On paper, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” promised to deliver the same bloated spectacle that triggers Pavlovian drooling among comic book fanboys and make my eyes glaze over. It appeared to be closing out the 2018 Marvel Cinematic Universe triptych, started by “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” on a negligible low. The sequel to the titular character's origin story retains the same cast and director of its glum, lackluster predecessor, so why would the follow-up be any different?
Still recovering from “Infinity War's” numbing, headache-inducing bluster, I braced for the inevitable loss of brain cells. I also started scribbling snarky puns for this review. (“Rudd-erless.” We have a winner.)
Which makes it all the more shocking to report that this is the most thoroughly enjoyable MCU venture since “Captain America: Winter Soldier” upped the game over that most patriotic of superheroes' prior outing. It pulls off the same hat trick Barry Sonnenfeld got away with in “Addams Family Values” back in 1993: revisit a franchise with a nearly identical cast and production team, and then proceed to improve on previous material. This unassuming charmer is that most elusive of contemporary studio tent pole efforts: a goofy grin movie. Please feel free to not learn anything from this genial action comedy's less-is-more approach, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige.
Director Peyton Reed sets the playful mood early on, as ex-con-turned-do-gooder Scott Lang (the ageless Paul Rudd, who also co-wrote the screenplay) and his precocious daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) are finishing their own make-believe intrigue in his apartment. In one of the film's (thankfully brief) references to “Infinity War,” the formerly ne'er-do-well Lang is stuck on house arrest for violating parole after he went to Germany to provide his useful services to help out the Cap fight some intergalactic baddies. (For the uninitiated, Lang wears a suit that allows him to shrink to the size of an insect, which gives him super strength.)
Bumbling FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) is waiting for his chance to catch Lang slipping up again so he can send the reformed thief back behind bars. But Lang is determined not to screw up, so he can stay in Cassie's life, as well as be better to ex-wife Maggie (the esteemed Judy Greer) as a former spouse than he was while they were married. In this sense, the new “Ant-Man” is the “Despicable Me 2” of the MCU, insofar as Lang, like Gru, turns out to be an infinitely more interesting character when he's yearning to be good (and a good father figure) than when he was a criminal.
It's a quality that will serve him well when he unexpectedly crosses paths once again with Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (“Lost's” Evangeline Lilly), the father-and-daughter scientist team who worked on the technology that gave Scott his abilities. They seek his help so they can put the finishing touches on technology that will help them reach Pym's wife Janet (the suddenly ubiquitous Michelle Pfeiffer), long presumed dead in the ultra-microscopic quantum realm after a decades-old mission with her husband goes awry. (A pre-credits flashback sequence shows Douglas and Pfeiffer's faces digitally rejuvenated.)
That glimmer of hope when they realize Janet, a) might still be alive, and b) trying to communicate with them gives this Marvel sequel a heart-tugging dramatic undercurrent that allows Reed to take advantage of Douglas and Pfeiffer's overqualified screen presence while retaining that easygoing mix of laughs and thrills that eluded him in Part 1. (Feige means business when he says he's roping in major talent, Laurence Fishburne is also on hand as a college professor with a past connection to Hank.)
More so than a sizable chunk of the MCU's big-screen offerings, the “Ant-Man” movies rely on the banter between the actors than in elaborate set pieces, though there are some skillfully executed ones here that put a clever spin of the characters' ability to shrink and enlarge objects, often with amusing, if not entirely unpredictable results. The difference in this case (pay attention, fanboys, because this part is important) is that these sequences don't take over the movie as they do in other MCU productions (“Guardians of the Galaxy 2,” anyone?) A 'roided-up third act also marred last year's “Thor: Ragnarok,” another Marvel movie that discovered a lighter touch works wonders when it comes to this superhero universe.
By contrast, the new “Ant-Man is, for the most part, blessedly free of the housekeeping nonsense that tends to bog down so many MCU movies, all for the sake of interconnectedness. Reed (“Bring It On,” “Down with Love”) is content to have his characters simply hang out and chill, and it's in this element where Luis (Michael Peña), Lang's work associate/fellow cellmate, thrives. An obnoxious presence the first time time around, the character is now a welcome dose of comic relief that's administered in small doses. He doesn't wear out his welcome the way so many elements in the first “Ant-Man” did.
And, while it certainly adheres to the Marvel formula, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” also pokes gentle fun at the genre's tropes, not unlike director Taika Waititi did in “Ragnarok” last year. Enter Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins, no stranger to villainy), a wise guy with ties to black market technology who provides a hard-to-find piece that will allow Hank and Hope the chance to finish their shrinking machine (shades of Joe Dante's “Innerspace”) so they can go get Janet. But here's the rub: Sonny wants that technology for himself so he can make a bundle. Goggins' self-consciously arch line delivery is no accident. He is a “bad guy,” and you can almost hear Reed giggling behind the camera as he relishes the chance to put quotations over the Saturday morning cartoon conventions he's working with.
Those conventions also include a masked stranger with disappearing/reappearing abilities who seems to also covet the advanced doohickey that'll give Hank and Hope the chance to go ultra-tiny. This character's arrival brings about the debut of Hope's costumed alter ego, which is, you guessed it, the Wasp. If this all sounds terribly familiar and boilerplate, it is. What elevates “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is a genuince commitment to the characers' inner lives, a quality that the best Marvel films have, but also one that has been largely neglected of late in favor of world-building grandeur.
It's likely Reed's breezy, immensely likable summer release will elicit shrugs from Marvel fans hoping for a little more mayhem and destruction, but it's equally possible this film is one that will likely grow in estimation among the most vocal contingent of the studios' target audience further down the line. Old-school pleasures like the ones “Ant-Man and the Wasp” revel in tend to age better than overblown CGI. Who would have thought all it took for this critic to unabashedly like an MCU movie again was a big heart and Paul Rudd's hairy chest?
This Marvel hater liked it, so give it a go.
Marvel Studios' “Ant-Man and the Wasp” starts Friday, July 6 in wide release. The advance screening I attended was in 2D but it will also be shown in 3D.