Ant-Man has been skittering around the development corridors of Hollywood so long, the earliest unproduced screenplays about the tiny superhero actually preceded the Disney film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. That was another age (1989), decades before our present Age of Ultron — an epoch of expensive cheap thrills dictated by the steady, crushing rollout of so many Marvel movies that even the good ones start to seem like ants at an endless picnic.
But wait. The Ant-Man we have now before us, played by genial, skillful Paul Rudd, turns out to be better company than you’d think possible in a multi-strand franchise lousy with corporate directives.
The plot’s the same old thing. Mad science; imminent apocalypse; parent/child issues. The tone of Ant-Man, however, is relatively light and predominantly comic. Those who feel they need a break from the numbing destruction of the Avengers/Captain America movies will likely enjoy it.
Ant-Man is a frisky hybrid; part Land of the Giants, part heist film a la 11 Harrowhouse, but with Rudd leading an army of ants against the villain, Yellowjacket, played by the excellent character actor Corey Stoll. The set-up finds burglar Scott Lang (Rudd) getting released from three years in San Quentin. His ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer) has custody of their daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson). The stepfather figure in the girl’s life (Bobby Cannavale) is a sympathetic cop who doesn’t like Lang’s rap sheet and wonders if he’ll continue his life of crime.
Lang and his old pals learn of a safe inside a mansion belonging to some old rich crank, just begging to be robbed. The crank is one Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, solid if a little dull), whose big secret involves something called the Pym Particle. This enables humans to shrink down to ant size and then back up to human size in a flash. Pym targets Lang for the next phase of the experiment, conducted with the surly but charismatic help of Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly).
The shrink gimmick of Ant-Man is simple and fetching. The climactic smackdown between Rudd and Stoll takes place largely on a toy train set, and when director Peyton Reed cuts away from the close-up action to longer shots, the effect is very funny, as if a pair of invisible preteens were knocking around a Thomas the Tank Engine happily.
We’ll never know how much of what works in Ant-Man relates to the input of Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), the first director assigned to the movie. Reed (Down with Love) replaced Wright, though Wright retains producer and co-screenwriting credit, along with Joe Cornish. The second credited writing team, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, presumably took things in a direction more pleasing to the Marvel folks while adding a few more jokes. Plus heart! Can’t forget the heart.
Also, there’s a cameo from a back-bench Avengers superhero setting up Ant-Man’s future screen appearances.
Time will tell whether a movie such as Ant-Man can find a big audience. But it’s more fun than Avengers 2.
Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Pena, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Judy Greer.
Director: Peyton Reed.
Screenwriter: Edgar Wright.
A Marvel Studios release. Running time: 117 minutes. Comic-book violence. Playing at area theaters.