Walt Disney Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
The end of the world isn’t nigh, for once, in “Ant-Man.”
Sure, there are stakes. This is a summer blockbuster, after all. It has to make us care about something of consequence. But the overwhelming, self-serious sense that we are watching something Very Important blissfully doesn’t exist in “Ant-Man.” It’s just plain fun: light, breezy, simple and enjoyable. Aside from the original “Iron Man” from 2008, which had the benefit of Robert Downey Jr. cracking wise in the title role for the first time, this is the most purely entertaining film yet from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It’s especially a joy to watch just a couple months after “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which was overloaded with characters, subplots, bad guys and twists. And yet, director Peyton Reed’s film, based on a script by a whole buncha people (including Edgar Wright, who initially was set to direct, and the film’s star, Paul Rudd), repeatedly reminds you that it is part of a larger Marvel world. The in-jokes and cameos from other characters and stories are amusing if you get them, but if you don’t, they’re not so prevalent or cutesy as to be off-putting. However meager “Ant-Man” may seem, it definitely functions as the glue between Marvel movies we’ve seen already seen and ones to come. Everything is of a piece within the MCU, of course — hence the tricky little teasers that come during the closing credits, which compel us to stay in our seats for a few moments longer rather than dashing off to the bathroom.
As the diminutive comic-book hero of the film’s title, Rudd is his usual, likable everyman, but he’s also charming enough to figure his way in and out of every situation. He’s not as flat-out funny, per se, as he has been traditionally in movies like “I Love You, Man” or “Knocked Up,” but that’s also not exactly his purpose here. This is a heist movie. He is a master thief — but a boyishly handsome and decent-hearted one. My good friend and What the Flick?! co-host Alonso Duralde suggested when we reviewed “Ant-Man” on the show that Rudd’s charisma is drained here as much as Chris Pratt’s is in “Jurassic World.” I’d say it’s not that bad. It’s just a different vibe from him: lower-key, but no less sharp.
When we first see Rudd’s Scott Lang, he’s being released from San Quentin State Prison (with a memorable send-off from his fellow inmates). He’s spent time behind bars for an elaborate and high-tech theft; now, he’s struggling to rebuild his life in San Francisco and prove to his ex-wife (Judy Greer in yet another thankless mom role) and young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) that he can be a reliable force for good in their lives.
The job he ends up taking, though, is one he never possibly could have expected. The brilliant professor Hank Pym (a touching and wise Michael Douglas, whom we first see as an uncanny, 1989 version of himself) wants Scott to break into his former headquarters and steal the magical shrinking serum he created to keep it from falling into the wrong hands: namely, those of his protege (an oily Corey Stoll), who once was full of promise but now is a greedy megalomaniac. You know, the usual. The heist requires Scott to wear the sleek and mercilessly snug suit and helmet Hank created and once wore himself long ago, which makes the inhabitant instantly tiny with the press of a button.
Hank recruits Scott to get in the suit, get small, get in and get out. But Hank’s daughter, the equally brilliant Hope (Evangeline Lilly), also wants a chance to prove she can be the ant and is willing to fight Scott, physically, for the right to climb inside the costume. Lilly gets to do little more here than spar disapprovingly with Rudd while wearing crisp suits and a sharp bob, and any kind of romantic connection the two characters might have is tenuous at best. But — spoiler, kinda — there is the suggestion that more is in store for Hope in the near future.
While the montages are amusing as Scott masters the art of size-shifting, with hit-and-miss results, the action sequences have a real zest and visual panache once he learns to work side by side with the various other high-tech ants Hank has trained. And once he really gets the hang of manipulating the suit and kicking all kinds of pint-size ass, his thrills are infectious. Reed might seem like an incredibly odd choice to direct an effects-laden summer blockbuster based on his filmography — “Bring It On,” “Down With Love,” “The Break-Up” — but he’s got a solid script to work from and he gets the pacing and comic timing just right. His staging of the film’s first actual break-in — at Hank’s house, actually — offers a clever bit of clockwork precision, and several sight gags provide scattered laughs throughout.
As part of the random supporting cast — which includes John Slattery, Bobby Cannavale and T.I. — the always-reliable Michael Pena co-stars as the friend who picks Scott up from prison and gives him a place to stay in the city. He may seem at first like an offensive Hispanic stereotype, but some slyly edited flashbacks reveal his cultured tastes and flesh him out. His character is a great example of what makes “Ant-Man” work so well: You may think you know where it’s going, but it keeps surprising you in ways both big and small.