★ ★ ★

Marvel’s Ant-Man centers on a superhero whose powers derive from his ability to become microscopic; similarly, the film’s central conflict concerns the eponymous hero facing off against forces much bigger than himself. After being created by the genius scientist Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the Ant-Man suit is transferred to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a smart, charismatic ex-con with a penchant for thievery. Pym enlists Lang’s help in order to stop his former assistant, the malevolent Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), from using his blueprints to create “Yellowjacket” shrinking suits and incite global warfare. After Cross effectively forced him out of his own company years before, Pym maintained a source on the inside: his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), a fiercely independent woman who’s still bitter that her father never let her don the suit. Unable to hold down a job due to his criminal record, Lang has no other choice but to take up Pym’s offer. Subsequently, he enlists the help of his best friend Luis (Michael Peña), an amiable criminal who packs a killer right hook, as well as two other pals (rapper/actor Tip “T.I.” Harris and David Dastmalchian, the latter wielding an amusing Eastern European accent), to infiltrate Cross’ lab and destroy his Yellowjacket formula.

The movie hinges on Lang’s wisecracks and charm, and Rudd does not disappoint. Skilled at both drama (Romeo + Juliet, The Cider House Rules) and comedy (Wet Hot American Summer, a number of Judd Apatow’s films), Rudd has the expert timing and nuance required to elicit laughs when the writing is too expository or inauthentic. The screenplay (initially penned by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, with rewrites by Anchorman director Adam McKay and Rudd) provides uneven dialogue for the characters, but it does give Lang an intriguing backstory that juxtaposes his petty crimes with his love for his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). Unfortunately, Lang is separated from Cassie’s mother (Judy Greer) and is only able to see his daughter sparingly; even worse, he is constantly on the verge of being arrested by Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), a cop and Cassie’s new stepfather, for his inability to pay alimony. Able to elicit laughs as well as project internal pain and turmoil, Rudd is an ideal choice to portray the character of Ant-Man.

Douglas is always a welcome sight for viewers, and his role as Dr. Pym is perhaps the most rewarding part he’s been given in a major movie since 2000’s Traffic. The Oscar-winning actor brings his A-game here, evincing decades of pain in his performance without approaching maudlin territory. Stoll plays Cross with grinning contempt, and manages to portray a highly believable villain even though his antagonistic nature is made so painfully obvious that he might as well have a neon sign that reads “I’m the bad guy” in all caps on his forehead. Fans of the Netflix series House of Cards can attest that Stoll has an innate ability to make us wonder what’s going on in his character’s head, and he puts that talent to good use here as the menacing (if clichéd) evil scientist. Lilly contributes more to the character of Hope than what’s on the page, but she simply isn’t given enough to do throughout the film. Dastmalchian is an odd choice for a foreign character, but is entertaining enough. The choice of T.I. as Dave the car thief is puzzling, though, simply because there are a number of other actor/musicians who could have created a similar amount of buzz in the role in addition to having stronger acting chops.

With his eclectic and impressive resume, it would be disingenuous to call Luis a breakout role for Michael Peña. But the fact remains that he steals every single scene he’s in with his excitable, motormouth brand of hilarity. His stories about talking to his cousins, which are intercut with frenetic flashbacks of how he remembers the conversations, are highlights, as are Rudd’s exasperated reactions to these long-winded yarns. Bobby Cannavale also excels in the thankless role of Paxton, the square stepdad unable to hide his contempt for Lang or his frustration that his stepdaughter clearly holds her birth father in high regard.

Ant-Man seems breezier than its 117 minutes, and succeeds because it doesn’t pretend to be a contender for the Marvel throne. It is merely a chapter in a larger saga, and enjoys its status as a fun lark in the dense tapestry of this comic-book universe. Director Peyton Reed (Yes Man) sometimes fails to hold viewers rapt during the parts of the film that don’t involve action, but Douglas and Peña help to bolster these scenes. Overall, Ant-Man is a fun-sized grab bag of jokes and fights that introduces yet another welcome and compelling member of the Marvel universe.