Every chapter in Marvel’s sprawling cinematic universe speaks to a bigger picture with its delicate balance of epic circumstances and mindless spectacles. Even if comic book movies aren’t your jam, the rhythm of this decade-plus franchise is a monumental commercial feat. It was only natural for the franchise to follow one of its most consequential installments with a light afterthought.
The playful CGI-laced heist of 2015’s “Ant-Man” was a welcome respite from the messy gravitas of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” earlier that year; here, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” provides a blithe, forgettable antidote to the sprawling apocalyptic circumstances of “Avengers: Infinity War” just a few months earlier. It’s everything you might expect from a witty story about a shrinking superhero and gobbledygook involving the quantum realm, and it’s as ebullient and disposable as the last one.
Of course, much has happened since then. One of the more amusing aspects of Marvel’s ambitious storytelling is the need to acknowledge the ongoing growth of its world. In that regard, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is actually more of a sequel to 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” than “Ant Man” itself. In “Civil War,” ex-con Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) joins forces with a faction of the Avengers for a monumental battle in Germany that doesn’t go so well for his side. Equipped with a suit designed by genius inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), Scott can shrink and enlarge himself with spectacular dexterity, but without it, he’s just a goofy divorced dad. Captured by the government and prosecuted for violating government laws regulating superheroes, Scott’s placed under house arrest for two years — right in time for “Ant-Man and the Wasp” to pick up the thread.
The irony is that the “Ant-Man” plot line doesn’t really need him at all. Instead, it’s Hank, the original Ant Man, and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) who face big stakes: Decades ago, Hank lost his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) in action when she shrank to the quantum realm to stop a bomb. He had assumed she was gone for good, but after Scott survived a trip to the quantum realm at the end of “Ant Man,” Hank’s having second thoughts. They need to send Scott back, but he’s stuck at his Bay Area home with an ankle bracelet.
So begins a rollicking odyssey that starts as a rescue mission and dovetails into a convoluted crime story. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” loses momentum as it mucks up the plot with Walton Goggins as a two-bit criminal intent on stealing Hank Pym’s shrunken lab; it also struggles to make a new supervillain, the enigmatic Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), into a compelling character. A nimble fighter whose body goes transparent against her will, she emerges as an unexpected threat early on, assaulting Hank and his daughter in the hopes of nabbing their research for mysterious reasons. Later, when the truth comes out, her dilemma has the stale quality of a rejected X-Men premise pasted into this otherwise genial movie because MCU’s wizards couldn’t place her anywhere else.
But these drawbacks aren’t the real selling point of “Ant-Man,” anyway. Director Peyton Reed again excels at exploring the comedic possibilities of playing with scale. Rudd’s blend of childlike wonder and bafflement at his suit’s abilities continue to impress, and they yield a terrific comedic set piece in one sequence where his powers malfunction and shrink him to the size of a child (he just so happens to be wandering the hallways of an elementary school, so the jokes write themselves). In a standout action scene, he balloons to the size of an elephant and rides a semi truck like a skateboard.
Since these moments epitomize the underlying appeal of “Ant-Man,” it’s unfortunate that the screenplay (which features five writers, including Rudd) weighs down the plot with a cumbersome feud between Hank and a former academic partner-turned-rival played by Lawrence Fishburne. (Douglas seems to relish the opportunity to play an acerbic mad scientist, but Fishburne just phones it in.) Pfeiffer’s character surfaces through a clever means of communication that ties into events from the previous film, but once she becomes a full-fledged character in the sequel, she’s a regrettable afterthought devoid of depth and beneath her considerable talents. The character barely exists at the outset, and once the movie calls for more development, she’s given nothing to work with (and seems pretty levelheaded for a woman who has been literally trapped in a psychedelic miniverse with no human companions for three decades).
Still, the essence of “Ant-Man” is inherently silly, and that’s where the strength of the new movie lies. While the introduction of Spider-Man to the MCU may have overtaken Ant Man’s status as the funniest Marvel character, Rudd provides an amusing contrast to the seriousness of his peers (at one point asking the scientists why they have to slap the word “quantum” in front of everything). He’s matched in several scenes by Randall Park as an overconfident police officer constantly foiled by Ant Man’s slippery escape tactics, as well as the ultimate scene stealer reprising his role from the last entry: Michael Peña is brilliant as Scott’s garrulous partner-in-crime Luis, who tends to answer questions with long, rambling stories that lose their way. (This trait reaches its apotheosis when a bad guy injects him with truth serum.) “He’s like a jukebox,” says one of Luis’ co-workers. “You have to let him play the whole song.” In a franchise devoid of Latin American superheroes, Peña and his merry gang of genial robbers (rounded out by T.I. and David Dastmalchian) are begging for a spinoff.
But the biggest representational issue with “Ant-Man and the Wasp” stems from its misleading title. Lily proved her action chops in the first movie and finally gets the chance to expand on them as a genuine Marvel superhero this time out, but she’s still relegated to the sidelines for many of the movie’s key moments (including a post-credits sequence that, without spoiling anything, left this critic wondering what might have happened if the characters swapped places). As the eponymous Wasp, she dominates one incredible fight, contorting her body into various dimensions as she takes out a pack of anonymous goons. But then it’s pretty much Ant-Man’s show, and she’s just there for the support — literally, since the forced romantic chemistry between them provides a constant distraction that does no favors to the challenge of deepening her role.
No matter its uneven variables, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” remains satisfying in that slick, crowdpleasing sort of way that became Marvel’s hallmark, at least until the shocking finale of “Infinity War.” That movie upended years of formula with a grim cliffhanger that left audiences reeling. Released just a few weeks later, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” practically feels like a mea culpa, or at least the opportunity to take a breath. At this point, no studio does a better job of giving the people what they want.
“Ant Man and the Wasp” opens nationwide on July 6, 2018.