Honey, I shrunk the superhero: 'Ant-Man' is a bite-size delight (review)

Marvel ups the ant-e with easily one of the funniest superhero movies yet. Here's our spoiler-free review.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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When actor Paul Rudd told his son he was going to play a superhero and that superhero was Ant-Man, the 9-year-old said, "I can't wait to see how stupid that'll be." When Marvel first announced a movie based on the minihero, my reaction was pretty similar -- but "Ant-Man" turns out to be one of the best Marvel movies so far, judging from an early screening I attended. The movie opens in theatres in Australia on 16 July and the UK and US on 17 July.

The character of Ant-Man first appeared in Marvel comics in 1962. His powers include the ability to shrink down to microscopic size and talk to ants. When the movie was first mooted 10 years ago, these wacky abilities clashed with the grim 'n' gritty tone of superhero movies in recent years -- but this was before Marvel gambled on making superheroes fun again with "Thor", "The Avengers" and "Guardians of the Galaxy".

What really gave us high hopes for the movie was the hiring of director Edgar Wright -- responsible for cult comedies such as "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" -- to write and direct. With Paul Rudd cast in the lead, it looked as if "Ant-Man" might actually work. But then Wright dropped out just before shooting commenced.

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Fortunately, Marvel didn't shrink from the challenge. And despite the last-minute wobble, "Ant-Man" is easily the funniest Marvel movie yet -- if not the funniest comedy I've seen for a while. Almost every scene links to the next with a gag. Rudd's sardonic performance stays just the right side of knowingness. Pretty much every gag lands. And in my screening, the audience erupted in spontaneous joyous applause not once, not twice, but four times. (That's not counting the Marvel fans losing their minds at both the midcredit and postcredit stings. Stay in your seats when the credits roll, folks.)

Rudd plays Scott Lang, a small-time thief who becomes a small-size superhero when he inherits shrinking technology from former Ant-Man Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas. Among the supporting cast, all of whom get their share of laughs, the standout is Michael Peña, who steals every scene.

Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang -- aka Ant-Man -- and also had a hand in the script. Marvel

In the dialogue and visuals, the influence of original director Edgar Wright and his co-writer, "Attack the Block" helmer Joe Cornish, is still clear. The film features so many of Wright's signature visual tricks, like whip-pans and comic montages, it almost feels like Wright-lite. But director Peyton Reed has discussed how those two montage scenes -- both hilarious highlights -- were actually added after Wright left, as was a mind-bending Kubrickian sequence that takes the film into unexpectedly experimental territory.

Whoever's responsible, "Ant-Man" is clearly really well thought out. The size-shifting premise is mined for all it's worth in sequences that are both comic and thrilling.

And for once, the 3D treatment is actually a part of the story rather than a surface gloss slapped on to bump up the ticket price. When I chatted with Edgar Wright a couple of years ago, he described how he would consider shooting a movie in three dimensions only "if there was something within the story where it really worked," referring to the "out-of-body experience" that both characters and audience experienced in "Avatar". In "Ant-Man", as in "Avatar" and "Tron: Legacy", the 3D effect sells the otherworldly nature of the character's transformation. A bathtub becomes a deadly tidal wave, a toy train becomes the setting for a high-octane, high-speed chase, and ants become an army of giants.

If I have to pick holes in "Ant-Man", the story is very similar to proto-Marvel movie "Iron Man", as both centre on two business types arguing over a suit. As in that film, there's a shortage of villains. And there's also a shortage of women in the dude-heavy cast: Evangeline Lilly is totally badass as Hope van Dyne, but Judy Greer is wasted as the hero's finger-wagging ex-wife.

Still, "Ant-Man" is one of the best superhero movies yet. Who'd have thought?