The Marvel Comics Universe keeps getting bigger and more spectacular with each appearance of “The Avengers,” “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” “Thor,” “The Fantastic Four,” “X-Men,” “Wolverine,” and “The Guardians of the Galaxy.” Consequently, it comes with a sigh of relief that the latest newcomer, “Ant-Man” (**** OUT OF ****), shrinks from such apocalyptic pretensions. “Bring It On” director Peyton Reed, who replaced British writer & director Edgar Wright, has helmed what could possibly be the most imaginative as well as the atypical superhero saga of the summer. Miniaturization is the cornerstone of this clever little yarn. Mind you, nobody can completely appreciate “Ant-Man” who hasn’t seen director Jack Arnold’s seminal science-fiction feature “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957) where an unfortunate fellow–through no fault of his own–found himself reduced to the size of a toothpick and tangled with predatory house cats while taking refuge in a child’s doll house. Similarly, the next major movie to magnify shrinkage, director Richard Fleischer’s “Fantastic Voyage” (1966), scaled down scientists to microscopic dimensions and injected them into a comatose scientist’s bloodstream to save him from a lethal blood clot. Appropriately, television capitalized on all things minuscule with Irwin Allen’s “Land of the Giants” (1968-1970) where the crew and passengers of the Spindrift, a commercial sub-orbital transport spaceship, traveled into treacherous outer space turbulence and then crashed on an unknown planet. Everything loomed twelve times larger on this peculiar planet than anything on Earth making for 51 exciting episodes. Of course, other honorable mentions include the Dennis Quaid comedy “Innerspace” (1987) and the Rick Moranis farce “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (1989).
“Ant-Man” opens in 1989. Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) hands Howard Stark (John Slattery of “Iron Man 2”) his resignation and leaves the espionage, law-enforcement, and counterterrorism agency SHIELD. Naturally, Stark regrets Pym’s departure. Pym exits because SHIELD went behind his back and endeavored to duplicate the Pym Particle with his Ant-Man shrinking-suit technology. Pym lost his wife while during his experiments with that technology, and he deems it is far too dangerous for anybody to trifle with. “As long as I am alive,” proclaims Pym, “nobody is ever going to get that formula.” This early scene fascinates because the filmmakers have given actor Michael Douglas an incredible, computerized, makeover so he appears twenty years or younger. For the record, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby created Ant-man in “Tales to Astonish #27” back in January 1962. Similarly, Hollywood altered some of the Marvel Comics canon. In the comics, Pym—not Tony Stark and Bruce Banner—originally created the villainous Ultron, who menaced our heroic quintet in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Happily, none of this matters unless you are a hardcore Marvel fanatic (nothing wrong with this kind of fanaticism) because the fun of it all lies in the variations that make everything memorable. Meanwhile, the years have not kind to Dr. Pym. After he exited SHIELD, he formed his own company, Pym Technologies. Sadly, Pym’s evil protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll of “The Bourne Legacy”), has seized control and feverishly schemes to replicate the prized Pym Particle. Ironically enough, Hank’s estranged daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly of “Lost”), appears to be working in league with the treacherous Cross.
Meantime, idealistic thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) leaves San Quentin after serving a three-year stretch for burglary. Actually, Scott qualifies as the most sympathetic ex-con in cinematic history. Since he divorced his wife Maggie (Judy Greer of “Jurassic World”) but hasn’t paid a penny of child support, Scott cannot visit his adorable daughter, Cassie (newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson), who misses him as much as he misses her. Not only does Maggie stonewall Scott, so does her smarmy fiancé, Paxton (Bobby Cannavale of “Spy”), who happens to be a cop. Reluctantly, Scott boards with his former cellmate, Luis (a scene-stealing Michael Peña of “Fury”), who lures him back into a life of crime. Scott struggled to go straight, even landed a job at Baskin-Robbins, but his boss learned about this prison record and fired him. Desperate to make child support money, Scott resorts to his burglary skills. He breaks into none other than Hank Pym’s house and steals an exotic helmet and suit. Later, he discovers the outfit enables him to shrink to ant size and enhance his fighting prowess. “Second chances don’t come around all that often,” Pym warns Scott. “This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter’s eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are.” Scott joins Hank in an outlandish plan to prevent the megalomaniacal Cross from selling the Pym Particle to SHIELD’s nemesis HYDRA. Silly, superficial, and preposterous, “Ant-Man” delivers scores of hilarious, but suspenseful shenanigans.
Until Marvel/Disney released “Ant-Man,” Hollywood had ignored all things petite in pursuit of the big, the bigger, and the biggest in its blockbusters. Meantime, the ever creative intellects at Marvel had been planning an “Ant-Man” movie since “Shaun of the Dead” director Edgar Wright had embarked on the project about a decade ago. Creative differences forced Wright out, and Reed took over the helm. Now, “Ant-Man” has emerged as the revelation of the summer, rather like the goofy “Guardians of the Galaxy” did last summer. From concept to casting, everything about this mighty mite of a movie is nothing short of brilliant. Consistently entertaining on all levels, “Ant-Man” plumbs new depths in the superhero genre and provides former superstar Michael Douglas with his best role since director David Fincher’s 1997 thriller “The Game.” Romantic comedy leading man Paul Rudd of “Role Models” is the last guy you’d imagine as the diminutive Marvel hero. Nevertheless, the self-deprecatory Rudd succeeds with a combination of panache and charisma. He is a funny guy who doesn’t try to be funny and comes off being even funnier. Like the eponymous creepy-crawlies that can tote ten times their body weight, “Ant-Man” delivers ten times more entertainment than most superhero sagas despite its downsized spectacle. Not surprisingly, this origins opus covers the roughly same ground that “Iron Man” did, but it does so with greater creativity on a considerably smaller scale. Clearly, those pests that habitually ruin your picnics have undergone a massive publicity campaign that places them as well as formulaic superheroes in an entirely different perspective.
Altogether, “Ant-Man” is antastic!