Compared to the bombastic, outsized, huge-cast Marvel Studios movies audiences seem to crave, everything’s more human, macro, and a bit ragged in Ant-Man. Robin Hood-style burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) fresh from a three-year stretch in prison isn’t battling Armageddon or crushing cities. He’s just a guy who wants his little daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) back and, to prove to his ex (Judy Greer) and her cop boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) that he’s a good dad, he’s willing to work the counter at Baskin-Robbins. When he gets fired for his criminal past, he becomes willing to do some risky things for money. They include indulging in some industrial spying while wearing a cool ‘60s vintage special suit that shrinks him to the size of — well, an ant, obviously — on behalf of brilliant inventor Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his vinegary daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly).
The movie — full of smartly goofy, antic humor (maybe courtesy of screenwriter Joe Cornish and writer-director Edgar Wright who worked on this thing for 10 years but left the project in May of 2014) — is at its best in a series of wonderfully inventive sequences showing the big world from tiny Ant-Man’s point of view. Especially when viewing the movie in great 3D, the hero’s having to slip through keyholes, dodge women dancing in scary platform heels, escaping a bathtub full of rising water, being hurled atop a spinning record — these sequences have the visual cool and giddy joy of something from a silent movie only done with a jokey, ironic post-modernist flair.
There’s also a brilliantly clever, visually eye-popping showdown between two shrunken adversaries set in a kid’s bedroom, complete with chase involving a Thomas the Train that turns from ridiculous to scary and back again. It’s a perfect metaphor for the movie itself and it turns out that the charming, affable Rudd is just the guy for the job. He’s rumpled, offhanded, and when he goes head to head with a certain Avenger who won’t be named here, there’s no argument whom the audience will be pulling for. Corey Stoll comes on strong in a silky, nasty ambiguous role but even he and Rudd pale next to Michael Pena, who steals every scene he’s in as a goofball member of Rudd’s crew of half-assed thieves.
The movie, directed by Peyton Reed (Bring It On), is way too clunky and talky in its exposition, takes its sweet time in achieving liftoff and it definitely drags out its action finale, but when it soars away from the Marvel house style of moviemaking, it’s a trip. The thing has got big laughs, a real heartbeat, and a modesty of scale that, next to the mega machinery of most Marvel movies, is kind of a relief.