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It's a Small, Small Superhero

Walt Disney Studios
 117 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Peyton Reed 
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas 

All comic book superheroes, once they leave the printed page and appear onscreen in live action films, are to a certain extent silly. However, some are by their very nature sillier than others. The idea of a man shrinking down to the size of an insect and then duking it out with normal sized adversaries, let alone the wide variety of supervillains who inhabit the pages of most comics, ranks among the silliest.


In its ongoing quest to expand the Marvel Comics universe, franchise owner Disney has not overlooked even the most miniscule of possibilities. So, tucked in safely between Avengers: Age of Ultron and the non-Disney Fantastic Four comes Ant-Man, a “minor” Marvel release. Somehow, this minor superhero manages to pull off an amazing feat, one far more amazing than his ability to transform from six feet to one-sixth inch tall in an instant. Ant-Man manages to embrace its own inherent silliness and be a reasonably exciting action film at the same time.


Ant-Man marks the superhero debut, and, in fact, the action debut of Paul Rudd, best known for his amiably light weight romantic comedies. Like Chris Pratt in last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Rudd displays the right light touch for the material. He plays Scott Lang, an ex-con who, after being caught trying to steal what appears to be a suit of armor from scientific genius Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), agrees to help out the scientist.


Pym has discovered a way to shrink the space between the atoms of an object, or a person, and reduce the size of that object or person tremendously. Pym incorporated that technology into the very same suit Scott tried to steal. Wearing the suit, a soldier or secret agent (or superhero) could get in or out of all sorts of tight places unnoticed and then expand to normal size whenever needed. Plus, the person in the suit has the weight and strength of a full sized man as well.


A generation earlier, a younger Pym became the Ant-Man, going on a variety of covert missions and fighting terrorists and other assorted lowlifes. However, after his wife died on a failed mission, Pym retired the suit, claiming he had never perfected it. Years later, Pym’s former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who is now the CEO of Pym’s company, has perfected a less benign version of Pym’s suit. Cross calls his highly weaponized version the Yellowjacket and plans to sell the technology to the highest bidder, in this case the nefarious organization Hydra.


Since Pym is now too old to engage in action heroics himself, Scott agrees to don the Ant-Man suit and use it to infiltrate Cross’s headquarters and stop him. He has a good bit of help from Pym’s daughter (Evangleine Lilly), now Cross’s assistant, who feels her father should have let her use the suit. Scott also gets help from hundreds of real ant, whom Pym is now able to telepathically control to do his bidding. However, between him and the key to Cross’s technology are a wide array of electronic safeguards, human guards, and Cross in the Yellowjacket suit.


Ant-Man was originally scheduled to be directed by Edgar Wright, creator of Shaun of the Dead, and Wright and writing partner Joe Cornish submitted the original draft of the screenplay. After Wright left the project, Rudd and his writing partner Adam McKay also worked on the script. Generally a script with this many contributors has lots of problems, but Ant-Man holds together surprisingly well. Although Cross’s plot is as logical and straightforward as you get in this type of movie, and Corey Stoll plays the part as a seriously psychotic bad guy, the good guys never take themselves fully seriously. Instead, Rudd, Douglas and the rest seem to be winking at the camera and having a good time as they recognize just how ridiculous the entire storyline is.


When it comes to the action, however, Ant-Man is as well made and exciting as any Marvel film in years. Scott and Cross aren’t destroying cities as other Marvel superheroes do when the engage the villains in combat, instead, they are two men in armored suits who can change sizes. The relatively smaller scale of the movie actually makes it work better. Seeing Scott figure out a way to dispatch a couple of security guards using his wits and his size-changing ability is lots more fun than watching an Iron-Man dispatch them in about two seconds. And, the full length version of the showdown between Scott and Cross in and around a toy train perfectly captures the film’s mix of action and self-aware humor.


Further, the 3D effects in Ant-Man aren’t merely the typical in-your-face moments prevalent in most 3D films. Instead, director Peyton Reed, who proves himself quite adept at this type of film making, uses them to showcase the forced change of perspective he employs in the movie to create the illusion that the hero is a fraction of an inch tall. Add that to the clever visuals (more concerned with creating giant versions of everyday objects than destroying cities), and the result is a movie that does a good job of selling the impossible physics of its premise.

Ant-Man is an origin movie and carries with it the baggage that these types of comic book movies often display. Of course, since most viewers will be far less familiar with the character’s back story than those of more visible superheroes like Batman or Spider-Man, some degree of explanation is needed and not necessarily a bad thing. However, the amount of exposition early in the film does slow it down somewhat, despite the good humor that’s evident when Scott and his bumbling pals (including Michael Pena) plan the burglary that lands Scott in trouble.


As superhero films continue to proliferate, future filmmakers, both those at Disney working on the next iterations of Captain America and those at Warner who shepherd the DC comic characters to the big screen, would be wise to study what director Reed and his cast and crew have accomplished here. They have taken a premise that’s hokier than most, acknowledged its absurdity, but still managed to produce a movie that’s internally consistent logically and exciting for viewers. Ant-Man is far from the biggest superhero and his heroics pale in comparison to those of the Avengers earlier this summer, but his movie is, if not the biggest, certainly the best of the genre in quite a while. 

Read other reviews of Ant-Man:


Ant-Man (2015) on IMDb