In the scene from Marvel Studios' latest superhero tale Ant-Man in which Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) first tries out the suit that can shrink him to the size of an insect, his greatest threat is being washed down a bathtub drain, or flung from a spinning record during a dance party. During one late action sequence, Lang flees from explosions that reduce the buildings and landscape around him to rubble—only the exploding surroundings are a scale model. In his climactic battle with an equally minuscule adversary, Lang hurls a train car—except that it's the 3-inch-long wooden caboose of a Thomas the Tank Engine toy.
We've grown so accustomed to the ever-growing apocalyptic stakes of modern blockbusters that even Lang's mentor, scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), jokes about the Avengers probably being off somewhere "dropping a city." And that's part of what makes Ant-Man so refreshing on a variety of levels: There's no assumption that the stakes for a rousing adventure must include the threat of widespread annihilation. It's a reminder that being a superhero—aside from, you know, the occasional threat of being blown up by a supervillain—might actually be kinda fun.
The setup finds Lang just released from a stint in San Quentin for a Robin Hood-esque burglary at a tech company, and trying to get his life back together enough to spend time with his young daughter. But a return to a life of crime seems like the only option—until Pym shows up with that high-tech suit and a unique offer. It seems that Pym's successor at his company, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), is developing a similar size-reducing technology, with the intent of weaponizing it. And Pym wants Scott to combine the suit's abilities—communicating with and controlling ants, in addition to becoming the same size and strength as one—with his own breaking-and-entering talents to shut down Cross's operation.
The planning also involves Pym's badass daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), and there's more than enough parental and surrogate-parental angst to go around, what with Cross fuming over not getting enough approval from Pym, and van Dyne wondering about the mysterious, never-explained circumstances of her mother's death, and Lang trying to convince his ex-wife (Judy Greer, wasted as per usual lately) that he should be allowed to be around his daughter. Virtually none of it works beyond the level of background noise, in part because it's nearly impossible to make sense of Lang as a character, including the specifics of his criminal career. Rudd may be a charming actor, but it feels as though Ant-Man doesn't really know what to do with that charm, beyond giving him a chance to flash that goofy smile a few times and letting him be endearingly awkward when van Dyne is smacking him around during their training sessions.
Yet that lack of an emotional center feels less frustrating when director Peyton Reed (Down With Love) kicks the action into gear. What the story lacks in fate-of-the-universe consequences, it more than makes up for in simple pleasures, combining the slickness of a heist thriller with the special-effects-driven fisticuffs. And perhaps best of all, it's the most playful comic-book story since Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, from the silliness of the sequence in which Lang's partner-in-crime (Michael Peña) discursively explains how he learned about a specific break-in target, to the sheer kinetic pleasure of super-human abilities. Gravitas gives way to what The Flash TV series is reminding everyone: Sometimes all you ask from costumed crime-fighters is that they leave you with a stupid grin on your face.
Because this is part of the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man makes sure to provide its connection to The Avengers (including an extended character cameo for one action sequence), and to set up Scott Lang's ongoing presence in that universe. But it's better at carving out this character's unique place in that universe, as a hero who doesn't necessarily need to be chasing down Infinity Stones and Tesseracts and whatnot. While Ant-Man may not have mastered giving its hero a soul, it reminds us that you can still have a blast at the movies even when the good guy and bad guy are having a life-or-death fight that can be contained inside a briefcase.