I wish I could assure you that no insects were harmed in the writing of this review, but that would be a lie.
The ants who are regular summer visitors to my kitchen have lately been sending scouts into the study. One just crawled across my laptop screen, and as I crushed its tiny body between my thumb and forefinger, an alarming thought crossed my mind: They know what I'm up to. Ants are highly intelligent creatures (at least collectively), and are famous for their determination and commitment. Here I was, about to pass judgment on one of their rare forays into popular culture, and here they were, checking up on me.
But to what end? Were they sniffing out bad press in advance, or trying to warn an honest journalist that their species was terribly misrepresented by Ant-Man? In my thoughtless, murderous haste, I hadn't bothered to ask, or to check my victim for a Marvel logo tattooed on its thorax.
So someone else will have to tackle the hot topic of "What Ant-Man Gets Wrong About Ants." Directed by the comedy specialist Peyton Reed (Bring It On, The Break-Up, Yes Man) from a script credited to Edgar Wright, Adam McKay, Joe Cornish and Paul Rudd (who stars), this film is a passable piece of drone work from the ever-expanding Marvel-Disney colony. It provides obligatory, intermittently amusing links to other corporate properties, serving essentially as a sidebar to the Avengers franchise. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, last year's off-brand Marvel hit, Ant-Man dabbles in the bright, playful colors of the superhero spectrum, reveling in moments of cartoonish whimsy and smirky humor.
It's an origin story, which is too bad, but at least relieves a reviewer of tedious explanatory duties. The background is that a brilliant scientist, Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, a fine goateed curmudgeon), has developed a secret particle that makes objects shrink. His onetime protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, a fine bald villain) wants to perfect the invention and put it to nefarious use. A hapless ex-con named Scott Lang (Rudd) gets mixed up with the scientist and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), and the next thing you know...
But look at the time! Spoiler alert. OMG and LOL - not so much of the first (unless you are still astonished by the sight of guys in mechanical suits punching each other), but a decent dose of the second. This is mostly thanks to David Dastmalchian, Michael Pena and the rapper TI, who play Scott's buddies with cantankerous Three Stooges energy. Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale show up as Scott's former wife and her new husband - stepfather to Scott's adorable daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) - but for fans of these wonderful actors, the main satisfaction will come from the knowledge that they earned some money. (The continued marginalization of the brilliant Greer in expensive studio movies, however, has become a national scandal. Someone needs to convene a task force.)
And Rudd? Well, it's funny. What I mean is that he isn't very funny, which is strange, given his track record in ensemble comedies. He's a pleasant enough hero, registering confusion, amazement and irritation when circumstances require them, but his special charisma gets lost in the suit and drowned out in the hectic noise of the plot.
Ants are not known for individualism, which makes them, in some ways, a less promising platform for superheroism than spiders or bats. When Scott summons swarms of six-legged allies, the effect is underwhelming. But Reed does exploit two important (if obvious) ant characteristics: strength and tininess. Scott's Ant-Man suit allows him to change size instantly, which adds novelty to some of the fight scenes (notably one with Falcon, an Avenger played by Anthony Mackie).
The most ingenious sequence comes near the end, during a climactic battle between two miniaturized dudes, which toggles between their perspective and that of normal-size people. What appears to the combatants to be a noisy, screen-filling, no-holds-barred struggle looks, at human scale, like a minor disturbance in a room full of toys. Perhaps this is a metaphor: Trapped inside this big movie is a small one, trying to get out.