The latest film franchise culled from Marvel's comic-book universe packs a ton of fun into a teeny package. Its low-key charm helps glide us over trouble spots in tone and pacing. Ant-Man stars Paul Rudd as standard-sized Scott Lang, a petty thief who gets to shrink at will and cause all sorts of trouble. Ant-Man may not have the hulking clout of the Avengers, but the little bastard from Marvel's second-tier gets the job done. The movie version benefits from not being familiar to the point of frustration.
Heads up short attention spans: you're in for some heavy exposition before director Peyton Reed
rolls out the special effects, which are spectacular. Oscar winner Michael Douglas, who classes up the place by his very presence, plays Dr. Hank Pym, a scientist whose particle research has resulted in a suit that can reduce a man to ant size and, in the wrong hands, spark mass destruction. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been coveting that suit since 1989. The prologue, featuring Douglas with his face digitized into youthful Gordon Gekko smoothness, lays out the parameters of battle: It's peace-loving Pym versus such war mongers as Pym's former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who's come up with his own scary shrink-suit, Yellowjacket. Talk about having a bee in your bonnet.
The script by Joe Cornish and the terrific Edgar Wright with a frisky polish by Rudd and Adam McKay, explains it all for you. It also leaves you wondering about the delicious experiment Wright, once slated to direct, would have made of it. Luckily, Rudd is the kind of actor you'd happily follow anywhere. His cat burglar is just out of San Quentin and trying to go straight for the sake of his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). Pym thinks Scott is the just the guy to get into the ant suit and pull a fast one on Cross. Pym's daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), thinks she, not Scott the screw-up, should wear the suit. Wake up, girl. In Marvel's male-centric fantasyland that's never gonna happen.
So it's two dudes, Scott and Pym, both with daughter issues, who are left to save the world from power-hungry psychos. And oh, did I mention Michael Peña offers welcome comic relief and then some as Luis, Scott's motor-mouthed henchman? Learning that Pym's safe is made of the same metal as the Titanic, Luis notes, "that stuff killed DiCaprio."
What revives Ant-Man from too much backstory is its sense of visual mischief. It's a treat watching Scott pull a Spider-Man and learn how to jump in and out of keyholes, change size and use his mind to marshal armies of ants. We've seen some of these tricks before, most effectively in 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man and 1989's Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. But you ain't seen nothing yet till you get a load of mini Scott navigating the perils of a seemingly harmless bathtub, carpet, train set and a curious mouse. Marvel fans know to stay for a coda after the end credits. Fake out — this time there are two codas. Is Ant-Man good enough to make you want to stick around, even for a sequel? That's debatable. But it sure does go down easy. In a hard-sell summer that's enough to make Ant-Man stand tall.