- - Thursday, July 16, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When Marvel announced a few years back that it was finally going into production with a big-budget movie based on its decidedly not-so-big superhero, “Ant-Man,” the response, at least from those who are not longtime comic book readers, was more than a little confused.

Ant-Man? Why Ant-Man?

Marvel’s other big-screen hits may have been somewhat unlikely, but you could always see the case for the multiplex treatment: Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk and Thor were all, in their own way, iconic characters, well-recognized, even if not always well-read, outside of the comic-geek niche.

And with four of them in play, it was possible to set up a team-up movie, “The Avengers,” which, of course, went on to become a massive hit as well as one of the most beloved blockbusters in recent memory.

Even the intergalactic weirdos of “Guardians of the Galaxy” made a certain kind of sense: They provided an entry point into Marvel’s vast cast of cosmic characters; besides, the movie itself was just “Star Wars” in superhero drag.


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But what about Ant-Man? He’s barely known, even in this era of Wikipedia-fueled comic-book completism, and he’s hardly anyone’s favorite hero. What could a guy who wears a suit that makes him small and allows him to control ants — seriously, ants — bring to Marvel’s never-ending comic-book movie party?

The only possible reason for making the movie was the involvement of writer-director Edgar Wright, the mind behind genre comedy classics “Hot Fuzz” and “Shaun of the Dead.”

But Mr. Wright left before the movie got off the ground.

Now that I’ve seen the movie, I’m afraid I still don’t know what Marvel saw in Ant-Man post-Wright, and I’m not sure the maestros behind Hollywood’s most successful interconnected universe know either.

“Ant-Man” is the 12th film in the astonishingly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it marches to the Marvel formula with spit-shined precision: There are eye-popping action sequences and a series of winking references to Marvel’s other movies, a mentor played by an actor of note (Michael Douglas) and a female love interest with too little to do, an appealingly jokey hero in need of redemption and a heartless villain who mirrors the protagonist but takes the other path.

Aside from the film’s notably smaller scale, it’s all very familiar. The whole thing makes me think that Marvel has run out of big ideas.

The hero this round is Scott Lang, played as a kind of Gen-X slacker, all ironic quips and half-hearted enthusiasm by Paul Rudd (you can imagine a much more interesting version played by Ethan Hawke).

Lang is a hacker and cat burglar who, after release from prison, struggles to make the child support payments he needs to see his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson).

It’s telling that this is Lang’s motivating force. His love for his daughter is supposed to provide the emotional core that grounds the movie in something human, but in the end it’s really just the MacGuffin.

Lang’s relationship with his daughter is established just barely enough to make way for the small-scale superhero action.

Granted, the action scenes, when they arrive, are rather marvelous. When Lang first puts on the Ant-Man suit that gives him his powers, he shrinks down to the size of a bug in his bathtub, and then must stage a harrowing escape through his rundown apartment building. It’s a brilliantly staged and designed sequence that toys with scale and size in ways that are consistently funny and surprising.

The third-act showdown between Lang and his villainous opposite number, Darren Cross, has even more of these moments of miniaturized wonder.

Sadly, the movie’s human-scale drama lacks the same wit or ingenuity. The script is joke heavy, but the movie isn’t as funny as several less overtly comedic Marvel movies (“Iron Man 3” and “Guardians” in particular).

Peyton Reed’s direction dazzles during the action scenes, but too much of the rest of the time, it offers the bland feeling of watching a Marvel Superheroes TV show.

Which in a lot of ways is what Marvel’s movie universe is — a TV superhero soap brought to very expensive life on the big screen, two hours at a time. “Ant-Man” comes across as a skippable filler episode: It’s fine as far as it goes, but compared to the rest of the Marvel universe, it’s strictly small stuff.

★★1/2

TITLE: “Ant-Man”

CREDITS: Directed by Peyton Reed; written by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd

RATING: PG-13 for language, comic-book action

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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