“Ant-Man,” the latest comic book superhero recruited for the big screen by Marvel Studios, is also, you guessed it, the smallest. Instead of blowing up a city — this genre’s climactic hallmark and its most tiresome trope — “Ant-Man” opts for a little girl’s bedroom. As opposed to several costumed crusaders of varying abilities and charisma, this movie provides just a few. We’re also spared another incoherent, global conflict, such as the one depicted in Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Here, the trouble is domestic.
All of this is cause for celebration, right?
Well, yes. Finally, you might say to yourself, here is a more focused superhero movie, something light, funny (starring Paul Rudd!), but inevitably lame. Though I’d argue a man who communes with ants and shrinks to their size is less ridiculous than an angry and green, crowd-pleasing beast with Mark Ruffalo’s face. But whatever “Ant-Man” is, you’re just happy it’s not another spectacle of wanton destruction attempting to double its predecessor’s real estate damage.
And no. Smaller isn’t necessarily better, and bigger isn’t always worse. “Ant-Man,” directed by Peyton Reed, is just a mildly amusing, occasionally exciting reprieve from the bad habits of a bloated genre. That doesn’t mean it’s any good on its own terms. It is, at best, a tremendous trifle, a comedy of modest proportions.
Surprisingly, the biggest laughs aren’t because of Mr. Rudd, whose comedic charms are restricted by the Ant-Man suit. His character, ex-con Scott Lang, inherited the suit from its creator, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Pym and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), need Lang, an expert thief, to don the suit and sabotage similar shrinking technology in the possession of Pym’s estranged protégé who would use it for evil deeds. Lang is reluctant to return to a life of crime. He doesn’t want to risk more jail time and lose the admiration of his young daughter, but his friends, who assist in the heist, are convincing.
Played with great, winning wit by Michael Peña, the rapper T.I. and David Dastmalchian, Lang’s criminal cohorts pretty much steal the show. Peña — hyper-verbal, starry-eyed and totally, manically cheery — is especially hilarious. As a whole, the group reminded me of the ragtag team from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” still Marvel’s best film. The humor in that movie, a space-adventure fantasy about the healing power of escapism itself, served a greater purpose. “Ant-Man” is just in it for the laughs. Like Peña’s character, who has an endearing tendency to include extraneous details when telling a story, the jokes here are both central to enjoying the movie and entirely irrelevant. “Ant-Man” is funny, but it doesn’t resonate.
It also can’t commit. Whenever a genuine human emotion, like fear, or sympathy, or wonder, starts to generate, on screen or off, it is always immediately undermined. What at first looks like a prison fight in one scene turns out to just be a friendly exchange. Another scene, an emotional bit between Hank and Hope, is crassly spoiled by Lang. He’s well aware that he’s just “ruined the moment.”
This motif, meant to signify the silliness of it all, is interesting only once: a large, corporate building, in the midst of crumbling, is suddenly whisked away, shrunken so small that it’s practically gone forever. By denying us the full-blown 9/11 imagery, “Ant-Man” almost subverts that genre requirement. But really it just wants to have it both ways. The film, despite its ostensible tininess, is still a product of the times.
There is a joy, though, to some of the action sequences, as Ant-Man, taking the size and the strength of a bullet, hops from one platform to the next, traversing the innards of a computer server or diving effortlessly through a keyhole. The scenes are flashy and colorful, like a comic book, and they often evoke a boundless sense of discovery. The Ant-Man suit, after all, is a method of infiltration, not an agent of destruction. Ant-Man doesn’t fire missiles from armored palms like Iron Man, throw an indestructible shield at his foes like Captain America, or pummel everything in his path like the Incredible Hulk. He just shows us a new way to see the world. Too bad his movie offers little to explore.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on July 23, 2015.