(2015) *** Pg-13
117 min. Disney/Marvel. Director: Peyton Reed. Cast: Corey Stoll, Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas.

/content/films/4815/1.jpgBy the surprisingly satisfying extended climax of Ant-Man, the words of Orson Welles upon encountering a movie studio come to mind: "This is the biggest electric train set any boy ever had!" A famous adapter of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Conrad, Welles would almost certainly have scoffed at this adaptation of Stan Lee and company, but this "Marvel Film" lives up to that title by delivering what Lee used to call a "Tale to Astonish!" With its playful use of scale, Ant-Man drops a dollop of Lewis Carroll whimsy on the usual clashes of good and evil.

Most Hollywood filmmakers today consider CGI the biggest electric train set and boy ever had, and certainly a live-action film like Ant-Man wouldn't be feasible without it. That said, Ant-Man winningly conjures the days of The Incredible Shrinking Man and Them!, cheesy science-fictions, for the young atomic age, that likewise played with scale. Michael Douglas plays Hank Pym, the entomologist, physicist, and scientific industrialist who unlocked the key, or "Pym particle," to shrinking and enlarging organic tissue. The original world-saving Ant-Man, Pym convinces a protege–Paul Rudd's skittish Scott Lang–to take on the top-secret mantle of the hero with the power to shrink and command the power of ants ("Silly, I know," says one character in a humorously self-referential speech).

Both Pym and Lang are motivated by their daughters as much as by altruism. Lang needs money to get back on his feet after a jail stint, thereby proving to his ex that he deserves visitation rights to their daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). Pym lost his wife and crime-fighting partner, and so now lives largely for his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). She's helping her dad as a sleeper agent in Pym Technologies, now run by the murderously unscrupulous capitalist Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).

First-time action director Peyton Reed (Yes Man, Bring It On) recaptures some of the style and charm that qualified his Down with Love as an underrated pastiche of the waning days of Hollywood's golden age. Reed was obviously selected by the Marvel brain trust because of his experience with comedy: to the dismay of the Comic-Con crowd, Reed replaced Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), but Wright remains credited as executive producer, as well as co-screenwriter with Joe Cornish and Rudd & Adam McKay (Anchorman). The impressive comic chops of that screenwriting roster, and the imagination of Wright and Cornish leave fingerprint impressions on this finished product.

Ant-Man amounts to a hybrid of a superhero origin story and a heist comedy. Though it has a few slow moments before that rip-roaring third act, and a couple of gaping plot holes, Ant-Man earns a comparison to the nimble picture that started "Phase One" of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”: Iron Man. The quick-witted Rudd (sporting a fresh “buff” and shine) gets support from another of Marvel’s impressive acting ensembles (also including Michael Peña as hilariously chipper comic relief), Christophe Beck adds energy with a snazzy score, and the special effects dazzle. Best of all–and who woulda thunk it?–Ant-Man is a superhero movie that thinks faster than you do. What do you know? Big things can come in small packages.

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