Let’s get this out of the way: If you’re walking into Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp with some sort of hope that this will answer any of your questions about Infinity War’s resolution or the possible next steps for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you will be sorely disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for a fun jaunt around San Francisco with a group of likable characters and some swell set-pieces, well, you’ve probably come to the right place.
While sorta-kinda underwhelming because of that earlier behemoth and its implications for the world at large (imagine if, after Empire Strikes Back hit theaters, Lucasfilm followed it up a year later with a good version of Ewoks: The Battle for Endor), Ant-Man is a perfectly cromulent palette cleanser from the intense darkness of that prior film, and it’s a nice way for Marvel to close out its pretty triumphant year at the movies.
It’s been two in-universe years since Scott Lang (the always-amusing Paul Rudd) joined Captain America and a group of rogue Avengers in Germany to battle Iron Man and company, and he’s been under house arrest ever since, having taken a plea deal to avoid real jail time so that, you know, he could see his daughter graduate from college in person. Three days before his sentence is up, he has an odd dream — one in which he returns to the Quantum Realm — and attempts to contact scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), now gifted her own winged and laser-filled suit, in order to find some sort of explanation for it. The pair believe that Lang’s dream might be the key to bringing back Pym’s wife and Van Dyne’s mother, Janet (a wasted Michelle Pfeiffer) from her exile in that bizarre and topsy-turvy world, and it just so happens that the pair are working on a way to get her back.
In short, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a race against time to rescue Janet, while also keeping Lang out of prison, while also avoiding a new super-powered villain and an evil tech dealer (Walton Goggins). Along the way, the threesome will team up with Luis (Michael Pena) and Lang’s old gang, as well as Pym’s old partner Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). So, yeah, this is pretty much a vehicle for time-compressed size-challenged set-pieces and silly humor. You know what you’re getting into here.
The characters are still great, and Rudd still makes for a weirdly excellent superhero, but a problem I had with the first one is only exacerbated here. The biggest issue I’ve always had with the Ant-Man films is how uncritically it looks at Pym, who is single-handedly responsible for every one of his issues and somehow manages to fail upwards despite all of it. He — and to a lesser extent, his daughter — are tremendous fucking jerks, who are only likable because they’re played by likable actors. He’s a Tony Stark who never learned a single ethical lesson, whose loss only made him bitter and shitty, and he never manages any personal growth: Instead of learning how to move on from Janet, he’s given the chance to save her. The closest the film comes to admitting any of his culpability in all of this is through his involvement in the creation of Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), the film’s super-powered antagonist who, thanks to an accident early on in her life, now fades in and out of reality and will potentially disappear by the film’s end, but even then Reed and his writers duck having him face any sort of retribution for his actions. For a series of films so intent on exploring the morality of its protagonist’s actions (with Lang being a family-man criminal and all), it’s just weird for Pym not to be given the same treatment. These films are ostensibly about sacrificing for family as well, and “finding one’s tribe,” but Pym and Hope never really grow.
Thankfully, most of the supporting cast from the original returned for the sequel, so we’re given more time with Lang’s extended family (Judy Greer and Bobby Canavalle return for some swell little goofs) and, of course, Pena and his gang of former thieves, now on the straight and narrow as a group of security experts (under the name “X-Con Security”). As always, Pena is a hoot, and he’s given so much more to do here: his monologues are even more unhinged than they were previously (thanks to some “truth serum” provided by one of Goggins’ goons), and there’s a Morrissey joke told by Pena that legitimately might kill an audience with laughter, much like a horse trying to eat figs did in the Greek philosopher Chrysippus.
To be fair, most of Ant-Man is full of laugh-out-loud moments — I like how the humor in these movies differs from film to film, and this particular sensibility, of puns and sight gags (Lang’s busted new suit being a source of plenty) and overdubbed Drunk History-style reenactments, hits me right in the chest — but there are some truly great gags scattered throughout (Lang’s difficulty securing a ride near the Bay might actually be a Marvel all-timer, and you’ll know it when you see it), along with a post-credits sequence so frustratingly funny that it might narrowly beat out Spider-Man: Homecoming’s.
But along with the genius casting, Reed’s usage of his shrinking and growing gimmick has never been better: He’s less reliant on another man’s pre-viz here (given that Edgar Wright was somewhat responsible for the look of the first film), and he’s allowed to mess around to his heart’s content. The action (improved by the fact that more things than the protagonist are allowed to grow and shrink this time around) and the VFX work are occasionally sublime, and around the time that Pym heads into the microscopic world in a little craft, I began to really jones for that James Cameron remake of Fantastic Voyage that was always teased to us back before Avatar fever consumed the man’s life.
There’s an oddly beautiful moment in which Pym, right on the verge of entering the Quantum Realm, is forced to stop by some sort of third-act action scene contrivance and observe Water Bears floating about in the flotsam and jetsam of the microscopic world. It’s a gorgeous display, and even the grumpy scientist is forced to concede its beauty, before, you know, one of the creatures tries to eat his craft. Sure, it’s not the best Marvel movie ever made, and it’s definitely not the best film they’ve released this year (coughBlackPanthercough), but there’s enough wonder here for any viewer, as long as they’re willing to look closely at it.