Marvel has gone big with epic franchises like "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Avengers," but for its latest entry in the universe, it made the smart decision to go small -- in more ways than one.
"Ant-Man" follows a reluctant shrinking hero who is tasked with saving the world -- pretty standard fare for not just a superhero movie, but many action films.
But it's elevated by a seriously great cast and a clever twist on the heroics. "Ant-Man" is really a heist comedy, a sort of "Ocean's Eleven" with costumes and powers in which Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and his band of ne'er-do-wells, including Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (rapper Tip "T.I." Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian), take on a giant corporation, Pym Technologies, run by a power-hungry villain-in-waiting, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), and his right-hand woman, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly).
Cross was a former protégé of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a retired genius inventor who is rumored to have created shrinking technology but denies it exists. Pym is also Hope's father.
The movie begins in prison, where Scott is about to be released. He's picked up by Luis, his fast-talking former cellmate, who already has a new job he wants Scott's help with. Scott wants to go straight, but life's not easy for an ex-con, forcing him to take on menial jobs under fake names, which doesn't last long. Meanwhile, he's trying to be a better father, but his ex-wife and her new husband aren't too keen on his unsavory past and try to keep him from seeing his daughter.
Unemployed and without many options, Scott's back to Luis to talk about this job, which entails breaking into a vault in the basement of a rich guy's mansion. There he finds a suit, a new identity and a superhero is born.
Rudd has been a likable actor for years, going all the way back to "Clueless." He's taken the Chris Pratt journey here, bulking up to the action-hero physique while maintaining his endearing charm for Scott, who's big crime was of the Robin Hood sort.
Unsurprisingly, Douglas gives a strong performance, playing perfectly against Lilly's terseness and Stoll's mixture of brazen cockiness and menace. Peña is a serious scene-stealer, thanks to his wonderful chemistry with Rudd and his frenetic way of recounting a story.
Director Peyton Reed -- who stepped in for original director and co-screenwriter Edgar Wright -- has a background in comedies ("Bring It On," "The Break Up") which he uses well here in Marvel's funniest film yet. But that doesn't mean that he skimps on the action. The scenes of Ant-Man growing and shrinking look pretty impressive and fluid. Special effects clearly have come a long way since 1989's "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids."
"Ant-Man" has a clear connection to the greater Marvel cinematic universe, but this is perhaps the most stand-alone film they've done. The links and Easter eggs are there for super fans to giggle over, and with the inevitable sequel and further movie appearances notwithstanding, "Ant-Man" might be the superhero movie for people who are sick of them, or perhaps a re-entry point for those who have tired of all the spectacle and just want a nice, clean story and a hearty laugh.