As the Marvel Cinematic Universe grows ever larger (and if "Avengers: Age of Ultron" is any indication, more unwieldy) it comes as something of a relief that the latest chapter chooses to take a step back from all that world-expanding to tell a relatively small-scale story. With "Ant-Man," Marvel deviates ever-so-slightly from their house style, but even a superficial variation proves to be just enough to freshen up the formula.
"Ant-Man" tells the origin story of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), an ex-con with a heart of gold. Imprisoned for committing some Robin Hood-esque robberies (the script is vague on the details), he's now free and desperate to redeem himself to the family that's moved on without him, namely his young daughter and his ex-wife (Judy Greer), along with her police officer fiancé (Bobby Cannavale). (A side note: after similar roles in "Jurassic World" and "Tomorrowland" this summer, there's no current trend in movies that's as depressing to me as an actress of Greer's talent being stuck playing the part of the worrying mom.)
Enter Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a scientist and the inventor of a suit which allows the wearer to shrink in size while increasing in strength. Having been squeezed out of his company by his former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Pym recruits Scott to break into his corporation, steal the suit, and foil Cross' plans to get rich by militarizing the technology. Along with the shrinking suit, Scott gains control of a device which allows him to telepathically communicate with an army of ants. That ability comes in handy, but for some reason no one else seems as eager to get their hands on that bit of tech.
Hank's daughter, Hope (a steely Evangeline Lilly), assists with Scott's training while glowering on the sidelines as she prepares someone else for a job everyone knows she's more qualified to take on. The script bends over backwards explaining why Hope has to stay out of the action, and her storyline stands in for a general disappointment over the lack of female superhero representation. I can't decide if Marvel deserves credit for acknowledging those frustrations, or derision for opting to simply kick that particular can further down the road.
Of course, the elephant in the room during any discussion of "Ant-Man" is Edgar Wright's much-publicized departure as director -- though is it still considered an elephant in the room if no one can stop talking about it? Wright still receives a writing credit on the film (along with Rudd, Joe Cornish, and "Anchorman" director Adam McKay) and while it's tempting to try and identify which scenes still bear his fingerprints and speculate over what might have been, it's unfair to judge this film for what it isn't. To his credit, replacement director Peyton Reed ("Bring It On," "Down With Love") seems to have handled all this talk with remarkable grace, and under the circumstances, he deserves credit for delivering such a solid, playful little film.
While Rudd feels slightly reigned in from his usual comedic persona, enough of his likeable personality shines through to make him an affably low-key hero. Like Robert Redford in "Winter Soldier," Douglas injects a bit of gravitas to the proceedings, and he and Rudd make a great team. Stoll has fun with his villainous role, though he's basically playing a variation on Jeff Bridges' Obadiah Stane character from the first "Iron Man," and the entire corporate power conflict is basically lifted straight from that film.
The film is being described as a "superhero heist movie," which is probably overselling things a bit; let's call it a "superhero movie with heist elements." "Ant-Man" still feels very much a part of the Marvel brand, though we do get a break from the ongoing Thanos arc -- thankfully, there are no Tesseracts or Infinity Stones in sight.
In contrast to "Age of Ultron," where scenes zipped by in an effort to squeeze in everything, "Ant-Man" feels looser, finding time to work in some fun (if unnecessary) bits of business, like a scene in which Scott unexpectedly goes up against one of the Avengers. Michael Peña provides some nice comic relief as Scott's former cellmate who's enlisted to become part of the crew. It's a role that borders on stereotype, but Peña is such a charismatic presence that you can almost overlook it.
In keeping with the film's smaller stakes, there's no saving the planet from annihilation; the film's climactic fight is contained almost entirely inside a little girl's bedroom. The delightful visual comedy of that sequence, playing with character's proportions and shifting perspective, is a film highlight -- "Ant-Man" is the rare summer blockbuster that actually gets better as it goes on.
The effects are good throughout: a pre-credit sequence set in 1989, in which a digitally de-aged Douglas butts heads with some familiar faces from S.H.I.E.L.D., is particularly impressive. But the charms of "Ant-Man" come largely from the shaggy, amiable personality that shines through. Paring down the bloated nature of many Marvel films, the film embraces its weirdness, balancing clever gags and action into an immensely satisfying whole. For once, the little guy gets to have his day.