It has been a long, difficult development period for Ant-Man – it’s the twelfth movie to be released by Marvel Studios, but it has been gestating for longer than some Phase One movies. Finally, however, and despite some particular difficulties as the movie geared up to shoot last year, Ant-Man is just a few weeks away, and it’s actually serving as the season finale of sorts to Marvel’s Phase Two. Given its placing as the finale, it’s safe to say that Ant-Man is a pretty important movie for Marvel – so here’s everything you need to know before the pint-sized hero leaps into screens in four weeks’ time.

Note: Ant-Man recently screened for critics, and so unfortunately (but inevitability) major spoilers from the film have already begun leaking out. This piece however does not contain any information revealed from that screening, and instead is based only on details revealed through official promos and interviews, as well as older rumors whose veracity we have not attempted to confirm. Of course, if you wish to know as little as possible about the movie you should stop reading now, but this piece contains no major spoilers for the film, and instead acts as background on the basic story, characters and history of the film. Please respect your fellow fans and avoid posting spoilers in the comments.

The Story

Ant-Man is Marvel’s first proper origin story in quite a while, focusing on the origin of Scott Lang’s incarnation of Ant-Man. A former criminal recently released from prison, Scott Lang is recruited by Hank Pym, the inventor of the Ant-Man suit, to help stop his former protege Darren Cross, who wishes to mass manufacture and weaponize the suit used as a weapon of war (check out this great in-universe advertisement for Cross Technologies, which details his agenda). With the help of Pym and his daughter Hope Van Dyne, Lang must use to learn the power of the suit, steal the Pym Particles that allow the suit to function, and ultimately transform from no-good criminal into hero…and become the Ant-Man.

That’s the basic structure of the film in the vein of an official synopsis. But it doesn’t really touch upon the bigger themes of the film that the promos have hinted at and Kevin Feige, director Peyton Reed, and the cast have mentioned often in interviews – that of the relationship between fathers and daughters, and the legacy we leave for our children. As Feige and Reed have both pointed out, Lang is the first superhero to also be a parent, which immediately puts him a unique position in terms of consequences and stakes. Feige suggests that it’s his love for his daughter that both puts Lang once again on the criminal path and motivates him to become a hero, the latter of which has been prominent within the trailers, with both Hank Pym and Lang’s ex-wife Maggie telling him “be the hero she already thinks you are.” At the same time, Pym is also a father with a daughter, one with whom he has an apparently fraught relationship. While most of that relationship has been kept back from the promos, we know that the film will show Hope and Hank attempting to reconcile their past Michael Douglass himself points out this parallel, saying in an interview with, “There’s a running line between my reconciliation with my daughter Hope and Scott and his daughter, Cassie. In both situations, the relationship has been alienated, and ultimately comes together at a time when each of them had sacrificed themselves. That’s the human note that resonates, families coming together against omnipotent adversaries.” Both men are ultimately trying to be what every father strives for: a hero in his daughter’s eyes.

Meanwhile “legacy” has been a core theme of all the phase two films – from the consequences of Bor’s war against the Dark Elves in Thor: The Dark World, to Tony Stark’s increasing desire to create a “better world” and building Ultron not to win the fight but end the fight, to Captain America: The Winter Solider‘s exploration of the legacy of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Cap’s struggle to uphold the values he believes represent America in the face of a more complex modern reality. But legacy hasn’t been so explicit a theme, nor as personal, as it is in Ant-Man. Scott Lang’s Ant-Man is the first “legacy hero” of the MCU – an expression used to describe when one superhero passes the mantle on to another. Both Lang and Pym’s lives, and their relationships with their daughters in particular, are defined by their past transgressions – Scott with his criminal past that has resulted in him not being a part of most of his daughter’s life growing up, and Pym’s guilt over the “tragic accident” that befalls his wife. But it’s just as much about the future they will leave for their children as it is about how their past affects their present. Pym seems to express the core theme of the film when he tells Lang “It’s not about saving our world – it’s about saving theirs.”

The History

As a side-effect of sorts of Marvel’s strict, TV-like control over its directors, quite a few of its movies have been fraught with conflict between the creative team and the suits at Disney/Marvel Studios (The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World, for example). However, no Marvel movie has experienced quite as turbulent and protracted a development as Ant-Man, so much so that the original director/writer team, Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, were hired in 2006 when Iron Man was still two years off and no-one thought the MCU would actually work.

After Wright’s hiring, Ant-Man‘s script slowly took shape over a period of about six years, with a release date pinned down for November 2015. Wright showed off a neat reel of test footage at San Diego Comic Con in 2012, and it finally seemed that Ant-Man was actually going to be made. As the MCU entered Phase Two, pre-production continued to chug along nicely, as Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas were confirmed to star as the Scott Lang and Hank Pym incarnations of Ant-Man in late 2014, and the rest of the cast was slowly filled out as pre-production continued well into 2014.

Unfortunately for Wright, in that long scripting period, the MCU slowly grew until it was one of the biggest franchises of all-time, meaning that Wright’s standalone script was due for a little polishing in order to fit in a few cameos and references from the suddenly lucrative and marketable wider universe. Marvel ordered a rewrite, things went south, and suddenly Wright left the movie, officially citing creative differences. While there has never been any concrete information about what caused the split, the information we have gleaned suggests that it genuinely was creative differences that caused the departure – Edgar Wright wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie set in the Marvel Universe while Marvel wanted a Marvel Universe movie to be directed by Edgar Wright.

The gap was soon filled with director Peyton Reed, but Wright’s departure left the movie in flux, with many fans doubting that it would either be made in time for the July release date, or that it would be any good at all. With a rewrite from Anchorman‘s Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, shooting began, and the pipe dream that Ant-Man had been for several years finally became something more tangible.

The Cast and Characters

Paul Rudd, star of Anchorman, is playing Scott Lang, this movie’s incarnation of Ant-Man. Lang is the second Ant-Man in the comics, and that’s still the case in the MCU, with Lang inheriting the Ant-Man suit and moniker from Hank Pym. Unlike Hank Pym, who was little more of a conventional hero in the comics, Lang starts off as a petty crook (albeit a well-intentioned Robin Hood style thief) so it’s likely that Ant-Man will serve as a redemption story of sorts for the character. Rudd has already been confirmed for Captain America: Civil War, so expect Scott Lang to play a hefty role in Phase Three.

Michael Douglas (known for his role in Wall Street) is playing Hank Pym, the first Ant-Man. Pym has been heavily age-lifted for this movie, with his superhero career instead taking place during the Cold War rather than modern day (as an agent of SHIELD), so the character will be playing more of a supporting role in the movie as a mentor to Scott Lang. Pym has history with a few of the MCU’s recurring characters including Howard Stark, with a particularly traumatizing experience during a mission that caused Pym to hang up the suit and call off his superhero career. This traumatic event also caused Pym’s attitude towards superheroes to harden, so he’s not a huge fan of the myriad costumed vigilantes in the MCU, and is desperate to keep his Pym Particle formula away from anyone who could use it for less than altruistic purposes. The age lift for Pym means all bets are off as to what this movie could do with the character, so expect plenty of twists regarding Pym’s character and true motivations.

Evangeline Lilly (known for Lost and The Hobbit) is playing Hope Van Dyne, Hank Pym’s daughter. Hope is a bit of an unknown element here – the character did exist in the comics, but only briefly as a super-villain called Red Queen, so it’s unlikely that Ant-Man will take many cues from this Hope’s comics counterpart. Hope is apparently not a fan of her father due to the events of her mother’s death (Janet Van Dyne, who worked as superhero the Wasp alongside Hank Pym in the 70s and 80s, and has been confirmed for a brief cameo here), but helps him recruit and train Scott Lang anyway. A lot of people have speculated that Hope could become the MCU’s version of the Wasp, but that’s unlikely to happen in this particular movie, or at least not until the very end – perhaps in a post-credits scene. This was almost confirmed outright by Kevin Feige, who revealed that there are hints towards Hope suiting up as Wasp in the future. Wasp or not, Janet will still be playing an important role in some of Ant-Man‘s action scenes, as confirmed by Kevin Feige.

Corey Stoll (best known for House of Cards) is playing Darren Cross aka Yellowjacket, the movie’s main antagonist. Fitting in with Ant-Man‘s fast-and-loose take on the comics, Cross was only a minor character in the comics, briefly appearing to fight Hank Pym before dying from a weak heart and only recently returning to the Ant-Man comics to battle Scott Lang, gaining a new heart and fleeing to presumably fight another day (presumably, when he does return, he’ll looking much more like the movie’s version of Cross). Strangely enough, Cross’ supervillain moniker, Yellowjacket, was actually taken by Hank Pym in the comics, so this Yellowjacket is almost an original creation. In Ant-Man, Darren Cross is a businessman and former protege of Pym’s, who was abandoned by Hank Pym due to Cross’ mildly psychotic tendencies that unfortunately reminded Pym of himself a little too much, causing Cross to seek vengeance against his former mentor, and by association, Scott Lang himself. As the movie begins, Cross discovers Pym Particles, masters Pym’s formula and makes his own ‘Apple-based’ Yellowjacket suit to take on Ant-Man. Yellowjacket is the subject of the movie’s central heist, with Hank Pym, Scott Lang, Hope Van Dyne and three of Scott’s ex-prison associates plotting to steal the suit.

Judy Greer (known for Jurassic World) plays Scott Lang’s ex-wife Maggie, who isn’t on particularly good terms with Lang as the movie begins. Bobby Cannavale (known for Boardwalk Empire) plays Paxton, Maggie’s new husband and cop. Cannavale’s role was beefed up a little in the McKay/Rudd rewrite, so expect a fairly substantial role for Paxton. Wood Harris plays Paxton’s cop partner, but it’s unlikely Paxton’s partner will be a particularly major figure.

Michael Peña, T.I. and David Dastmalchian play Luis, Dave and Kurt respectively. The trio are friends of Lang’s, and team up with him to help steal the Yellowjacket suit as part of Lang and Pym’s heist crew. From the looks of the trailers, Peña’s character, Luis, will be playing a comic relief role as Lang’s ex-cellmate and current flatmate (who unwittingly sends Scott careering through apartments when Lang first tests out the Ant-Man suit), but the other two are a little more of a mystery for now.

Jordi Mollà plays Castillo, the villain of the retro flashbacks, and therefore presumably the guy Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne will battle against on a SHIELD mission as Ant-Man and the Wasp.

MCU Cameos

The more recent rewrites have apparently worked in a larger role for some well-known MCU characters, so expect plenty of cameos. A rumour last year indicated that a gathering of MCU characters would be seen alongside a younger Hank Pym in some 60s-set flashbacks, with HYDRA scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), Winter Soldier villain Alexander Pierce (rumoured to be played by Martin Donovan), spy and SHIELD founder Peggy Carter and genius inventor Howard Stark all meeting up in the flashbacks. Further rumours indicated that army general Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross could also make an appearance in the flashbacks before William Hurt reprises the role in Civil War.

That scoop has been partially confirmed, with Hayley Atwell and John Slattery, who played Howard Stark briefly in Iron Man 2, confirming that they will both play small roles, and Kevin Feige later corroborating this – but there’s been little word on whether Pierce and Zola will pop up since that initial scoop. Intriguingly, Michael Douglas will still be playing Hank Pym in the flashbacks, with de-ageing CGI used instead of casting a younger actor.

Aside from the flashbacks, there’s a strong possibility, given Lang’s role in Civil War, that Ant-Man will feature at least a hint of Lang teaming up with Captain America’s new line-up of Avengers. Peyton Reed indicated in an interview with Empire that Anthony Mackie (The Falcon) could show up, strongly suggesting a small role for the Avengers in Ant-Man, likely as a lead-in of sorts to Civil War. Paul Rudd also recently suggested in an interview with THR that Ant-Man could actually fight an Avenger in ‘test run’ scene of the movie’s central heist. Whether that means Falcon, or the film may actually feature two different cameos from familiar MCU faces, remains to be seen.

Ant-Man recently screened for critics in LA, and though the full review embargo doesn’t lift until July 8, a slew of first impressions have hit the web. While there’s a few lukewarm reactions, most of the buzz is extremely positive, with many calling it yet another home run for Marvel. Ant-Man is currently tracking at a respectable $55-60 million domestic opening – about where last year’s monster smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy was three weeks out from release, and a number that is sure to grow as the promotional campaign ramps up and full reviews are released. It looks like Marvel’s “riskiest bet yet” has paid off again, and that it’s smallest heroes might just end being one if it’s biggest successes.

Ant-Man hits theatres on July 17. For more terrible puns and the latest on Ant-Man, check out all our past and current coverage here.