23 08 2015

Ant-ManAnt-Man,” the final piece in Marvel’s so-called “Phase Two” of their Cinematic Universe, invites us all to do what I have done for the past five years: not to take any of this too seriously.  With the constantly winking and self-effacing charm of Paul Rudd (and co-writer Adam McKay), the best Marvel movie in years is ironically the one that spits in the face of what the studio signifies.

This is the first film from the comic book behemoth since the original “Iron Man” back in 2008 that feels entirely sufficient as a film in its own right, not just a placeholder for the next super-sized sequel.  Granted, some of that might be a response to its iffy economic viability at the green-lighting stage of the process (and some concerns over authorship following the departure of writer/director Edgar Wright and his screenwriting partner Joe Cornish). Nonetheless, “Ant-Man” earns a second installment by virtue of its tongue-in-cheek spirit and fun sense of scale.

Rather than set up some cataclysmic battle of the fates where the powers of good do battle with a terrifying evil that beams a big blue light up into the sky, “Ant-Man” builds up to a fight between two men for one important thing.  This climax engages rather than numbs (as “Avengers” final acts tend to do) because it takes place on the human level where the rest of the film registers.  It also helps that the final clash is essentially the only major one in the movie, going against Marvel’s general tendency to throw in a major action set piece every 30 minutes or so to placate the thrill-seekers in the audience.

And every time it seems like “Ant-Man” is turning into a conveyer belt of Marvel tropes, Paul Rudd’s humor kicks in to disrupt the moment and make a joke at the studio’s expense. He plays on admittedly shorter leash than someone like Judd Apatow or David Wain gives him, but his sardonic wit proves a welcome reprieve of Marvel’s faux gravitas that proves suffocating in their more commercial products.

Rudd plays with more than just his trademark smart-ass quips in “Ant-Man,” though.  As Scott Lang, a burglar fresh out of jail, his motivation is always to get back in the good graces of his young daughter Cassie.  He wants to escape the life of crime but quickly discovers how tough the working world judges ex-felons (even at Baskin Robbins).  For a brief moment, the film actually does become a fairly compelling exposé of just how hard we make the path to redemption in America.

But let’s not kid ourselves too much, this is still an action movie.  Through a crazy train of events, Scott winds up in the employ of Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym, an inventor trying to hoard his shrinking-suit technology away from the military-industrial complex.  To protect it from falling into the dangerous hands of Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross, he enlists Scott to don the Ant-Man suit, crawl his way into the facilities, and keep his work safe.

Of course, Scott needs extensive training before completing this mission, something Pym provides with his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) in a Mr. Miyagi fashion.  By shrinking to the size of an ant, he faces an entirely different set of challenges that open Scott’s eyes to the danger that lurks in our everyday surroundings.  This wonder of the commonplace, reminiscent of the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” series, actually provides a sight at which we can marvel once again.  B+3stars



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