There's no need for psychiatric intervention just quite yet, but the mighty Marvel movie empire is showing definite signs of having a split personality.
On the one hand, you have those big clanking machines like "The Avengers" and "Captain America," stuffed to bursting with superhero braggadocio. Then there are the loose, anarchic films, more offbeat items that seem to come from another universe entirely. Films like "Guardians of the Galaxy." Films like "Ant-Man."
Playful in unexpected ways and graced with a genuinely off-center sense of humor, "Ant-Man" (engagingly directed by Peyton Reed) is light on its feet the way the standard-issue Marvel behemoths never are. It's got a vintage science fiction feel and a climactic scene in which Thomas the Tank Engine rather than a crowd of interstellar invaders plays a major part. Business as usual this is not.
You can't have a good Ant-Man movie without a good Ant-Man, and in the genial and charming everyman Paul Rudd, the filmmakers have done it right. When your protagonist, Scott Lang, is an ex-con introduced getting out of San Quentin after serving three years for burglary, being likable means a lot.
Rudd and his "Anchorman" director Adam McKay share one of the film's writing credits, but Rudd, who has been with the project for years, has publicly acknowledged the importance of the initial writing team.
That would be Edgar Wright (who was originally slated to direct as well) and Joe Cornish, responsible between them for films like "Shaun of the Dead" and "Attack the Block" whose anarchic popular culture spirit can be felt here.
Equally essential to the film's success is the veteran Michael Douglas, who brings an invaluable gravitas and stability to the film. Given that shrinking people to half an inch in height is the name of the game here, anything that helps make that believable should not be undervalued.
Douglas plays Hank Pym, the brilliant founder of Pym Technologies. We meet him in an opening sequence set in 1989 in which he accuses associates of trying to steal the powerful yet mysterious Pym particle. "As long as I am alive," Pym thunders, "no one will get that particle." Duly noted.
Back in the present, Scott is getting out of prison, met at the gate by his old cellmate Luis (a very funny Michael Pena). Luis would love it if Scott put his "mad thieving skills" to use, but the newly freed man wants to reestablish a relationship with his cute estranged daughter Cassie (Abby Rider Fortson), so he's hoping for a life on the straight and narrow.
Speaking of estrangement, Hank Pym, who was ousted from Pym Technologies by daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) in favor of former Hank protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), returns to the building to hear Cross boast that he has made a major breakthrough that will enable him to create a tiny soldier the size of an insect. He calls it "Yellowjacket" and, being a bit on the power-mad side, tells everyone who will listen that he's "transcended the laws of nature."
Little does anyone know that Pym himself managed such a breakthrough years before but for a variety of reasons never put it into action. He's had his eye on Scott to be his man in the suit and, through some amusing plot machinations, makes this happen, much to Scott's surprise and terror. Being half an inch tall is no fun if you don't know what you're doing.
Though people getting taken down to tiny size is familiar to moviegoers from films like "The Incredible Shrinking Man" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," one of the things that makes "Ant-Man" special is, well, the computer-generated ants.
For, once he gets the knack of using it, one of Scott's powers as "Ant-Man" is a helmet that makes him a certified ant whisperer, someone who can make these loyal, brave and industrious insects his full partners in the exploits he undertakes.
These are not just the garden variety of ant you might come across at a picnic. Ant-Man forms close ties with the architecturally inclined fire ants, winged and dangerous carpenter ants, wacky crazy ants, even the perilous bullet ants, whose bite is described as "No. 4 on the Schmidt pain index," which sounds pretty bad. These little guys are such great team players that after you see this film, you'll never be tempted to squash one of them again.
MPAA rating: PG for sci-fi action violence
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: In general release