A playful antidote to the emotionally devastating finale of Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel Studios’ next-up superhero saga, Ant-Man and the Wasp, is a joy to watch on the big screen, packed with light-hearted humor, narrative momentum and feisty action. A marked improvement over its origin-story predecessor, and on par with Thor: Ragnarok and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the new Paul Rudd/Evangeline Lilly starrer is an entertaining popcorn flick that serves as a diversion from the summer heat — and from our increasingly unsettling authoritarian reality.
As the first Marvel film out of the gate following the game-changing Infinity War, the highly anticipated Ant-Man and the Wasp carries significant heft in terms of what happens next in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At the very least, fans want another piece of the puzzle. Rest assured — and no spoilers here — while Ant-Man and the Wasp manages to exist in a temporal narrative bubble following the events of Captain America: Civil War, there is still a definitive moment that ties into Infinity War. Just don’t leave until after the credits roll (but you already knew that).
Truth be told, I was pretty underwhelmed by 2015’s Ant-Man, which felt surprisingly paint-by-the-numbers for a Marvel movie. Rudd was reliably engaging as Scott Lang (aka Ant-Man) and the comic-book concept kept my attention, but the movie as a whole seemed a little unsure of itself. With all due respect to Ant-Man helmer Peyton Reed, I just couldn’t help wondering what the film would have been like in the hands of visionary director Edgar Wright had he not left the project over creative differences.
This time around, Reed’s follow-up is a much more assured film that effectively mines his skilled comedy experience (which includes Mr. Show With Bob and David and Bring It On) and ups the ante with a deft mix of storytelling, action sequences, concept creativity and character chemistry. Not beholden to the constraints of origin-story requirements, this bigger, bolder new endeavor happily spreads its wings by adding Lilly’s refreshingly capable Hope van Dyne/Wasp heroine to the mix with a personal family story of rescue and redemption.
Crushed by the guilt of losing his wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), while thwarting a deadly missile strike decades ago, scientist/former Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) sees an opportunity to enter the infinite quantum realm where she disappeared — an alternate reality of microscopic space and time — by using his size-fluctuating Pym Particle technology to rescue her. As Lang is winding down his last days under house arrest stemming from his unlawful tangle with the Avengers in Civil War, it becomes clear that his own experience surviving the realm is the key to locating Janet. With time running out, Hank and daughter Hope recruit Lang to help them complete their quantum tunnel as they battle a number of threats, including a nefarious black-market technology dealer (Walton Goggins), a turncoat colleague of Hank’s (Laurence Fishburne), an FBI agent (Randall Park) bent on busting Lang and a deadly new female “ant”-versary (Hannah John-Kamen) named Ghost, who can shift between planes thanks to quantum realm–hopping abilities.
Going for broke with lots of nifty riffs on sight gags of extreme sizes, massive and minuscule, the film makes clever use of cars shrinking to Hot Wheels proportions in unpredictable chases on the hilly streets of San Francisco; everyday objects, like a salt shaker and a Hello Kitty Pez dispenser, growing to become formidable obstacles; and Hank’s lab scaling down to the size of a carry-on bag, serving as a neat back-and-forth McGuffin as friends and foes grapple to get their hands on his next-level technology. Like last time, actual ants have amusingly literal and figurative larger-than-life roles in the story, and Lang gets to be both ant-sized and giant-sized on demand when the moment requires it, this time with a fun-but-inconvenient caveat: His new suit begins to malfunction, so he struggles with a number of unexpected sizes, resulting in one particular laugh-out-loud sequence that finds him stuck in pint-sized mode and forced to wear an oversized hoodie as he sneaks into his daughter’s school to retrieve his backup suit.
With so much fun and fast-moving action moving the story along from quip to quip, Ant-Man and the Wasp still manages to keeps Lang’s emotional priorities straight. Being present in daughter Cassie’s (Abby Ryder Fortson) life is the most important thing to him, and time is made for tender moments between the two, whether it’s teaming up on a pretend adventure or having a heart-to-heart bedside discussion about the complications of being a dad and a superhero.
The crackling ensemble cast is really what makes Ant-Man and the Wasp click. Rudd and Lilly look like they’re having a blast. Douglas has a meaty role that cements his place as a Marvel mainstay; Goggins clearly relishes the chance to play a baddie with a goofy side; and Michael Peña steals almost every scene he’s in as Luis, Lang’s partner-in-crime, with his rapid-fire delivery and far-fetched “he said, then she said, then he said” tales. Supporting “wombats” Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian) have noteworthy moments as they attempt to carve a new path with their legit business venture, X-Con Security. And Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale are back as Cassie’s mom and stepdad, though they have no heavy lifting to do this time around other than provide hugs and moral support.
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With so many Marvel Studios back-to-back hits at the box office, one could easily dismiss Ant-Man and the Wasp as disposable summer entertainment, another packaged superhero product rolling off the assembly line. But that blasé sentiment may be taking for granted how special this movie is. Marvel has demonstrated an enviable alchemy in the way it can effectively introduce its lesser-known comic-book characters to the masses and make them inspirations — not to mention worthy of cosplay and Halloween costumes — to all ages. Prior to striking box office gold 10 years ago with Iron Man, Tony Stark was not a household name. The Guardians of the Galaxy were unheard of to most, save for hardcore comic-book nerds. But we all know them now.
Much like Pixar’s success in animation, Marvel has such an accomplished track record in making captivating superhero movies with heart and soul that it could make something called Lamp-Man and I’d likely be first in line. I respect the consistency of the brand, and I appreciate how Marvel’s films can stand on their own merit while blending seamlessly with the adventures of their shared cinematic universe compatriots, from Thor to Spider-Man to Doctor Strange and Black Panther. The Wasp is a welcome addition to the MCU — its first female superhero to get equal billing in a Marvel title — and the fine-tuned levity of Ant-Man and the Wasp serves as a respite from the shockingly heavy cliffhanger that Infinity War had to offer. It represents another creative victory lap for Marvel and studio head Kevin Feige, whose masterful direction of Marvel's massive, ongoing story arc makes it all look so deceptively easy.
Ant-Man and the Wasp flies into IMAX and theaters July 6.
David Weiner is a Rondo Award–winning writer who was executive editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and senior editor at ETonline before that. For fun he runs the genre pop culture site ItCameFrom and spends too much money on eBay trying to reclaim pieces of his childhood.