'Ant-Man': Mighty small, but still mighty

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Paul Rudd stars in Marvel's latest superhero blockbuster, "Ant-Man" (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios, TNS)

Does Paul Rudd have ants in his pants?

Not really. His pants - and the rest of the retro getup he discovers in an old safe - turn him into an ant.

More precisely, the suit turns him into the superhero Ant-Man, one of the lesser-known figures in the Marvel Comics library (first appearance: September 1962, in Tales to Astonish No. 35). Certainly one of the teeniest. And one of the funniest - though not as funny, one suspects, as he could have been if Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright, who bailed during pre-production, had stayed on.

Despite the presence of Rudd (funny) and the recruitment of Anchorman scribe Adam McKay (funny), the result, with Peyton Reed (not so funny) in the director's chair, features clever bits emerging only after long stretches of exposition and explosions.

Ant-Man locks its pincers tightly on its Marvel Cinematic Universe connections: Iron Man is name-dropped, the Avengers referenced, Anthony Mackie shows up as the Falcon, and other Marvel characters (and the actors who play them) have cameos. The S.H.I.E.L.D. logo looms. Inevitably, Marvel chairman emeritus Stan Lee - who cooked up Ant-Man along with artist Jack Kirby way back when - makes his jokey appearance, too. Marvel Studios and the folks at Disney who distribute their product want you to know that Ant-Man is a brand.

But enough of that. The Ant-Man that has scuttled into theaters (including 3-D and IMAX venues) is set in San Francisco, where electrical engineer-turned-cat-burglar Scott Lang (Rudd) is just out of San Quentin, trying to get a job and get his life back on track. He has a daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) who lives with his ex (Judy Greer) and her new beau, a cop (Bobby Cannavale). But unless Scott finds a place to live and an honest way to pay child support, he's not going to be able to see his little girl.

By a circuitous route involving a former cohort in crime (an amusing Michael Peña) and a tricky heist, Scott winds up meeting Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a genius biophysicist whose invention, the Pym Particle, is the power behind the Ant-Man suit.

It takes a while to get the hang of the suit - and it helps to have Dr. Pym's daughter, Pym Technologies board member Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), assisting Scott in his training - but eventually, Scott can shrink himself down to insect proportions and then zap himself back to human size.

The suit gives him exceptional strength and agility, too. And he is able to communicate with the real ants - bullet ants, carpenter ants, crazy ants, fire ants - who help him out when they're called to. A cool sequence in Ant-Man has Rudd, suited up, his ant helmet on, running alongside a legion of the insects, his new soulmates. It's a lot more effective and more exciting than those shots of Chris Pratt on his motorcycle in Jurassic World gunning through the jungle in the company of stampeding raptors.

Rudd, droll and deadpan, makes a good hero. Corey Stoll, as the vengeful scientist Darren Cross, who feels he's been doublecrossed by Pym, is not exactly Shakespearean in his villainy.

Douglas, seen in a digitally-cosmeticized younger iteration in a late-1980s prologue, plays the brilliant inventor with a beard and glasses and that Michael Douglas rasp. Lilly, who set Hobbit nerds' hearts aflutter as the pointy-earred Elven warrior Tauriel in Parts 2 and 3 of Peter Jackson's trilogy, gets to spar - verbally, and fisticuffly - with Rudd. Maybe they'll spar romantically, too. (Stick around for the end credits and get a glimpse of Lilly's future filmography.)

Although its origin-story machinations get the better of it, Ant-Man isn't a bust.


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Ant-Man

Directed by Peyton Reed. With Evangeline Lilly, Jordi Mollà, Michael Douglas, T.I., John Slattery, Corey Stoll, Judy Greer, Hayley Atwell, Paul Rudd, Michael Peña. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 57 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence).