STARRING: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Douglas
The Marvel Cinematic Universe can be an awfully big, noisy and repetitive place to spend your time and money, but at its best, it can also allow for humor, whimsy and lightness of spirit--all qualities that come into play in "Ant-Man," a winningly modest addition to the ever-expanding Disney/Marvel family. Though we can mourn the more stylish and inventive stand-alone caper we might have gotten from director Edgar Wright (who left the project over creative differences and was replaced by Peyton Reed), this enjoyably off-the-cuff franchise-starter takes a cue from its incredible shrinking protagonist (played by a game Paul Rudd) and emerges with a smaller-scaled, bigger-hearted origin story than most comicbook heroes are typically granted. Insofar as it feels like a bit of a tonic next to this summer's more bloated offerings, this July 17 Stateside release won't reach the box office heights of the recent "Avengers: Age of Ultron" or last year's "Guardians of the Galaxy." But worldwide box office should nonetheless prove quite a picnic, aided by 3D showings and solid word of mouth.
Certainly Marvel devotees will swarm to this final entry in what the company has termed "Phase Two" of its ongoing and largely successful plot to colonize the known moviegoing universe. That sort of easy integration with the MCU's bigger, better-known properties seems to be precisely what Wright was trying to avoid with his telling, which he and writing partner Joe Cornish first pitched years ago. And while Wright and Cornish retain story and screenplay credit (the latter shared with Rudd and Adam McKay), their eventual parting of ways with Marvel stands as a sadly instructive example of what can happen to a talented filmmaker who dares to prioritize personal vision over studio synergy.
Still, there's no denying that Reed's movie succeeds well enough as a genial diversion, and sometimes a delightful one, predicated on the rarely heeded wisdom that less really can be more. After a brief 1989-set prologue introducing Dr. Hank Pym (a digitally airbrushed Michael Douglas), a brilliant scientist whose particle research is highly coveted by the forces of SHIELD, we meet Scott Lang (Rudd), a skilled cat burglar who's just spent three years in San Quentin. He's picked up by his old cellmate Luis (Michael Pena), who tries to coax him back into a life of petty crime, but Scott is determined to go straight, and reconnect with his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). That means paying child support to his disapproving ex, Maggie (Judy Greer), whose cop fiance, Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), doesn't think much of Scott's ability to turn over a new leaf.
Paxton has a point, as Scott is soon cracking a giant safe in someone's basement, where he finds a slightly battered-looking, '60s-era black suit and soon experiences its properties firsthand: Not only can he shrink to the size of an ant, but thanks to some miracle of atomic compression, he also takes on cannonball strength and bullet speed. Both the basement and the suit belong to Hank, who devised his shrinking technology years ago as a powerful U.S. military weapon. Now, he needs someone able and willing to don the suit again, and Scott's impressive stealth, agility and talent for thievery are just the skills Ant-Man needs.
The requisite mid-movie training montage finds Scott learning not only how to throw a punch and dive through keyholes, but also how to communicate mentally with four different species of ants, entire armies of which
will eventually swarm forth to do his bidding. Less than convinced of Scott's ability--and thus immediately establishing herself as a promising love interest--is Hank's combative daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly, rocking a pageboy), who would prefer to put on the suit and get the job done herself. That job will require Ant-Man to thwart the schemes of Hank's former student, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who's getting dangerously close to replicating his old mentor's technology in the form of a newfangled shrinking-suit technology called Yellowjacket, with potentially disastrous results for a world still reeling from the cataclysms of "Avengers: Age of Ultron." As readers of Stan Lee's comics will know, Dr. Hank Pym himself was a founding member of the Avengers and the first incarnation of Ant-Man, as we see in a flashback of him on a mission with his equally shrink-tastic wife, Janet Van Dyne.
Janet's absence in the present day helps to explain Hank and Hope's estrangement, and their father-daughter bond finds an echo in Scott's determination to do right by Cassie. In some ways, "Ant-Man" feels less like a full-blown superhero spectacular than a goofily amusing, warmly sentimental family drama with a pleasing overlay of blockbuster elements. (It's telling that this is the rare Marvel extravaganza where a house sustains serious damage rather than an entire city.)
The refreshingly (and literally) down-to-earth feel of "Ant-Man" is largely a factor of Rudd's performance as the nicest, most boy-next-door cat burglar imaginable--a most unlikely superhero who, despite his newfound abilities and washboard abs, refuses to take himself too seriously. Douglas supplies a wonderfully wry presence as a stubborn old father/mentor figure who regards both his daughter and his protege with affectionate exasperation, and Stoll brings a marvelous tech-bro swagger to the role of the villainous Darren/Yellowjacket.
Yet the most memorable performance here may well come courtesy of Pena's Luis, an infectiously happy dude who seems thrilled to have stumbled into a superhero movie. "Ant-Man will return," the film's second end-credits stinger assures us, and so long as he and his story remain as appealingly human-scaled as they are here, it might be the rare Marvel kicker that legitimately gives us something to look forward to.
CREDITS: A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Marvel Studios presentation. PRODUCED BY Kevin Feige. EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS, Louis D'Esposito, Alan Fine, Victoria Alonso, Michael Grillo, Stan Lee, Edgar Wright, co-producers, Brad Winderbaum, David J. Grant. DIRECTED BY Peyton Reed. SCREENPLAY, Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd; STORY, Wright, Cornish, camera (TECHNICOLOR), Russell Carpenter; editors, Dan Lebental, Colby Parker Jr.; music, Christophe Beck; music supervisor, Dave Jordan; production DESIGNER, Shepherd Frankel; supervising art director, David Lazan; ART DIRECTORS, Austin Gorg, Jann K. Engel, G. Cameron Beasley; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon Differ; SOUND (DOLBY DIGITAL/ DOLBY ATMOS), Whit Norris; SUPERVISING SOUND EDITORS, Shannon Mills, Daniel Laurie; RE-RECORDING MIXERS, Tom Johnson, Juan Peralta; SPECIAL EFFECTS SUPERVISOR, Daniel Sudick; visual effects supervisor, Jake Morrison; VISUAL EFFECTS producer, Diana Giorgiutti; VISUAL EFFECTS, Double Negative, Luma Pictures, Lola VFX, Cinesite, Trixter, Capital T; VISUAL EFFECTS and animation, Method Studios, Industrial Light & Magic, reviewed AT Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, June 30, 2015. MPA A RATING: PG-13. RUNNING TIME: 117 MIN. CAST: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Pena, Tip "T.I." Harris, Wood Harris, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian, Michael Douglas, Abby Ryder Fortson