuff is because we invest in the small stuff.