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Ant-Man and the Wasp review: Even smaller scale, even bigger heart

Marvel Studios

For some fans, 2015’s Ant-Man was a breath of fresh air after the save-the-world insanity of many other Marvel Studios films. But that comic series’ small-suit, big-screen debut was still glued to Avengers plot lines, which arguably dragged its momentum and fun. (This fact may have caused a rift between Marvel and the film’s original director, Edgar Wright, who was rumored to have a sillier, more standalone film in mind before leaving Ant-Man.)

A few years later, the Avengers side of things is even more insane. Ant-Man was noticeably absent from Infinity War, and this week’s Ant-Man and the Wasp explains why: to give Infinity War haters a silly, one-off antidote. Basically, Wright’s reported vision has finally emerged, one film later.

Everything good about Ant-Man—its heart, its humor, and its brisk take on smaller-scale superhero action—is back and better. By focusing on its best characters, Ant-Man and the Wasp makes room for convincing relationships and character-building; it makes viewers give a crap about its cast… and forgive the film’s few imperfections.

The truth about truth serum

The sequel wastes no time establishing its confidence with a two-part intro, and it’s deft at summing the series up in show-don’t-tell fashion. First stop: a back-in-time reminder of Ant-Man’s powers, and a refresher on the first film’s subatomic drama. We watch the elder Dr. Pym (Michael Douglas) and his wife Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) use their Ant-Man and Wasp suits to save the world at the end of the Cold War. Janet shrinks herself impossibly small to defuse a bomb, and Dr. Pym thinks she’s been lost to a quantum realm.

Second stop: a modern-day catch-up in which Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) and his daughter stage a dramatic heist… through a series of cardboard tunnels that dad has constructed. (One of them forces the duo to crawl through “security lasers” made of yarn.) He had time to make this silly, heartwarming maze, it turns out, because of an Avengers-related arrest that put Lang in house arrest for years. This opening sequence, full of other elaborate set pieces, feels like the best stuff in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and does wonders to cement the film’s tone.

The two plot threads soon unite. Dr. Pym has been inspired by Lang’s ability to survive a subatomic journey in the last film, so he and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) create new technologies to hunt for Janet. When their first attempt goes awry, Scott has a bizarre dream… from Janet’s perspective. Hours later, Pym kidnaps Scott, believing that he’s the key to bringing Janet back.

Pym spends the rest of the film facing various demons—guilt about his wife, ramifications about being brash to former colleagues—while Lang wrestles with obligations and a constant feeling that he’s letting everyone down. Along the way, two villains emerge, but Ant-Man and the Wasp‘s best quality is its focus on the protagonists’ internal struggles, as opposed to pretending that either a sniveling mob-boss (Walton Goggins) or a phase-shifting lab accident (Hannah John-Kamen as Ghost) are going to top our heroes. That doesn’t mean this is some plodding emo film. Instead, the leads get the plot elasticity they need to cement their hero status.

Michael Douglas finally gets a version of Dr. Pym to sink his teeth into, as we get to see him organically shift between determined hero and annoying curmudgeon. Laurence Fishburne tees him up beautifully in this regard as his sometimes-peer, sometimes-rival Dr. Bill Foster. And Paul Rudd is freed from the burden of explaining away an ex-con past, which lets him spend more on-screen time doing what he does best: getting a rise out of his on-screen partner. That comes in the form of laughs (with returning scene-stealer Michael Peña), aw-shucks heart (with Lang’s daughter), and utter frustration (with another scene-stealer, Randall Park as a ragingly insecure FBI agent). As a result, Lang’s mix of stumbles, silliness, and determination gels together in far more convincing fashion this time.

Plus, honestly, Rudd is at the top of his comic-timing game here. Writing out his best quotes (“do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?”) does a disservice to his delivery. (Peña also deserves a giant nod for his hilarious moments, particularly a lengthy truth-serum sequence he narrates that plays like a Marvel version of Comedy Central’s Drunk History.)

Great film, wrong title

This is Evangeline Lilly's "why didn't I get better characterization in this film" face.
Enlarge / This is Evangeline Lilly’s “why didn’t I get better characterization in this film” face.

This nimble threading of two protagonists comes with a surprising cost: the relegation of Evangeline Lilly to the sidelines. She kicks butt in action scenes and keeps up with her dad’s experiments, but as far as a believable character, she’s the thin one here. Lilly is stuck with default, “I guess I gotta fall for Scott again” hero-worship. It’s an astounding oversight for a film that has the nerve to put her character’s name in the title.

Ant-Man and the Awesome Action Scenes might have been a better film name, as every sequence combines ingenuity, humor, surprises, and dramatic staging to put Ant-Man at the top of the Marvel Studios VFX pile. Yes, the top. Like in the first film, every punch and kick thrown by Ant-Man and Wasp is multiplied when it comes at a precise get-big moment, and the duo uses this to deal out such sublime butt-kicking that it looks like something out of a professional gamer’s finest Twitch stream. They get help in this deparment, as well. The best part about the new villain Ghost is how she can insta-vanish in a visually arresting way, thus making her melee dances against the size-shifting heroes look like next-level anime madness.