In the current Marvel model, a typical superhero film spends roughly 35 percent of its running time slavishly retelling the origin stories of its hero (and frequently its villain), 10 percent placing it within the continuity of the last few films, and 5 percent dropping hints about characters and plot lines coming up in the next film. This leaves us about half a movie for actually telling a story.
In its own way, Ant-Man manages to forge a lightweight path through the generic traditions, while inevitably laying down all of the necessary hints to earn its hero a place within the next round of Marvel films. It's not as portentous as most of the earlier Marvel films, nor as irritatingly smug as Guardians of the Galaxy. The tone stays somewhere in the middle -- it's silly as all get out, but played with a straight face.
There's a lot of back-story to deal with: Millionaire scientist Henry Pym (Michael Douglas) has created a suit of armor which, by reducing the space between molecules -- or some similar scientific-sounding explanation -- shrinks its wearer to the size of an ant. (He also coincidentally learns how to speak to and control ants, something that I would have thought fell outside the purview of a subatomic physicist.) Because Pym doesn't want his discovery used for military purposes, he withdraws from his own company, leaving it in the hands of his protégé-turned-bad-guy Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who is now on the verge of completing a more or less identical shrinking-suit that he intends to sell to international super-villain club HYDRA.
At which point Pym enlists the services of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a struggling ex-con with notorious burgling skills, to help him engineer an extremely complicated heist of his own company. (Lang has a complicated back-story as well -- something about hacking into a corrupt corporation to return money it had stolen from its customers. Despite this having made him a folk hero, no one seems to remember him.) All plot points firmly in place, Ant-Man takes off, with just enough special-effects-loaded action scenes, nods to earlier Marvel films and product placement to keep it interesting.
Much has been written about the film's troubled production history, with director Edgar Wright, best known for genre-stretching comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, leaving the film shortly before production began reportedly because the Marvel empire wanted a less comic, more superhero-reverent approach. (Other reports say that Wright objected to the product placement.)
Curiously, Marvel didn't really get that reverence. Judging by the credits, much of Wright and Joe Cornish's version must have stayed in, while later revisions were made by Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, both of whom are known primarily for comedies. No matter how much the producers may have resisted, it evidently remains difficult for Ant-Man to be taken seriously.
Director Peyton Reed's previous films (including the likable Down with Love) have been romantic comedies -- which may not be the most logical choice for an effects-driven action movie, but helps explain the film's determinedly lightweight tone when the action scenes stop. Reed brings a light touch even to the traditional hero/villain face-offs, as well as to the inevitable long stretches of nonsensical scientific talk. And once the armored costumes are off, the characters are comfortable comic types -- the lovable con, the wacky partners (including Michael Peña, who carries most of the film's comic relief), the ex-wife's boorish new husband, the kindly old mentor (Douglas) who shakes his head at the inevitable romantic link between his daughter and the hero. These aren't the most original figures, but they're something of a relief from the genre's usual chest-thumping self-importance.
Ant-Man Directed by Peyton Reed. Written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd. Starring Paul Rudd, Michael Douglass and Evangeline Lilly. Now screening at multiple locations.