Stories come in all shapes and sizes and Marvel Studios has thankfully recognized that not all their superhero movies need to be blockbusters about saving the world. Once again directed by Peyton Reed, “Ant-Man & The Wasp” sequel to 2015’s modestly-sized “Ant-Man” is larger in scale, ambition, and size, but it never forgets the flawed, but lovable human at the heart of its little diorama-like story nor its objective of charming its audience. For all its new tricks, twists, gadgets, new characters and upgrades, “Ant-Man & The Wasp” is still essentially about an ex-con fuck-up (Paul Rudd) with a heart of gold trying to prove to his devoted daughter, his family, his colleagues and himself that he’s worthy of redemption.
Yet, there’s also a new hero in the title too, Hope Van Dyne’s The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) which gives the movie some extra dimension, literally and figuratively. And while “Ant-Man & The Wasp” is arguably never her movie, it does end up being a kind of ensemble piece about family. Reed’s superhero comedy makes ample room for Lilly’s character, the arc of mentor/scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the juxtaposition of Van Dyne’s sharp competency versus Scott Lang’s more rash, blundering and accidental heroics, while never losing sight of Ant-Man’s core ideas of making room for the little guy to shine in the face of doubt and distrust.
Perhaps most importantly, “Ant-Man & The Wasp,” a marked improvement from the original, also always keeps its eye on its particular prize: having a good time, creating laughs and entertaining its audience. The small-scale Marvel movie is not remotely revolutionary to the MCU template, but at the end of the day it’s very delightful and diverting and what more do you need from this type of hero?
However, back in trouble with the law, Scott Lang (Rudd), the Ant-Man, is testing the limits of the goodwill he earned from his heroism at the end of the previous movie.
Set around two years after the events of “Captain America: Civil War” and the Sokovia Accords—where superheroes are essentially outlaws if they don’t comply with government oversight— “Ant-Man & The Wasp” faces a gigantic ant hill of exposition it must climb. The movie has to explain why Scott Lang is under house arrest (fighting alongside Cap and the team was essentially illegal), what he’s been doing during this time (a lot of games to stave off boredom including learning magic tricks online), why he is estranged from former partners, The Wasp and Hank Pym (his forbidden adventures with Pym’s technology has made them both accomplices and therefore fugitives) and where his ex-con buddies are at (formed a securities company called X-Con).
Additionally, in the movie’s opening prologue, “Ant-Man & The Wasp” even re-explains the events of how Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) was lost forever in the Quantum Realm—the sub-atomic dimension at the core of our molecular physics—sacrificing herself for the great good (already shown in ‘Ant-Man 1.’)
Wisely, director Peyton Reed and his ‘AMATW’ writers (all five of them) use every exposition dump as a creative opportunity, finding a comic and clever way to relay important “catch up” information—some of it through the anxious hyper talking Luis (scene-stealer Michael Peña), and some of it through the awkward, lonely FBI agent Jimmy Woo (scene-stealer Randall Park, who one hopes has a long stay within the MCU).
The gist of the movie is this: having somehow escaped the inescapable Quantum Realm in the first move, Scott Lang is suffering strange post-trip visions and experiences that hint at the Janet Van Dyne’s survival. 30 years later, she may be alive somewhere in this micro realm and this revelation soon brings him back in contact with Hope Van Dyne and Pym who are still pissed at him for irresponsibly endangering them all and inadvertently making them fugitives from the law. The movie, in short, is about finding Janey Van Dyne and pulling off the impossible in what amounts to looking for needle in the haystack of another dimension.
Obstacles appear in the form of Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a mysterious antagonist that can phase in and out of matter (much like Kitty Pryde from The X-Men if you want superhero context), Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), an old ex-SHIELD colleague of Hank Pym and Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) a low-level criminal who wants the quantum tech that Pym has created which he believes is an untapped multi-billion-dollar industry. For all its threads — and there are many, and yes, sometimes cluttered — the basic plot is, the heroes trying to find Janet and the bad guys trying to steal the tech they need so bad for various different reasons.
Credited to five different writers (one of them including Rudd), “Ant-Man And The Wasp” most resembles “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and even features two of those same writers. It grapples with post-‘Civil War’ events, it’s a stand-alone story (even more so than the ‘Spidey’ film which is heavily connected to Iron Man), and it’s smaller in scale and more character-driven. The superhero comedy also has a lot to juggle—the aforementioned two hero stories, one sub-villain plot and the victim-of-circumstance antagonist—and then dovetail them all together. While the middle act does sag a little and the enjoyment level dips when things become more serious/convoluted and the movie gets all action-y, Reed and Co. still find a way to weave in jokes, gags, and amusement.
This is arguably the triumph of the more skilled, better-shot action setpieces. Almost all of them are centered around a clever and funny kind of action prank, but never feel too manufactured despite being clearly reverse engineered. Moreover, “Ant-Man & The Wasp” seems to cement its own identity and Reed finally moves from under the large shadow that initial filmmaker Edgar Wright—who was supposed to direct ‘Ant-Man 1’—cast over the franchise.
FYI, Fans looking for connections to “Avengers: Infinity War” will have come to the wrong place, Reed’s movie, as mentioned, is its own affair, and even the post-credits only really hint at ‘Infinity War’ rather than deliver any major clues.
Sometimes, you just wish “Ant-Man & The Wasp” would just stay a straight up comedy that uses Luis as much as possible; the movie excels in its humorous approach. All the family stuff totally work too, the Peña gang stuff is always hilarious and the squabbling trio of Rudd, Lilly, and Douglas have formed great chemistry. But then it wouldn’t have as big a heart as it does: Reed’s movie about parents and the relationships to their children give the movie a warm, heartfelt center theme that it returns to at just the right moments.
While a little disorderly in its plotting, “Ant-Man & The Wasp” somehow manages to organize laughs, action, theme, small MCU connections and even fairly touching ideas about family, responsibility and what it means to be a hero all housed inside of an undersized blockbuster. It never comes close to reinventing the wheel and it might even be a little slight, but for what it is and based on its own merits “Ant-Man & The Wasp” proves size is relative and always in the tiny eye of the beholder. [B+]