Paul Rudd stars as “Ant-Man.”

“Ant-Man” is the wittiest and most inventive Marvel comic movie I’ve seen in a long time. Thereby hangs a tale.

Frankly I suspected that it was going to be. Which is why I’m guessing that it will be one of the lightest Marvel box-office bell-ringers in a while. And that relates to the very history of the comic and the movie, too.

Marvel mastermind Stan Lee has admitted that way back in the ’60s, he had trouble convincing his artists to make Ant-Man small enough. They always wanted to draw him larger, thereby diminishing the contrast with his mite-sized essence and, say, a spider or a house cat. Nevertheless, Lee wanted to make an “Ant-Man” movie more than 20 years ago. The powers that be said it was too similar to “Honey I Shrunk The Kids” and that was that. No “Ant-Man.”

Hooey, I say. I think the powers that be simply reacted negatively to a movie that sounds too small to attract a big audience.

Add to that the difficulties that the original writer of this, Edgar Wright, had for so long dealing with studio types before quitting. This is a subject whose size gives executives heebie-jeebies.

The truth even now is that “Marvel” comes with certain expectations – big expectations, even for a “Spider-Man” movie. “Ant-Man” just sounds too small.

And that, in a way, is what’s so good and so inventive about it. In other words, the CGI barrage and bullying super-battles and urban apocalypses are sensibly downsized here.

What is found here make it one of the cleverest of Marvel movies – fast reflexes, wit and humor both (not the same thing), and enormous creativity in inventing a character who can instantly shrink from a full-size man to ant-size and then back again in a second.

In other words he can, as a man, run full speed toward a door with man-sized strides, instantly shrink enough to fit through the keyhole and then snap back again into a full-sized man.

Nor is that all. He can, with superhuman, antlike strength (they are among the strongest critters in creation), bash bad guys around and then command an army of ants while riding on the back of a flying queen ant.

Here is a superhero, in fact, whose ability isn’t just to lead one army of ants but, in fact, four, because there are four different species of ants involved here.

I found all of this so much cooler than the lame and bedraggled ersatz mythology of, say, a Thor Marvel movie that I may be cherishing “Ant-Man” more than is advisable. Here is a superhero movie that really means it when it believes size isn’t everything. (One of the happiest sight gags in the movie is what happens to a child’s plastic toy train when it gets to be the size of an 18-wheeler.)

The premise is this: Michael Douglas plays a scientist/adventurer who figured out a way to shrink the spaces between atoms. What this meant is that he and his wife spent years doing all manner of derring-do until one of their heroic gigs went south and she disappeared into the infinitude of atomic space.

He has kept a lid on the technology ever since. But his evil old associate (Corey Stoll) has somehow gotten his hands on most of it and his own daughter (Evangeline Lilly, looking weirdly like a young Lee Grant) is working with him.

Actually, she’s a double agent – just the one perfect for training a new conscriptee in the cause of keeping supertechnology out of the hands of world-dominating maniacs. That would be, eventually, a white-hat computer hacker and burglar played by Paul Rudd, or as we in the audience call him, Ant-Man.

Even when his face is at rest and he isn’t saying anything, Rudd has some wit just standing there. He embodies a wiseacre’s skepticism. The good news there is that he doesn’t have to do all that much on top of it.

He’s listed as one of the film’s writers and I have no doubt that he had his hand in a few nifty turns and wisecracks.

The working out of the plot is intermittently delightful, involving backyard bug-zappers, children’s toy train sets, and a disreputable van whose horn, when you press it, plays “La Cucaracha (Ya No Puede Caminar.)”

Let us now praise Jack Arnold, B-movie maker extraordinaire who understood in the 1950s how much fun it would be to put “The Incredible Shrinking Man” in the same movie frame as a cat and a spider. “Ant-Man” does old Jack proud.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

ANT-MAN

3.5 stars

Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Evangeline Lilly

Director: Peyton Reed

Running time: 117 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.

The Lowdown: Two maverick scientists invent competing processes to shrink and weaponize mini-costumed superheroes.

Click here to see the comments. Add yours now!