The attack of the flying ants
Marvel's latest is formulaic but very watchable, writes Paul Whitington
Ant-Man (12A, 117mins)
At this stage Marvel superhero movies come as pre-packaged and unthreateningly inviting as a Big Mac or a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Over a series of films that began with Iron Man back in 2008, the Marvel team have refined their formula to perfection so their massive audience knows exactly what to expect. There'll be a hard-luck back-story, a Damascus moment for the nascent hero, a simmering love interest, a villain bent on global destruction, lots of fight scenes and plenty of undercutting humour.
We get all of that in Ant-Man, the 12th instalment in Marvel's ever-expanding but rather grandiose-sounding 'Cinematic Universe', but perhaps a dollop more comedy than usual, and with very good reason. Because while one might flinch at the Hulk's approach or dread the falling hammer of Thor, there's nothing especially terrifying about a hero who shrinks to the size of an insect and charges around doing clever little things whose significance will only become apparent after an embarrassing pause.
The idea that Ant-Man might be hard to take seriously was acknowledged by Marvel from the very start, and way back in 2006 they hired British writers Edgar Wright (Sean of the Dead etc.) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) to knock together something witty that might form the basis of a workable film. Mr Wright was also down to direct, but left the project a few years ago and was replaced by Peyton Reed. Will Ferrell's longtime collaborator Adam McKay also contributed to the finished script, as did Ant-Man's star, Paul Rudd.
And casting Mr Rudd in the title role is one thing Marvel and Disney have gotten absolutely right, because the baby-faced actor is perfect as Scott Lang, a petty criminal looking for a second chance.
When we first meet Scott, he's just emerged from a stint in San Quentin, a hell-hole to which he vows never to return. He's going straight, he insists, because he wants to be a proper father to his little girl. But after getting fired from his menial job at a fast-food joint, Scott is persuaded by his friend and flat-mate Luis (Michael Pena) to take part in one more daring robbery.
A rich old man is out of town and has left his San Francisco mansion ripe for the picking. Scott, a master thief, breaks in with ease, and skilfully busts open a giant safe. Inside he finds not cash or jewels but a strange-looking rubber suit. And when he takes it home and tries it on in the bathtub, he shrinks so small he almost gets washed down the plughole.
The suit, and house, belong to one Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), an entomologist and physicist who discovered the size-shrinking technique was back in the 1960s but kept it a secret because of its potential dangers as a weapon of war. Now his company has been taken over by a voracious megalomaniac called Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, giving it socks), who's close to unlocking the secret of Pym's work.
Pym wanted Scott to steal the suit, and now trains him to work with a small army of real ants and become skilful enough to penetrate the high security Pym Industries building and sabotage Cross's work. But there must always be a love interest, and Evangeline Lilly plays Pym's daughter Hope, a spiky young woman who believes that she, not Scott, should be wearing the shrinking suit. Will she warm to him before the end? Give it your best guess.
Ant-Man's plot is as formulaic and undemanding as it sounds, and the film is not exactly laden down with dramatic tension. It is, however, very watchable, partly because of the amiable and charming Mr Rudd, who could make you warm to Hitler if he played him. The humour is constant, and necessary, and Peyton Reed's camera pulls back from the hectic miniature action scenes now and then to reveal their squeaking insignificance.