Marvel Disciple: For longtime fan Peyton Reed, 'Ant-Man' and its sequel have been dream assignments

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Half the lives in the entire universe are at stake in the current Avengers: Infinity War. The fabled realm of Asgard and all its people are imperiled in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). And in Ant-Man and the Wasp, opening July 6, the two-year house arrest of Scott Lang a.k.a. Ant-Man hangs perilously in the balance…

And there you have it—the beauty of Ant-Man (2015) and this new sequel, starring Paul Rudd as the size-changing superhero, Evangeline Lilly as the prickly Hope van Dyne a.k.a. the Wasp and Michael Douglas as her father, scientist Hank Pym. Like Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Scott Lang is a just reg'lar guy easily overwhelmed by the awesomeness of his powers—although unlike Peter, who was physically changed and granted superpowers by the bite of a radioactive/genetically modified/otherwise-special spider, Scott just has his suit and his smarts, a la Tony Stark/Iron Man…if Tony Stark/Iron Man were a divorced ex-con scraping by his meager savings, apparently.

"He's maybe the most relatable character in the MCU"—the Marvel Cinematic Universe of interconnected films—"which is also the reason I love working on the Ant-Man movies," says Peyton Reed, who directed both the original and the sequel. That everyman relatability combined with Rudd's handsomely aw-shucks appeal make these films perhaps the most endearing of the Marvel Comics canon.

In Ant-Man and the Wasp, Scott is days away from fulfilling his sentence for violating the Sokovia Accords—a UN measure to curb enhanced-human destruction—after having aided the rebellious title hero in Captain America: Civil War (2016). A gadgeteer and former thief, he has a loving relationship with his school-age daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and Maggie's husband, police officer Jim Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), and even a good-natured one with FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), who oversees Scott's house arrest in San Francisco.

But Scott hasn't spoken with Hope or Hank—the original Ant-Man decades ago—since the arrest and they're in hiding, none too happy with Scott's use of Hank's super-suit to violate the Accords, somehow implicating them. When a narrow window of time opens in which Hope might possibly rescue her mother Jan (Michelle Pfeiffer), whom Hope and Hank believe is alive in the subatomic Quantum Realm, the father-daughter duo must bring in Scott to help—whether he wants to or not. Complicating matters is high-tech black-marketer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and the mysterious Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who needs for herself the same piece of technology Hope and Hank require if they've any hope of rescuing Jan. Michael Peña, Tip "T.I." Harris and David Dastmalchian return to their roles as Scott's ex-con buddies, with Laurence Fishburne joining as Pym's long-estranged colleague, Dr. Bill Foster.

Reed, born July 3, 1964, in Raleigh, North Carolina, came to the Ant-Man movies via TV comedy (including "Mr. Show with Bob and David," "Grosse Point" and "New Girl"), a couple of telefilms, and a handful of comedic features: Bring It On (2000), the rom-coms Down with Love (2003) with Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger and The Break-Up (2006) with Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston, and Jim Carrey's odd Yes Man (2008). With Ant-Man a more than half-billion-dollar hit that earned generally favorable reviews, Peyton in the sequel reprises the sensibilities that made the first film so likeable. Plus…Michelle Pfeiffer!

Film Journal International: So I understand you actually grew up reading Marvel Comics.

Peyton Reed: I'm absolutely a kid who grew up reading Marvel, almost exclusively Marvel [and not also DC Comics and others] from the time I was really young. My hardcore years of readership probably started in '74 and then went up into the '80s and beyond. It probably started with Spider-Man and spread out from there. And I think I gravitated originally toward Spider-Man because I was a skinny kid with glasses and the idea of Peter Parker becoming a hero really appealed to me. I grew up in North Carolina and first learned about New York City through Marvel comics. They really brought New York City to life for me and I remember such specific things, like—even though a lot of them are fictional, obviously—in Fantastic Four how Ben Grimm [a.k.a. the superhero the Thing] would get [comically] harassed by the [Lower East Side] Yancy Street Gang. I can't remember which issue of Amazing Spider-Man it was, but there was a fight on Roosevelt Island's tram [a cable car between Manhattan and an East River island neighborhood] and I was, like, "Wow! Does that exist? Is it real?" And it was.

And I had cousins who later on moved to New York City and I went up there in 1975, '76. And I wanted to see all the usual things—the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty—but I had my dad take me to the headquarters of Marvel Comics on Madison Avenue to meet [editor-in-chief and Marvel impresario] Stan Lee. I was just a kid—I think I was probably 10 or 11—and I had no idea how anything worked, and we went to the Marvel offices. We just found the address and walked in. And of course Stan Lee wasn't there that day, but I vividly remember talking to a woman there and Sal Buscema, the comic artist [known in particular for his work on The Avengers and The Incredible Hulk], happened to be in the office. He showed me around, gave me a handful of comics and a couple of things, like a Marvel writing pad, and for a kid to literally walk in off the street and have that kind of experience was great. And I think it kind of played into this fantasy of the Marvel Bullpen [whimsically described in Marvel's "Bullpen Bulletin" editorial pages as a gregarious group of artists all working together at their drawing boards, rather than in actuality mostly working from home]. I certainly didn't walk in and see a team of artists and writers slaving away, but the fact that Sal Buscema was there—and I've thought about that a lot since then—did he just happen to be there dropping off artwork? I have no idea. But I was thrilled by that and I bought into the Marvel mystique very early on.

And the bigger, bigger sense is, all of those stories were morality tales that took from mythology and took from '50s science-fiction movies and from earlier eras of comics but made it really contemporary, and they created heroes who were really relatable—they had flaws. That was the thing to me, the relatability of it. Again, Spider-Man—I get it: He's a hero, but he's also got to pay his rent. He has girl problems and stuff like that. That to me was a really modern thing. And they were good at being able to refresh these characters and situations over the years.

FJI: That first Ant-Man movie must have reallybeen a labor of love!

PR: It was for me. I was the classic kid who grew up on Spielberg movies and Star Wars and who was always into visual effects and always reading things like Cinefex, Cinefantastique and Starlog [magazines] and the Marvel stuff. By the time the modern incarnation of the MCU came around, I'd been directing movies—mostly comedies—and these were the kind of movies I really wanted to do. And it's not always easy for a director to make the so-called "town" [i.e. the Hollywood film industry] see you as something other than what you're doing at the moment. I was always reading comedy scripts and I wanted to make the next leap. It was something that I was really primed for, so when I got the chance to come in on Ant-Man, I just jumped at the chance.

And I did have a personal connection with these characters. I knew how I felt about Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne and Scott Lang and all this stuff. For me it was really, really good, because it gave me a point of view. I think one of the things Marvel has been great about in the movies is they know the difference between comics and movies, and what works in one medium or the other. And [Ant-Man] was something I felt I had a strong point of view on.

FJI: You hadn't done a theatrical feature for several years when you got Ant-Manand had been doing a lot of TV. How did you go from that to directing a huge-profile, $130 million-budget feature? There are lots of directors who want to know! [laughs]

PR: [laughs] I think part of the reason I had that gap is that I was doing comedy shows and felt like that was fun and great but I really wanted to make the leap and do a different kind of movie, a bigger kind of movie. I was developing a couple of things on my own, reading things and continuing to do television while I was holding out for something like this. And when this came around, I put my phasers on thrust [sic] or whatever you want to say. I was all in, man, I'm ready to go! I really did jump at the chance.

FJI: It's only about half the time that Marvel Studios has had the same director two movies in a row: Jon Favreau [of the 2008 and 2010 first two Iron Man movies], Joss Whedon [of the 2012 and 2015 first two Avengers movies], James Gunn [of the 2014 and 2017 first two Guardians of the Galaxy movies] and the Russo Brothers [of the 2014 and 2016 second and third Captain America movies]. What were the discussions like that got you this repeat gig?

PR: By the time Ant-Man came around, Marvel had done a lot of risky things by that point—maybe nothing riskier than the first Guardians of the Galaxy. I remember when I was a kid reading the comic and thinking, "This is just a rip-off of Star Wars!" Then I started getting into the comic book [and realized different], but that [movie] was by no means a sure thing. The same thing applied to Ant-Man—if you don't know the comics, it's, like, who is this guy? He shrinks down and then he flies around on an ant; it can seem ridiculous. So once we made the first movie and it actually found an audience—because when we were doing the first movie there was certainly not a guarantee that there would ever be a sequel to that movie—it became organic as we started the process of figuring out what the next one was going to be, that it could be Ant-Man and Wasp and that partnership. It was maybe a month, a month-and-a-half after the first one came out that these talks started about there being a sequel and that's where I got super-excited.

FJI: Ant-Man and the Wasp includes the traditional MCU cameo by Stan Lee. He's in his mid-90s and his health is, understandably, an issue. A couple of years ago, James Gunn directed three Stan cameos at once, for his own Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, for Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange, and for another, unrevealed film. The Russo brothers told me that they directed Stan's cameo in Avengers: Infinity War. So was the third cameo that Gunn shot the one in this movie, or did you direct it?

PR: I did—I directed Stan in both Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp. In fact, in Ant-Man and the Wasp, Stan Lee's cameo was the very first thing I shot on the movie. It really felt like a lucky charm for me, in a way. I had met him before at Comic-Con years ago, but to be able to work with Stan Lee, I mean, I'm not going to be able to say anything about Stan Lee that other people haven't already said, but for me that was just… [Sentence trails off.] His writing definitely had a profound effect on me.

FJI: I'm guessing you had a chance to tell him that. The original Ant-Man's co-creator, Stan's brother Larry Lieber [who scripted from Stan Lee's plot and devised the name Henry Pym; the late artist Jack Kirby designed the character and the costume] is also still with us, at 86. What would you say to Larry if you could?

PR:I'd say I'm really proud to be able to continue this legacy that he started—to tell further stories about this hero that he helped create. There's a part of me that wakes up and thinks, "I kind of can't believe it." It's something I've loved since I was a kid and I'm still able to tap into that childlike side of me that spent a great deal of my childhood alone in my room reading Marvel comics. "Thank you" is what I'd say, because there's something about the things they created that has stood the test of time.

FJI: On a related topic, were you originally attached to one of the Fantastic Four movies?

PR: Yeah. It would have been 2003. I was finishing my second movie, Down with Love, which was at Fox, and it was right when they announced that they were going to make Fantastic Four [2005]. I went in and pitched to Tom Rothman [then chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment] and the people at Marvel at the time, which would have been [primarily Marvel Studios head] Avi Arad, and [future Marvel Studios head] Kevin Feige was working there. I developed it for the better part of a year. At that particular time and at that particular studio, I found that they were not… [Sentence trails off.] Fantastic Four to me was always the crown jewel of Marvel Comics, right? I just felt like at the time they were not kind of treating this as an A-list property. I'm not commenting on the films they made at all, but at the time I was involved with it, it didn't feel like they wanted to treat the casting well, and they wanted to pitch it really, really young. But also in terms of the resources, it didn't feel like they wanted to make the level of movie that it really deserved. They were chasing a release date at that time and I just didn't feel comfortable; there was no way I could do what my vision of the movie was in that environment, so I left the project. And it was a really tough decision for me, because that was the kind of movie I'd always wanted to make. So it's especially nice, all these years later, to be involved with Marvel again.

FJI: The three major-studio FF movies so far [in 2005, 2007 and 2015] have all been critically and commercially disappointing. I mean, that's the mildest way to put it. And I hear over and over in the fan community that given the nature of the group [of super-science adventurers], an FF movie almost needs to be set in the 1960s, when science and astronauts and just this optimistic sense of going forward into the future was everything. And [the comic-book series] Fantastic Fourjust perfectly fit the Zeitgeist.

PR: That would be great—that would be so great! It would be amazing.