ANT-MAN ***

This newest addition to Marvel’s increasingly tiresome Cinematic Universe of Superheroes follows the same old storylines as all the rest (with minor variations, of course), but is spared a la-dee-da two-star rating by its smaller, more personal scope, a bit of catchy writing, and the strong performance of one of its more unlikely stars.

Unfortunately, that strong performances doesn’t come from lead actor Paul Rudd, who gives a yeoman’s effort in his cardboard-cutout role as Scott Lang, an ex-con trying to go straight and patch things up with his ex-wife and daughter (an irresistible Abby Ryder Fortson), finds the deck stacked against him, so takes the plunge back into his criminal past in order to make child support payments.  This links him up with his former heist-mates, a trio of doofaces led by Luis, played with hilarious goofiness by Michael Pena.  Too bad the once-in-a-while snappy writing gives Pena all the good lines and hysterical flashback voice-overs and the kid all the cuteness.  Rudd, with his by-the-numbers role, “glows” like a burnt marshmallow in comparison.

His star dims even further when his latest escapade with Luis and company leads him to an ancient safe not filled with money, but with a curious suit that he tries on, and accidentally shrinks himself to ant-size in it, and is soon on the run from bathtub water, a curious mouse, a vacuum cleaner, and other horrors.  Though the action is fun, the lines are just more yadda-yadda, and when Scott again accidentally re-sizes himself to normal, he’s caught by the cops and thrown in jail.

There, he meets his “lawyer,” who is actually Hank Pym, the disgraced scientist who created the suit in the first place (and the tech behind it) and is now out to stop his usurper (another cardboard-cutout), bad guy Cross (Cory Stoll), from using his shrinking secret to create a mercenary army of mini-super soldiers.  Though Pym’s character isn’t much more interesting than any other in this tale, he’s elevated to a level far above all the other cutouts by a seriously superior performance by none other than the venerable Michael Douglas.

Douglas may be aging, but his dominating screen presence hasn’t faded in the slightest.  From his first moments on-screen in a portentous prologue, the “man” of the cast strolls through his scenes like a king among his adoring subjects, his mere presence lifting everybody’s game around him.  While he can’t do anything about the ho-hum story and script, his exquisitely nuanced delivery deftly brings out the deep-down good in Scott, the insidious bad in Cross, and both the bold and the beautiful in his daughter Hope (cleverly played by rising action star Evangeline Lilly).  A “supporting role” hasn’t been played so dominantly in mainstream movies in a long time, perhaps not even since Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow stole the show in the original Pirates of the Caribbean film.  While one might wonder what an Academy Award-winner is doing in such a painfully average, run-of-the-mill Marvel superhero romp, Douglas wrings every last drop out of the opportunity, literally putting the film on his shoulders and carrying it to a level way beyond where it normally would be.

And, despite the rather annoying references to The Avengers and the appearance of a couple of them in brief cameos, it was nice (for once) that the fate of the planet wasn’t at stake here.  The bombastic arrogance of Marvel’s movies has become increasingly nauseous to me, and it was nice, for once, to see the stakes of the story revolving more around a good man’s attempt to overcome his past and recapture the admiration of his daughter rather than save the world from imminent destruction in some gargantuan, effects-driven climax.  Don’t get me wrong–there’s still an effects-driven climax (what superhero movie could exist without one…), but it’s just so pleasantly smaller and less “you can’t be serious”-inspiring than so many of the other ones.

So, while Ant-Man is in many ways among the most mundane of today’s increasingly mundane superhero flicks, it gets a big boost from the incomparable Douglas, and sparkles with a number of sweet and humorous touches that make it well worth at least a matinee with the family, of whom most all that are beyond the babes-in-strollers stage will find something to enjoy in it.