‘Ant-Man’: Hold the insecticide

July 16, 2015

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Right from the start, let me stipulate that, when it comes to most comic-book movies, I turn into Anti-Man.

I believe comic-book movies — and the overweening Comic-Con mentality that has consumed the Hollywood studios — are strangling the movie industry, in part because these movies are so generic. 

Which may be why I enjoyed “Ant-Man” so much. Unlike the majority of films from the Marvel and DC comics megaverse, here is a movie with a sense of humor that also knows how to be exciting, a trait distinctly lacking in all but a tiny handful of these films. 

Even more amazing, it’s directed by Peyton Reed, who has helmed a string of comedies that run from undistinguished to downright terrible. But Reed has three secret weapons here: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas and the script by Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright (who was originally supposed to direct).

Both actors know their way around a punchline. More to the point, they both have a sense of the absurd that deflates pomposity or anything else that threatens to let this movie take itself too seriously, without undermining the movie itself.

That’s an interesting tightrope to walk, one most comic-book movies never try. Indeed, while there are jokes in most of these films, they tend to be punctuation for the oh-so-serious business of saving the universe in a flurry of computer-generated action. Wright and Cornish’s script is different.

Instead of playing like a comic-book film, “Ant-Man” feels like a funny sci-fi adventure — sort of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” but with the future of the world at stake. While it is clearly an origin story that will spawn as many sequels as they can squeeze out of it, this feels like an actual movie, and a funny one at that.

Rudd plays Scott Travis, just out of prison and looking for work. But he’s not really a criminal; while he has serious burglar skills, he employed them to expose corporate fraud — and wound up in jail as a result.

He’s recruited by Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas), who, in an earlier part of his life, rejected efforts by SHIELD to co-opt a new invention of his that compresses the space between atoms or some equally ridiculous explanation. He made a suit that allowed the wearer to shrink to the size of an ant. But, like ants, this tiny human was super-strong — in this case, retaining the mass, strength and punching power of a full-sized human. SHIELD wanted it as a weapon; Pam saw that as an invitation to a police state and hid the technology away.

But now Pym’s successor, the unctuous Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), has duplicated Pym’s process. Pym wants Lang to steal Cross’ research and stop him cold. But you know that’s not going to happen because, well, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.

Reed keeps the focus on Lang’s ordinary-guy qualities: the fact that he’s not a super-hero, just a guy who eventually learns how to use Pym’s technology to give him extra powers. He also devotes time to Lang’s back-story: his divorce, his ex-wife (Judy Greer) remarrying a cop (Bobby Cannavale — when is someone going to give this guy a real movie of his own?) and limiting the time he can spend with his young daughter. So Lang’s transformation, while not a huge one, still has motivation that’s understandable.

Even better, while the action scenes are fast and exciting, they’re also very witty. At one point during the climax, Cross has turned himself into a tiny villain, Yellowjacket, with a suit that gives him similar capabilities to Lang’s. They wind up battling atop a small electric train on a table in Lang’s daughter’s room.

But Reed keeps cutting away from the whirlwind closeup action between Yellowjacket and Ant-Man to the long shot — where all you see is the toy train puffing along its circular track, seemingly harmlessly. When one of the warriors tosses something massive at the other, Reed pulls back so, again, these are small toys being put into play.  It’s almost a spoof of the end of “Man of Steel,” when director Zach Snyder pulled back to show Superman and General Zod from a distance, tiny figures destroying buildings that looked small from that viewpoint.

Rudd and Douglas have a deliciously ju-jitsu approach to comedy — less give-and-take than keeping the other off-balance. Rudd has interesting — and different — foils in Evangeline Lilly (as Pym’s skeptical daughter) and Michael Pena (as a motor-mouthed dimwit pal of Lang’s).

Is “Ant-Man” a great film? Probably not. But it stands as one of the summer’s most entertaining, one of only a handful (and I do not include either of the bloated Captain America movies) of comic-book movies to transcend the limits of that increasingly cookie-cutter genre.

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