How much audiences will enjoy “Ant-Man,” the latest superhero blockbuster from Marvel Studios, directly relates to how much they enjoy Paul Rudd.
By stepping far away from the big, bruising characters like Thor and the Hulk or the dynamic Iron Man and Captain America, Marvel is banking on Rudd, a comic actor, to keep things moving in a positive direction as superhero movies become more and more obscure.
People who have never picked up a comic book had no idea what Ant-Man was prior to seeing the first trailer for the film, released earlier this year, and probably still don’t get it 100 percent.
Marvel has gambled with this same formula once before, with the charismatic budding superstar Chris Pratt leading a rag-tag group of space outlaws in last year’s surprise hit “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Charming as he may be, Rudd is no Pratt, but this doesn’t spell doom for his time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Ant-Man” is Marvel’s first true everyman, with both Captain America and the Hulk exploding into burly warriors. Rudd exudes the Average Joe character in most of his on-screen performances, with “Ant-Man” being no exception.
He’s aided by a strong performance from Oscar winner Michael Douglas as his mentor and original “Ant-Man” Hank Pym, who brings a level of authority and legitimacy to the film, much like Robert Redford did in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
On the other hand, Evangeline Lilly — best known for her work on “Lost” — feels completely out of place as Douglas’ daughter and Rudd’s love interest in the film. Lacking any gravitas, she can’t keep up in scenes with either Rudd or Douglas and certainly not the two together.
Corey Stoll, a character actor who broke out in the first season of “House of Cards,” is serviceable as the villainous Darren Cross, but isn’t given much to work with within the script, just like Jeff Bridges had limited room with which to play as the evil Obadiah Stane.
Peyton Reed, who hasn’t directed a film since 2008’s “Yes Man,” shows a little bit of rust in selected scenes that don’t quite fit the overall tone of the film, but on the whole, he’s stepped his game up considerably.
“Ant-Man” feels like a screwball heist comedy much like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” felt like a political thriller.
Marvel has wisely adapted each of its films to fit the larger cinematic spectrum, plugging new characters into the right holes instead of trying to cram each character into the same tired format.
The humor abounds in “Ant-Man,” perhaps the funniest of all Marvel films, with the scene-stealing Michael Pena delivering laugh-a-minute lines every second he’s on screen. His recounting of how a heist tip fell into his lap may be the best performance of expository dialogue in years.
While there may be some legitimate doubts about how Marvel can keep Ant-Man’s shrinking powers fresh in the inevitable films to come, the feature film debut of the world’s smallest superhero packs plenty of punch.
Ant-Man’s fight sequence with one of the vaunted Avengers midway through the film is incredibly invented, original and mind-blowing for hardcore Marvel fans.
While not quite on the same level as its spiritual predecessor, “Ant-Man” continues everything great about “Guardians of the Galaxy,” excepting the terrific “Guardians” soundtrack.
The film begs the question: Who knew ants could be so badass?