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Marvel Studios' 'Ant-Man' shrinks to conquer

Breezy, bug-based heist film lightens up angsty superheroics

Superhero movies, even ones as silly as Marvel Studios' modest Ant-Man, have become all about redemption arcs. Powered-up protagonists like Iron Man can't just save innocent bystanders, they have to save themselves over the course of a story. Flawed protagonists may have become so common as a way to make entertainment with juvenile comic book roots more compelling for grown-up movie audiences.

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The more pressing question isn't whether Ant-Man can redeem himself, but whether actor Paul Rudd and director Peyton Reed can redeem Ant-Man. The film is based on an obscure Marvel Comics character who'd be a hard sell to audiences, despite being one of the Avengers' founding members. More seriously, the film's original writer/director, Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright, left the project over creative differences at the eleventh hour, with Bring It On director Reed coming aboard as a last-minute replacement.

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Given the trouble, it's no surprise that Ant-Man features conspicuous tonal shifts and feels awkwardly cobbled together. But Reed and Rudd embrace the film's outlandish premise with high spirits, bringing to Ant-Man a sense of fun that you don't often find into today's angsty, apocalyptic hero films. Filmed at Atlanta's Pinewood Studios, its breeziness feels in keeping with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and the other live-action comedy adventures of Marvel Studios' parent company, Disney. In a good way.

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The first act runs on parallel tracks. Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), aging inventor of shrinking technology and retired as a secret, size-changing hero, is dismayed to see his old company usurped by former assistant Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who has reverse-engineered Hank's tech for military purposes. Meanwhile, socially conscious cat burglar Scott Lang (Rudd) leaves prison and struggles to go straight and reconnect with his daughter.

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Desperate to get ahead, Scott follows a tip from his former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña), breaks into a home, and steals what he believes is just a motorcycle suit. Trying it on, he discovers that "the Ant-Man suit" can shrink him to minuscule proportions, setting off a surreal set piece involving Scott trying to escape from a giant bathtub and vacuum cleaner. Hank wants Scott to use the suit to break into Darren's building, over the objections of the former's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly).

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Hank also trains Scott in the ability to control ants, and when the ants come marching in, the film finds its voice after an uncertain first act. The insects aren't overly anthropomorphized, but they make for great sight gags and foils for the nonplussed Scott.

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Nevertheless, the innately likable Rudd struggles a bit with his contradictory role. Rudd and his Anchorman director Adam McKay rewrote Wright and Joe Cornish's original script, which seems uncertain on whether Scott is a master thief, white-collar whistle-blower, nobly suffering martyr to the system, or an awkward doof. (It makes you appreciate the writing and performance of Chris Pratt's heroic jackass in Guardians of the Galaxy.)

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Many of the lead actors seem planted in the frame, although Lilly gets some strong moments playing off the father-daughter tensions, and Stoll seems to be having a whale of a time as a Lex Luthor-esque villain. While Peña gives a crowd-pleasing performance as a boyishly chatty criminal, his scenes feel out of sync to the rest of the movie. The sheer quantity of comic relief involving Luis' street-wise buddies seems misjudged. Do you really need laugh breaks in a film whose big set piece involves an inch-high man and a bunch of bugs breaking into an office building?

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Ant-Man's best gags stem organically from the premise — you may have seen the one involving a menacing Thomas the Tank Engine toy in the trailer. Even a slapstick cameo that links the film to Marvel's biggest property serves to advance Ant-Man and the movie's stakes. Ant-Man is unlikely to be anyone's favorite superhero movie, and we'll never know if a smoother production would have led to a stronger film. (3 out of 5 stars)

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