A version of this review was published at the Film Experience

Ant-Man is maybe the most typical film yet made in the now 12-picture Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is up to the individual viewer to decide if that's a compliment or a vicious & lacerating criticism. But it's really hard to think of it as anything other than a factory-pressed rebuild of the same basic story beats, character arc, gags, and conflicts that have become locked-in through Marvel's seven-year multifranchise experiment.

The film's distinguishing elements are all at the margins: in the hands of director Peyton Reed (who is much more in Yes Man-style "mercenary hack" mode than Down with Love-style "crafty stylist" mode), this is the most generously comic of all Marvel films to date, with the zippiest, silliest performances; the stakes are refreshingly low, and there's no aerial battle with the fate of nations and worlds at stakes in the final act. The cinematography by Russell Carpenter - an Oscar winner for Titanic - is distinctly more interesting than anything in any Marvel movie so far, with something resembling a thought-out purpose for the muted lighting. In concert with the production design by Shepherd Frankel and Marcus Rowland, it strips back some of the polish and gleaming surfaces in the Marvel movies of yore, to make a film that feels like it takes place in an actual world.

Behind the uncharacteristically soft visuals, though, lies a perfectly ordinary story, originally by Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, then revised and "Marvelified" by Adam McKay & the film's star Paul Rudd when Wright dropped out of directing in 2014. I should say, "perfectly ordinary at best", since whatever would have been true of Wright's version - and there's really nothing even vestigial in the script that tells me that this wouldn't have been his worst movie - it's unquestionably true that the corporate insistence on tying the movie in with the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most persistently-rumored explanation for Wright's departure, has had specific negative effects across the board. The film opens with a gaudy, stultifying scene whose awe-inspiring CGI avatar of a youthful Michael Douglas is its sole justification for existing, while its pointless introduction of minor characters from the franchise's established back history, is conspicuously unnecessary in every way; later on, the most spurious and least-interesting action setpiece, by far, is the one that exists solely to introduce a pre-existing character into the goings on. The dozen or so lines of obviously inserted dialogue self-consciously referencing the other movies in the franchise all clang uncomfortably against the rest of the movie - there is a scene in which Douglas, otherwise a cheery, charismatic presence, downshifts so hard to talk about Robert Downey Jr's unseen Tony Stark that one half-wonders if Douglas was trying to get the line snipped from the final cut of the movie through turning in a totally unacceptable take.

The less corporate Ant-Man gets, the more enjoyable it is, though there are problems that go down to the bone: the Marvel problem with boring villains, for one thing, has only ever been worse in Thor: The Dark World, with slimy corporate boss Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) steadfastly refusing to be interesting for any other reason than his arrestingly shiny bald head. But at least the plot tries to have something animating it. Newly-released con Scott Lang (Rudd), desperate for any way to reconnect with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), over the objection of his ex-wife (Judy Greer, in a role marginally less thankless than her performance as the wallpaper in Jurassic World) and her boyfriend Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), almost turns back to crime. But he is saved by Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas), a disgraced genius ever since his refusal to weaponise his miraculous Pym Particles. These particles, in combination with a contained environment, allow him to change the size of any human being down to the size of, well, the title makes it pretty clear what size Scott ends up becoming for large portions of the movie. The mission: stop Cross from selling the rediscovered shrinking technology to God knows what kind of shady characters. The stakes: two different generations of shitty dads attempt to reconnect with their daughters. For Pym's resentful offspring Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, making a generic "The Girl" role even shallower through her colorless performance) is his man on the inside, and she's disgusted by his literally patriarchal refusal to let her take on the Ant-Mantle, at least up until the sequel hook.

The littleness of Ant-Man is extraordinarily soothing after the increasing bloat and bombast of Marvel movies in the past few years: no more plot than breaking into a single facility, and the emotional hook of lousy parents wanting to redeem themselves but not knowing how is refreshingly intimate and humane. It's not always the case that the execution is up to the concept: Lilly is a tremendous detriment that the film has a hard time compensating for, and nothing that Rudd does can make the "criminal dad resents his burly rival for his child's affection" stock scenario feel minutely insightful, while Cannavale and Greer are just going through the motions.

But more of Ant-Man is likable than not, especially when it goes off the map completely to indulge most fully in comedy. The film's obvious secret weapon is Michael Peña, ostensibly just one of Scott's ex-con buddies and eventual helper, but beyond a shadow of a doubt the most captivating figure onscreen: what madness drove him to decide that the way to play the role was as a combination of a plucky reporter from a '30s screwball movie and the designated pothead from an '80s teen comedy is hard to imagine, but the results are truly impeccable. There's not a single line delivery that doesn't shock and delight me with its unexpected velocity; he's invaluable to selling the film's best conceit (which feels like Wright through and through, but it's been confirmed as a wholly new invention of Peyton Reed's tenure), in which he narrates nested flashbacks through a flurry of zoned out, slangy patter. I frankly don't want to ever watch another Marvel movie without Peña in it; his performance adds a lighting strike of weird, wonderful energy to Ant-Man and manages in the process to completely transform my expectations for what a superhero sidekick can be.

Even without Peña, there's enough bright comic momentum in the movie to make it fun to watch, when it's not going through the motions. The good news is, things never ends up in the latter rut long enough for it to detract from the film as a whole; the bad news is, there's enough of those longueurs that the whole movie, which is already overlong and far too slow to rev up, is rather sleepy and aimless, two unfortunate descriptors for a popcorn movie. Comic book pictures have been worse - comic book movies have already been worse in 2015, frankly - but they're not usually this indistinct.

Reviews in this series
Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) | The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008) | Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) | Thor (Branagh, 2011) | Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) | The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) | Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) | Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013) | Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014) | Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) | Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015) | Ant-Man (Reed, 2015) | Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016) | Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) | Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017) | Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017) | Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017) | Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) | Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018) | Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)