by Glenn Lovell
With Paul Rudd top-billed as the smallest but not least in Marvel’s stable of superheroes — and Edgar Wright and Rudd aboard as writers — we’re alerted going in that this new franchise installment aims to be zippier, lighter, more tongue-in-cheek than your typical Avengers reunion. And, we’re happy to report, it pretty much works out that way. “Ant-Man,” starring Rudd as a cat burglar pressed into service to pass through keyholes rather than pick them, is a good-natured blend of shaggy-dog sci-fi and comic-book adventure.
Our story begins in 1989 with Dr. Hank Pym (a digitally restored Michael Douglas) vowing to never fork over a formula that can scramble sub-atomic particles and “change the texture of reality.” From here we jump to the present. Pym, now resembling a goateed Leon Trotsky, has been booted from the laboratory that bears his name and replaced by the dastardly Darren Cross (Corey Stoll of “House of Cards”), who has made it his life’s mission to duplicate Pym’s formula — for profit rather than philanthropy.
This inevitably leads to the Big Smackdown — between the pacifistic, self-effacing Scott Lang/Ant-Man and egomaniacal Cross/Yellowjacket, who isn’t above disintegrating a bothersome colleague and flushing the residue down the toilet. Talk about corporate in-fighting!
Opening day for “Ant-Man” found scores of parents lining up with their little ones in tow. The word is out: this Marvel production is, first and foremost, family friendly. The action is slapstick-y, the tough-guy banter juvenile, the test-drive digital wonders (a bathtub that suddenly morphs into the Grand Canyon, a giant rat, Gulliver-size shoes) more cartoonish than photo-realistic.
Lang’s iddy-biddy buddies, usually rendered as a roiling digitized carpet, are little more than an after-thought. Oh, sure, there’s a half-hearted tutorial for those budding myrmecologists (ants can lift objects 50 times their weight, etc.), but there’s nothing here to measure up to lessons gleaned from the Oscar-winning doc “The Hellstrom Chronicle” or, for that matter, everybody’s favorite giant-ant movie, “Them!”
Though it runs less than two hours, “Ant-Man” feels much longer. It takes forever for Lang to suit up. Little wonder. The first 40 minutes or so are devoted to our reluctant hero’s messy private life: his release from San Quentin, his reunions with larcenous pals (led by the versatile Michael Peña), ex-wife and daughter, his failed attempts at winning visitation rights. This is all watchable in an amusing, undemanding sort of way, but, I’m guessing, will have some checking their ticket stubs, wondering whether they wandered into the wrong theater.
The Mission (Sorta) Impossible? Abetted by Pym’s semi-disrespectful daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Lang must Infiltrate Pym Industries and steal Cross’s files and Yellowjacket suit. “This is not ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’ No whistling,” Pym instructs as Lang and his human-size buddies case the lab. Peña responds with a chorus of “It’s a Small World.”
No, hardly enough to fill an hour-long TV segment, much less a feature-length fantasy.
Marvel devotees — an easy bunch to please — will be happy to hear that the narrative is peppered the usual series arcana and winking cameos (by Stan Lee, Captain America and Falcon). This, of course, is to pave the way for Ant-Man’s induction into the Avengers Hall of Fame in next year’s “Captain America: Civil War.” (An end-credits teaser suggests that Hope may don her mother’s Wasp suit in the reunion.)
“Ant-Man,” directed by comedy vet Peyton Reed (“Bring It On,” “Yes Man”), is wisely aimed at the small fry. Overall, it’s closer to “Antz” than the pesky, radioactive ants, aka “Them!”
ANT-MAN ✮✮1/2 With Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Peña. Directed by Peyton Reed; scripted by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Rudd. 117 min. PG-13 (for profanity, comic-book violence)