The geek world, even if it approves what has finally emerged onscreen, will still always wonder what Ant-Man would have been like if, as originally intended, Edgar Wright, he of Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World cultish veneration, had directed the screenplay he wrote with Joe Cornish. Would it have been more extreme, irreverent, idiosyncratic and, in the end, less Marvel-like? One can surmise that Rudd and his writing partner Adam McKay punched up the script with more humorous banter and character humor, and Peyton Reed (Bring It On) has directed with energy, neatly accommodating the assorted comic styles of Rudd and some of the supporting players, most notably Michael Pena. But it's usually interesting when an idiosyncratic talent like Wright gets involved with an existing franchise, so the curiosity will always linger.
In the sci-fi/fantasy domain, human shrinkage has always occupied — ahem — a wee subgenre that has usually proven most effective when laced with humor. In this realm, Hollywood has served up the likes of Dr. Cyclops, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tom Thumb, the short-lived Atom Ant cartoon series, Fantastic Voyage, Innerspace and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; no true classics among them, but the format does force filmmakers to visualize the world from a very particular point of view.
The most eye-catching perspectives here are the result of Rudd's hapless ex-con Scott Lang trying on the nifty black-and-dark red Ant-Man costume for the first time. Accidentally turning himself tiny, he must try to survive a quick tour that perilously includes a bathtub, a dance club, a thick carpet and the unwanted attentions of a mouse. Ant-Man can apparently endure any amount of being thrown around and buffeted against walls and floors, but getting stepped on or eaten would not be good.
How the luckless Scott happened to have greatness thrust upon him is the subject of a heavily expository first half-hour intermittently distinguished by a light-hearted approach. A table-setting 1989 opening has a 40ish-looking Michael Douglas (playing Dr. Hank Pym, the man behind a revolutionary discovery called the Pym Particle) gravely announcing that, "As long as I am alive, nobody is ever going to get that formula." Arresting as this statement is, it's hard to pay attention to it while in the presence of a cinematic formula that has taken so many decades off Douglas' looks that he could easily once again play the lead in Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct. (This arrives in the immediate wake of a similar computerized makeover that momentarily makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look years younger in Terminator: Genisys.)
But Dr. Pym — who, it might be noted, also fathered Ultron in the comic book canon (in the films, Ultron is created by Tony Stark with the help of Bruce Banner) — is now a has-been, having been pushed out of his own company by former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), a gleefully malevolent aspiring supervillain who announces that a long-awaited final breakthrough in the science of miniaturization marks "the end of warfare as we know it" (and with this he is not proposing himself as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize). On the opposite end of the socioeconomic and good-luck scale is Scott, who gets fired from Baskin-Robbins when his prison record becomes known and is kicked out of his young daughter's birthday party by his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new beau (Bobby Cannavale).
Scott reluctantly returns to a life of crime (but he's anti-violence, mind you) and is soon rewarded with both the tight-fitting suit and the attention of Dr. Pym, who has plans for the young man that include exacting revenge on Cross, who now periodically appears in the guise of a predator called Yellowjacket and has his own notions about revolutionizing the world order.
On the grand scale of all things Marvel, the conflicts here seem extremely localized and personal rather than of global significance. Quite a few scenes take place within the brown confines of Pym's house and numerous others are set inside similarly cramped quarters such as a prison and Cross' labs. The action set pieces sometimes feel weakly motivated, invented just for spectacle's sake and because the rhythm and expectations of the genre demand them. One particularly ridiculous flashback illustrates how Pym's wife gave her life to deactivate a Soviet ICBM in flight, which is just one source of tension between Pym and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who has worked for Cross but helps her father and Scott thwart the rogue scientist's nefarious plans.
The modern comedy stuff comes off quite a bit better, especially when Scott keeps company with his former prison buddy Luis (Pena), who continues to plot schemes his picky friend might find morally acceptable, as well as other cohorts played by David Dastmalchian, Tip 'T.I.' Harris and Wood Harris; a couple of montages in which Luis' humorous, motor-mouthed storytelling is made to match up with pertinent characters' lip movements are particularly effective.
In fact, the story's central conflict does not involve Scott/Ant-Man but, rather, Pym and his betrayer, the aptly named Cross. For a presumably brilliant guy, Cross acts stupidly and rashly when things are on the line and doesn't have the demented grand vision that a major villain should have (Ultron would have him for a snack). As if all too aware of this, the writers have tried to compensate with comedy, including a goofy bit in the combustible climax that actually brings Thomas the Tank Engine into the action.
Having an actor of Douglas' caliber on board lends the film some gravitas to balance the humor, but it's the comedy that prevails in a project that is, in a historical sense, integral to the Marvel map of the world but also seems rather on the margins of it.
The Bottom Line
Small and sort of sweet.
July 17 (Disney)
Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Michael Pena