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Paul Rudd goes subatomic

In Marvel's 'Ant Man.'

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'ANT-MAN': Paul Rudd stars.
  • 'ANT-MAN': Paul Rudd stars.

The graphic novelist Alan Moore granted a rare interview last year that he promised would be his last. Densely bearded and reclusive, with a surly mystic persona that's part Rick Rubin and part Aleister Crowley, Moore has long been canonized for writing books like "Watchmen" and "V for Vendetta" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" — classics of the medium later adapted into dull movies. He had emerged from his proud silence for this one last public pronouncement in order to warn against the zeitgeist's zombie-like preoccupation with the same old Marvel and DC comic book franchises, the ones he'd grown up with and which we've never been able to shake. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man — they just won't go away. And far from being an innocuous phenomenon, Moore said, this was serious. It could be, he wrote, "culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times."

For now, though, we have "Ant-Man." He's a superhero who can shrink. And control ants. Marvel's latest addition to the profitable cinematic universe of "The Avengers," the film stars Michael Douglas and T.I. and Paul Rudd, described in a recent New York Times Magazine profile as "the MSG of actors." "Ant-Man" in some ways bends over backward to engage with the political moment, to speak to our "unprecedented era." Squint at it from a distance, and it's a story about the difficulties convicted felons face re-entering society post-incarceration. Or maybe it's about the military-industrial complex in the digital age — did you know that another name for a male ant is a drone?

Sure, but what's really admirable about this movie is its strangeness. "Ant-Man" embraces the tradition of kitsch-surrealism that most comic book movies try and shrug off in the sanctimonious Christopher Nolan era. There are jokes about Mark Rothko and the infinite vastness of the quantum realm. There is a fight staged in a briefcase and soundtracked to The Cure's "Disintegration." There is an army of glowing fire ants that coagulates into a psychedelic bridge. There is a bald villain who spends much of the film decimating baby lambs with a broken shrink ray. When the shrinking technology fails, it reduces its target to a viscous pink glob. There are times, in other words, when it feels like you've wandered into a David Cronenberg remake of "Mystery Men." And I mean that as a compliment.

The movie is being billed for its sense of humor, but it's only occasionally, lightly funny. More impressive is its sense of wonder. The premise of the story — that there exists a bright red formula for altering the "distance between atoms" — is a gift that allows for some of the summer's least sophisticated and most entertaining visual gags. Rudd falls through a crack in the floor onto a turntable in the middle of one of those giant tenement-house raves that only exist in movies. He clings to a groove in the vinyl as the giant needle approaches. Toying with scale like this is one of the movie's strongest tools: The microscopic perspectives transform everyday environments into science-fiction landscapes. A bathtub becomes a porcelain desert. A patch of grass becomes Mars. The real horror of the film doesn't come from some shady super-villain syndicate but from "going subatomic," which in this case means disappearing into pure visual abstraction.

Still, I suspect Moore would hate this film and he'd probably be right. "Ant-Man" was introduced as a comic book character in the 1960s and I'm sure he has his fans — plenty of them — but his following is not so impressive or timely that it necessitated a Hollywood film. It's not so brilliant or inimitable a story idea that it needed to be revived in this way. I understand the cutthroat capitalist logic of pre-sold franchises, that the only movies that can be allowed big budgets (or any budgets) these days are the ones based on pre-existing material audiences might recognize, whether it's best-selling erotica, board games or other movies. But "Ant-Man" seems like the bottom of the barrel, or close to it. Marvel's shareholders are just laughing at us now. Cede the stage, folks. Or tell me how I can invest.

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