By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
Like 2015’s “Ant-Man,” this enjoyably goofy sequel is figuratively and literally more ground-level than Marvel’s more mythological, international, billionaire-genius-centered or extra-terrestrial superhero franchises. And where “The Avengers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” are the studio’s metaphorical families, bringing together mostly unrelated individuals who squabble but bond, “Ant-Man” and “Ant-Man and The Wasp” are more like the real modern-family deal.
Paul Rudd returns as Scott Lang, an amiably dumb divorced dad who adores his almost sickeningly cute shared-custody daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) and has an amusingly congenial relationship with his understanding ex (Judy Greer) and her overly affable new hubbie (Bobby Cannavale). More or less stumbling into the hero game last time around, Scott has spent nearly two years under house arrest after picking the wrong side during 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” superhero showdown. (Chronologically, this flick takes place between that movie and April’s “Avengers: Infinity War.”)
This means Scott has been prohibited from contacting mentor and former Ant-Man Dr. Hank Pym (a gruffly wry Michael Douglas) or Dr. Pym’s no-nonsense daughter Hope (a fighting-trim Evangeline Lilly), because it was their tech he used in violation of the Sokavia Accords. (If you’re not up on your Marvel Cinematic Universe foreign treaties, just go with it.)
Days away from having his ankle monitor removed and becoming a free man, Scott gets a mental message from Dr. Pym’s long-missing wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was another shrinky-dink before getting trapped in the sub-atomic quantum realm three decades ago. Helping Hank and Hope rescue Janet would mean violating the terms of Scott’s soon-to-be-completed sentence and risking 20 years behind bars, but what’s a hero to do?
Complicating matters, a mysterious entity known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can pass through walls and everything else, has her own reasons for wanting Dr. Pym’s technology. She blames Dr. Pym for her father’s death and her multi-image phasing condition, which has turned her into a real-life version of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2.” (Snobbishly intellectual reference deftly inserted into funny-book-flick critique: check.) Very loosely based on a white male villain from the comics, the character now is a female half-Argentinian mixed-race hottie with a British accent. Viva diversity!
Laurence Fishburne joins the cast as Bill Foster, a professor who once worked with Dr. Pym on the “Goliath Project” before the two had a falling out. As for whether that means his role will be growing (ahem) in a future installment, check back later, same Ant-time, same Ant-channel!
Randall Park’s Jimmy Woo may be the most appealing minor character, an earnestly polite and endearingly friendly FBI agent tasked with being Scott’s minder.
Although the movie includes gunplay, plenty of frantic fisticuffs and an explosive flashback, one aspect of Ghost’s background—the revelation that her résumé includes Winter Soldier-style killing—feels inconsistent with the otherwise generally light tone. At the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum, a scene featuring Scott’s former ex-con cohorts engaging in silly office banter about Ghost goes on way too long.
Just right, however, is the movie’s funniest bit: Scott’s former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña) giving a rapid-fire recount of everything that has happened so far, accompanied by scenes of the main characters miming the hilariously paraphrased dialog he attributes to them.
Like last time, the special effects that minimize and maximize people, vehicles and entire buildings are a treat even when (or maybe especially when) they look laughable, such as when toy-sized cars look and sound just like toys racing down streets. And because Scott’s old Ant-Man suit has an unreliable regulator, he sometimes gets stuck at the wrong size, whether too big for a closet or short enough to pass for an elementary school student.
Rudd’s likeable charm as Scott is offset by Lilly’s tough-on-the-outside single-mindedness as Hope. True to the title, the winged Wasp participates in at least as much onscreen action as Ant-Man, and may actually be better at it. Her rumble with reprobates in a restaurant kitchen, featuring a very enlarged salt shaker and a mid-air run along the blade of a thrown knife, is expertly choreographed chaos.
Other highlights are a running gag about truth serum, a Hot Wheels Rally Case full of miniaturized vehicles, Ant-Man using a flat-bed truck as a scooter through San Francisco streets, and some colorfully trippy “Doctor Strange”-style visuals in the creepy quantum realm.
One interesting aspect of this franchise is that Scott and Hope are next-generation versions of earlier characters who had the same names. Dr. Pym and wife Janet were the original Ant-Man and the Wasp, both here and in the comics, although their comic-book bios have been significantly rebooted. As one of Marvel’s first female superheroes (originating in 1963’s “Tales to Astonish” #44, and becoming a founding member of “The Avengers” the same year), the original fashion-forward Wasp was known for frequently changing costumes, which was unusual at the time. These days, of course, every Marvel movie character changes outfits with new-toy-selling regularity.
The film’s weird science is obviously ridiculous (wouldn’t a shrunken multi-story building still be somewhat heavier than a piece of carry-on luggage?), but nobody who buys a ticket will be expecting an advanced-placement physics lesson. A bit harder to accept is the idea that Janet could spend 30 years isolated in the quantum realm without suffering any mental-health consequences. Then again, she was gone before the Internet arrived, so she didn’t have to worry about how many e-mails and tweets she was missing.
It always will be hard not to wonder what visionary fanboy-favorite director/writer Edgar Wright (who exited the first movie over “creative differences”) could have done with this franchise. Returning director Peyton Reed keeps things moving well enough, but without any distinctive style. The apparently gang-effort screenplay is credited to Rudd, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari.
Stan Lee reliably appears in one of his better cameos, and a mid-credits tag provides a deliciously suspenseful not-to-be-missed cliffhanger. Another scene at the end of the credits is less essential, but it’s good for one more gag, so don’t get antsy about leaving right away.