(Please note that this is an article about the movie Ant-Man and its place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, so there will be spoilers.  I will try to keep them light, but that may not always be possible).

So, let’s talk about Ant-Man, shall we?  It sits in a rather unique place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as the divider between the Phase 2 movies (Iron Man 3 through Avengers: Age of Ultron) and the Phase 3 movies (next year’s Captain America 3: Civil War and, presumably, 2019’s Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 or Inhumans) and has a certain say in where everything goes from here.  Originally it was officially the beginning of Phase 3, but got bumped to being the end of Phase 2 not all that long ago.  In reality it inhabits a space somewhere between the two, kind of off on its own shuffling some pieces around for the next set of big adventures.  Its impact and influence on the Avengers franchise moving forward will only be revealed as we start to get the next wave of movies, and until then we can only speculate.

What we do know, however, is that you don’t need to know much about the rest of the Marvel Universe to enjoy Ant-Man.  Yes, there are a few pieces which work a bit better if you have seen some of the other movies (Iron Man 2Captain America 2: Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, specifically), but the devil is really in the details with those and you won’t even know you’re missing something if you haven’t seen any of them.  It is enough to know that this world also plays home to the Avengers, but if you don’t know Falcon from War Machine it won’t be a problem.

So, in this unique position of existence between phases Ant-Man is a bit of a tough sale of a movie.  Even last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t have as much of an uphill climb as Ant-Man, and that one had a talking tree that only knew three words as one of its main characters.  Ant-Man needs to prove that in a movie universe of aliens, gods and flying cities there is still room for simple, down-to-Earth heroics.  The stakes may be world-shatteringly high (it is a superhero movie, in the end), but the action is more singularly contained.  Furthermore, this kind of movie needs a delicate touch to handle the absurdity that is a hero like Ant-Man.  Fortunately, for the most part, it is quite successful in all regards.

The film is, at its most basic, a heist thriller, with Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang playing the thief — sorry, cat burglar — who has to pull it off.  He gets his assignment, and his powers, from Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym, as well as from Pym’s daughter Hope, played by Evangeline Lilly.  Most of the movie consists of Lang trying to learn how to control his powers, while also proving that he is the man for the job.  There is also an important subplot about Hank and Hope Pym’s strained relationship, largely centered around the mysterious death of Hope’s mother, Janet van Dyne (who gets a brief cameo in a flashback as her superhero alter-ego, the Wasp).  The rest of the movie is, as you would expect, focused on the aforementioned heist, and then followed by the genre’s requisite superhero battle against the film’s villain, Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross.

Let’s look at that a little closer.  Marvel movies have had one semi-consistent point of weakness ever since their beginning in Iron Man back in 2008: the villains.  Movie after movie we get underdeveloped villain after underdeveloped villain, who are mostly dead by the time the credits roll.  The biggest and most clear exception to this is Loki in the first Avengers movie, but he also benefited greatly from being developed first in Thor.  Other than him, though, not a single main villain has survived their own movie.  Several secondary villains, like Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy, have lived to fight another day, but the main baddies all tend to wind up six feet under.  Considering that the movies are based on stories from a genre where pretty much no one ever stays dead (seriously, ever), this could eventually get problematic.  The best villains Marvel has to offer are getting chewed up and broken to pieces, and it won’t be long before we have Captain America 5: Stilt-Man Strikes Back (yes, that really is a real Marvel villain, and yes, he is as stupid as he sounds).  This might not be such a big deal if these villains got detailed back stories and rich motivations to support them, but we have yet to see that come through.  Some of them, like the Dark Elves from Thor 2, even make Bond villains look nuanced.

Darren Cross, and his alter-ego Yellowjacket, sadly continue this trend.  His motivation, much like Iron Man‘s Obadiah Stane’s before him, is money.  There are some slight mentions that he is also doing it to spite Hank Pym for not sharing the secret of the Ant-Man suit, but it really just comes down to money.  So, naturally, he sells the Yellowjacket concept to Hydra so they can dominate the world.  That doesn’t go as planned, and so he uses the suit himself and fights Scott Lang while using Scott’s daughter as a hostage.  And that about wraps things up.

Ant-Man is not a spectacular movie, and it is not the second coming of Guardians of the Galaxy (still the best of the MCU movies), but it is a well executed movie that is undeniably fun and entertaining.  It also helps to break up the superhero groove that Marvel has going by giving something a little different with the heist angle, which was a desperately needed change of pace.  There is also a lot of humor throughout the movie, which helps to keep it moving forward during the slower bits.  Both Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas prove that Marvel continues to be on point with their casting choices.  Evangeline Lilly didn’t get quite as much of a chance to shine as she potentially could have, but it certainly looks like she has her own place in the MCU’s future.

Between Ant-Man and Avengers: Age of Ultron Marvel may not have lived up to the standards set by last year’s Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy (which are easily the best two comic movies released to date, and not just in the MCU), they did provide with some excellent movie experiences in the early summer months.  Both are well worth seeing on their own merits, and both work with and without the connection to the larger MCU.  Now we begin the wait for next year’s Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange (starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role).