ANT-MAN  * * *

Starring Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll and Michael Pena. Screenplay by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd. Directed by Peyton Reed.

There’s a classic 1979 SNL sketch in which host Margot Kidder reprises her role as Lois Lane, throwing a house party with her new hubby Superman (played by Bill Murray, of course) and all of Earth’s mightiest heroes in attendance. While John Belushi’s Hulk is busy stinking up the bathroom, Murray’s Supes and Dan Aykroyd’s Flash goof on on Garrett Morris’ Ant-Man for having the stupidest superpowers in the room. In a high-pitched, nerdy whine, Morris explains that he’s able to shrink himself down to the size of an insect while retaining the strength of a human, and can command an army of ants to do his bidding. The party guests are less than impressed.

That Garrett Morris pops up for a cameo in Marvel’s new blockbuster incarnation of the character should give you a hint as to just how seriously the movie takes itself, which is to say not at all, and that’s fine with me. Ant-Man is a lark. It’s a lighthearted, human-scaled matinee adventure that feels like an antidote to this summer’s dour Avengers: Age of Ultron and its droning marathon of destruction. As I wonder how I’m gonna explain to my seven-year-old nephew that Batman wants to murder Superman for causing 9/11 in the upcoming Dawn of Justice, it’s refreshing to see a movie about costumed crimefighters drop the preening adolescent angst and just cut loose on the silly side. You know, for kids.

Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang, a Robin Hood-style cat burglar for the post-financial crash era. Fresh out of prison after redistributing the wealth of some shady Wall Street sharks, Scott can’t even hold down a job at Baskin Robbins. (As far as blatant product placement goes, this bit’s a keeper.) He’s fallen behind on child support payments and lost visitation rights with his adorable moppet of a daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), so Scott needs some quick cash, badly.

After a small comedy of errors, he finds himself unwittingly recruited by reclusive billionaire scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) – the original Ant-Man, who used to roll with Peggy Carter and Howard Stark back in the glory days of S.H.I.E.L.D., before a bad falling out when Hank’s wife went missing on a mission. Pym tried to hide away the research secrets that made his Ant-Man powers possible, but now his poisonous former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is on the verge of figuring everything out for himself and selling weaponized versions of the technology to those nefarious folks at HYDRA.

If all that exposition just made your eyes roll back in your head, Douglas sums it up a bit more eloquently: “Scott, I’m gonna need you to go break into a place and steal some shit.”

So yeah, it’s a caper picture. And a fun one too, as Hank and Scott try to brainstorm their way into Cross’ impregnable laboratory using the shrinking powers of the Ant-Man suit plus a thousand or so insect accomplices. Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is better-trained and generally smarter than Scott, but overprotective Dad won’t allow her to join the mission. (This running subplot serves as meta-commentary on Marvel’s lousy track record with female heroes, copping to the problem without actually doing anything to correct it.)

Their scheme does, however, become expansive enough to include Rudd’s old crew – a troupe of nitwits played by David Dastmalchian, T.I. and a screamingly funny Michael Pena, who all but runs away with the film. There’s a crackling comic energy to the planning and training. Rudd’s in affable goofball form and Douglas makes a great grumpy mentor. (He’s basically playing the Tommy Lee Jones part from Captain America: The First Avenger.) Director Peyton Reed keeps the quips coming and spirits buoyant. It’s a really enjoyable movie.

It was also a troubled production, and if you’ve heard anything about Ant-Man, you probably heard that after years of prep-work, fanboy fetish object Edgar Wright melted the Internet by vacating the director’s chair just weeks before shooting began. Wright and his partner Joe Cornish still retain screenplay credits, alongside Anchorman funnyguys Adam McKay and Rudd, who were brought in on rewrite duty. This mishegoss feeds into the conventional wisdom that Marvel is a corporate machine crushing the contributions of singular artists, conveniently forgetting that just last year the studio allowed a Troma filmmaker to helm a summer tentpole blockbuster featuring a wisecracking raccoon and his talking tree sidekick.

I refuse to indulge in the forensic auteurism that’s caused some critics to misattribute key scenes here based on their personal hunches and man-crushes on Edgar Wright. (Google is your friend, dudes. Try it sometime.) But it is worth remembering that over a decade ago director Peyton Reed was unsuccessfully trying to sell Fox on a 1960’s set Fantastic Four comedy, modeled on A Hard Day’s Night. That kind of jaunty spirit is very much in evidence during Ant-Man and I found it a breath of fresh air.

No cities were harmed during the making of this movie, and instead of the usual gargantuan Marvel climax in which everyone fights atop some sort of airborne object crashing into lots of expensively-rendered CGI stuff and I go out to take a leak, here we’ve got a fiendishly clever set-piece with two tiny dudes duking it out in a child’s bedroom, menaced by a Thomas The Tank Engine toy train set. Ant-Man‘s best sight gags are simple juxtapositions of scale, the entire endeavor making a strong case that sometimes smaller is better.

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