After the sprawl of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” it’s refreshing to see Marvel get small. Or at least smaller in “Ant-Man,” an amusing superhero adventure that doesn’t feel the need to make a big spectacle.
Among Marvel Comics’ silliest crusaders launched during its early ’60s explosion, Ant-Man wielded the power to shrink and control his insect namesakes. Somehow this was considered enticing enough to earn him a spot in the original Avengers lineup. As with last summer’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Marvel revamps, modernizes and completely improves the property for the big screen.
This upgrade hinges on star Paul Rudd, whose amiable presence does for “Ant-Man” what Chris Pratt’s did for “Guardians.” Rudd (who grew up in Overland Park) plays Scott Lang, a cat burglar just out of prison in San Francisco. Eager for a fresh start and partial custody of his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), Lang can’t even hold a job scooping cones at Baskin-Robbins without his criminal past causing problems.
Meanwhile, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a retired scientist and former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, is worried about the remarkable invention he developed and then hid decades ago. Anyone who wears his red and gray Ant-Man suit can press a button and suddenly stand a half-inch tall. But the technology is close to being replicated in yellow by shifty CEO Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who envisions the technology as “game-changing weaponry.”
Pym’s solution relies on “someone who can infiltrate a place that is designed to not be infiltrated” and sabotage the goods. Despite the protests of Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly in the haircut of a medieval squire), he recruits Lang for the mission.
The thief suggests a different tactic: “I think our first move is calling the Avengers.”
Marvel’s recent strategy has its superheroes inserted into genre pictures. While “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is essentially a ’70s paranoid thriller and “Guardians” a space opera, “Ant-Man” is a heist film. That separates it from other costumed crime-fighter flicks, but not necessarily from other heist films.
Thus, montages along the lines of “Ocean’s Eleven” introduce us to high-security barriers, surveillance alarms and machine gun-toting guards. There are practice runs where nothing goes right. There are muddled encounters with accomplices — in this case various species of controllable ants, whose unique abilities Lang exploits for the break-in.
He also enlists his former gang, a colorful trio of techie specialists (Michael Peña, rapper T.I. and KC’s own David Dastmalchian), who mainly contribute comic relief.
Still, no matter the alleged impenetrability of Cross’ sanctuary, we can’t help ask, “Couldn’t Ant-Man just …?” For a guy able to stow away in the shirt pocket of an employee, he sure takes the scenic route to get inside.
Director Peyton Reed (best known for the tolerable comedies “The Break-Up” and “Yes Man”) strives for a lighter, cozier approach. Despite some parallel narratives of daddy/daughter abandonment, there isn’t a hint of “Dark Knight”-style gravitas. (Reed was a last-minute replacement when “Shaun of the Dead” filmmaker Edgar Wright left the project, with Rudd and funny man Adam McKay added for a rewrite.)
The humorous elements work fine, one benefit from casting an endearing comedy veteran rather than a “serious” action star. But it’s actually the adventure/special effects moments that stand out, with astonishing miniature trips involving bathtubs, vacuums and a dance party.
For once, the finale doesn’t involve faceless hordes attacking a collection of heroes (as in both “Avengers” flicks and the third “Iron Man”). Instead, Reed crafts a showdown between two tiny warriors that takes place entirely in a kid’s cheery bedroom. It’s both spectacular and hilarious.
“Ant-Man” becomes the first Marvel movie to deliver a third act that’s better than the first two. That’s no small feat.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated: PG-13 | Time: 1:57