My reaction upon finding out that Paul Rudd had been cast as Ant-Man, yet another under-the-radar Marvel character to join the cinematic “Marvel Universe,” was some combination of “Et tu, Paul Rudd?” and “Oh God, not another one.” It didn’t help that the film’s production was famously troubled. At first, genius pop auteur Edgar Wright was signed on to write and direct (that would’ve been a good thing!), but then Wright begged out as director, citing “creative differences.” Hmm. Wright’s still listed as the primary writer on Ant-Man along with three others, including Rudd himself. (A rule of thumb in Hollywood: Multiple writers is rarely a good sign—it generally means there were rewrites in response to studio meddling.) After many rumors of who might helm the film, Marvel settled on Peyton Reed, director of Yes Man, The Break-Up, and Bring it On. So two mediocre films and one good one, respectively. Inconclusive.
So with all that baggage—including my own—how’d the film turn out? Above average! Sorry, that’s all the enthusiasm I can muster here—but hey, consider the source. Turns out, Ant-Man is a surprisingly nimble, enjoyable origin story—fittingly, more a modest heist film than one of those “giant evil thing that will destroy mankind” extravaganzas—with a little-guy-saves-the-day quality that will particularly appeal to younger viewers. Still, thanks to its lower budget, dearth of huge stars, and mostly modest action scenes, it can’t quite shake the feeling that it’s JV-league Avengers.
Rudd plays Scott Lang, one of these silly characters who only exist in comic book worlds—he’s a master burglar who steals from the rich, has rock-hard abs (maybe Rudd has Chris Pratt’s trainer?), and also happens to be a mechanical engineer and a parkour expert. Convenient! Fresh out of prison, Lang’s trying to stay on the straight and narrow so that he can regain partial custody of his cherubic 5-year-old daughter, who worships him. (Not once, but twice, someone tells Lang to “be the man your daughter thinks you are.” A theme!) .
But then, Lang is recruited by Michael Douglas’s Dr. Hank Pym, a genius scientist who, years ago, developed a suit that contracts and condenses atoms, turning living organisms into ant-sized fighting machines. Realizing that this technology could be calamitous in the wrong hands, Pyn buries the research, only to have it unearthed by his former protégée, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), now, well, a Marvel bad guy (code name: Yellowjacket). So Pym—partnered with his once-estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly)—convinces Lang to don the suit, teaching him to expand and shrink at will, fight like a superhero, and command an ant army with his mind.
The first time Lang wears the suit—and has to escape the running water in a bathtub and then dodge dancing shoes at a nightclub—it made me realize how much CGI has improved the “incredible shrinking man” genre. In a way, I would’ve preferred a film about Lang adjusting to life as a tiny, powerful ant man—lowercase—instead he becomes “Ant-Man,” fighting criminal masterminds and helping to save the day. At least the film’s sense of play remains intact—thankfully, it never takes itself too seriously.
There’s also a cameo from one of our Avengers—but it’s a relatively low-rent Avenger (i.e., don’t expect Iron Man). As for Rudd, he’s charming, as usual, but I can’t help but feel that his light has been dimmed here, that he’s been molded into this generic wisecracking superhero guy. Then again, he’s a handsome, popular actor under the age of 50. I guess it was just his turn.