What follows is an extended version of a review I originally wrote for Punch Drunk Movies. Music-obsessive that I am, I call these longer reviews my 12-inch mix.
The original “Ant-Man” was a breezy and enjoyable surprise. I was hoping for more of the same with this sequel. After the heaviness of the last Marvel Universe film, “Avengers: Infinity War,” we could definitely use a lighter touch. On that front, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” delivers. With its winning humor and cheerful atmosphere, it’s an amusing and enjoyable two hours. But it has problems. Problems big enough that I ended up enjoying this movie less than its predecessor.
The story here picks up a few years after the events of “Captain America: Civil War.” Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, magnificently droll)—ex-cat burglar and titular Ant-Man, who can shrink in scale while gaining super-strength thanks to a super suit created by genius scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas)—having chosen the losing side in that stand-off of superheroes, avoids prison time after entering a plea-bargain that finds him at the tail-end of three years of house arrest.
Restricted to his home, a palatial Victorian style house in San Francisco (begging the question, how does an ex-con with no visible means of support afford a house like this?), Scott tries to be a good father to his young daughter. To this end, the film introduces his character with a cute scene of him and Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) in the middle of playtime, pulling off an imaginary heist. Though only in Hollywood would playing with your children involve this much intricately cut cardboard and lighting, and a slide that runs through 3 floors of a spiral staircase. Oh well, it looks cool, so I’ll let it…slide.
Three days before his sentence is up, Lang experiences a memory. Problem is, it’s not his memory. It’s from the long-lost Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hank’s wife and mom of Scott’s estranged love interest, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who between films has taken on the alter-ego of The Wasp (not sure why The Wasp needs a definitive article. To avoid confusion with White Anglo Saxon Protestant?). Basically, she has the same shrinking powers as Ant-Man, but she can fly and shoot unconvincing CGI blasts from doodads on the wrists of her super suit. Why she suits up, what or who she is fighting for, sadly, is unclear.
The film opens with a scene that values exposition over excitement, explaining Janet’s disappearance. 30 years prior, Hank and Janet were the original, miniaturized superheroes of the title until Janet shrank beyond a molecular level in order to penetrate the metal plating of a nuclear missile and disarm it (even viewed through the prism of fantasy storytelling, the logic here is dubious), becoming lost in the process to the subatomic universe dubbed the Quantum (you might want to get used to that word) Realm where space and time are irrelevant.
Who fired this missile? Where was it heading? Never answered. And strictly speaking, it is irrelevant. But the movie’s refusal to even hint at the bigger picture here makes it clear from the opening scenes how nakedly thoughtless some of it is. And it sets the tone for the movie that follows, which uses weak technobabble and vague motivations to move the plot forward. From the outset, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” makes it clear that exposition and explanation are not its strong points.
The film’s strengths lie in its humor and zippy pace. The pace doesn’t allow the narrative much time to breathe, but it stops you from worrying, in the theater at least, how silly the writing is. And the humor is consistently funny, delivered by a top-notch cast. Michael Peña, one of the funniest parts of the original, returns as Scott’s sidekick, Luis, with a particular highlight being a scene where he narrates a flashback while high on truth serum. That scene even had a screening full of critics laughing out loud.
Believing the shared memory to be Janet communicating from the miniature realm (the explanation for this involves copious use of the word Quantum, something the movie itself addresses with an, admittedly, funny line: “Do you put the word “Quantum” in front of everything?”), Scott is whisked away by Janet to her and Hank’s secret lab where they are in hiding after Scott’s stunt in “Civil War.” Even though they had nothing to do with his actions, the government, apparently, finds them guilty of collusion because Scott used the suit created by Hank—this doesn’t make sense, does it? The plot then kicks into high gear as Ant-Man, (the) Wasp, and Hank race against time (there is a time limit to the rescue because… technobabble. More on that later) to bring back the long-lost Janet.
Standing in their way are the mysterious Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) who can phase through objects and wants the technology that Pym et al. are building for Janet’s extraction, and Sonny (Walton Goggins), a black market tech smuggler whose characterization relies solely on the smarmy, villainous charm Goggins can do in his sleep.
Why is Sonny getting in their way? He’s pressured by an off-screen organization that wants to buy out Hank and Janet’s tech. What is this organization? Comic fans might be expecting A.I.M, a collection of villainous geniuses from the Marvel universe, and a possible set-up for villains of future Ant-Man endeavors. Alas, the group’s identity is never revealed. Turns out they’re just a cheap motivation for an extra villain who can provide a giant car chase in the finale.
Sonny is further proof of the film’s half-written nature, and that’s before we even get to the weak technobabble. When Hank and Hope’s Quantum Tunnel™ fails them, they turn to an old colleague/rival (Laurence Fishburn) for help. He tells them, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Did you attune the deflector levels?” Whatever happened to good technobabble like reversing the polarity of the multi-plane phase inverter, which could get the protagonists out of just about any situation on “Star Trek”? At least his advice didn’t involve the “Q” word.
But, you know, a part of me wants to give the movie a recommendation anyway. It’s a superhero movie the whole family can enjoy together. We don’t get many of those these days. And the movie is fun. I mean, even that poorly plotted car chase I mentioned earlier entertains thoroughly. If there’s something that stops me from recommending this movie, though, it’s this: “Ant-Man and the Wasp” has nothing more to offer, spectacle-wise, than what you see in the trailer. If you’ve seen it, you’ve seen the best bits of the movie. In a few years, when the trailers evaporate from our memories, it probably won’t matter. But right now, when we have to pay upwards of $15 or $20 bucks for a movie, this one’s just not worth the dent it will make to your wallet.
Note: Like most Marvel movies, this one does have two post-credit sequences. The first one is important. The second? Not so much.