The bad news about Ant-Man (no news at all to serious Marvel fans) is that it could have been better if Edgar Wright, director of the highly esteemed Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, who had been developing the project since 2006, had not parted ways with Marvel Studios last year over “creative differences.” The good news is that enough traces of Wright’s light, waggish touch survive in the partially rewritten screenplay to sustain a goofy, whimsical tone in a movie that could easily have bogged down in hammy heroics or heartstring-tugging peril to small children.
Compared to the movies that we’re used to about higher-profile members of the Avengers, Ant-Man comes off as slighter and lighter but less operatically ponderous. It’s not this summer’s Marvel Universe tentpole; though the fate of the world is predictably is jeopardy at the hands of a villain, nothing larger than a single office building ultimately gets smashed. And yet the special effects seem more enjoyable than any recent installment in the franchise, the visual wonders being based on viewing the world from a teeny-tiny scale as expert burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) puts on the incredible shrinking suit invented by the original Ant-Man, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas).
Other movies have milked the visual and dramatic possibilities of a radical change of relative size perspective; but the most recent, Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty, did it with cell animation, and earlier attempts like The Incredible Shrinking Man or Fantastic Voyage were made far too long ago to exploit the potential of modern CGI effects. Ant-Man generates plenty of giddy fun by sending its protagonist on wild rides through drainpipes on a whitewater raft made of fire ants or making him hide from pursuers in a forest of carpeting, with no invasions of gigantic alien spaceships needed to manufacture a sense of danger. A chase staged on a toy-train layout is especially ingenious in its use of comparative scale as pursuer and pursued switch sizes from normal to buglike and back again.
The CGI used to age Douglas down several decades in the opening backstory sequence is pretty convincing as well; he looks about the way we remember him in Fatal Attraction or Wall Street. He brings the competence of a highly experienced actor and a sense of gravitas and regret to the somewhat clichéd character of a brilliant, idealistic scientist who opens a Pandora’s box of potential horrors and has to devote the rest of his life to keeping his discoveries secret. Proving that there is indeed life after a string of portrayals of feckless boy/men in raunchy Judd Apatow bromances, Rudd is consistently likable as the ex-con who wants to go straight for his child’s sake and ends up lured reluctantly into a hero role beyond his dreams.
The supporting cast – including Evangeline Lilly as Pym’s estranged daughter Hope, Corey Stoll as Pym’s rogue protégé Darren Cross and Bobby Cannavale as Paxton, a corrections officer who keeps getting in the way of Lang’s superhero assignments – is also strong, even when their roles are…well, as thin as comic-book characters generally are. Plot developments in this straight-up origin story are utterly predictable, but after the first third or so you stop noticing so much because the fun quotient has kicked in. Visual jokes like an ant accidentally expanded to the size of a dog and then behaving like one by begging for table scraps add welcome levity to the well-worn saving-the-world-from-advanced-technology-falling-into-the-wrong-hands yarn. And several minor characters, especially Michael Peña as Lang’s Pollyannaish partner-in-crime Luís, keep popping up just for comic relief.
Ant-Man isn’t Oscar-season material by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a more-than-worthy excuse to sit in an air-conditioned theater for a couple of hours on a muggy August evening. And it’s a welcome addition to the Marvel onscreen franchise: evidence that superhero flicks can get leaner without getting meaner.