It’s hard to say which is the most lightweight, evanescent and inconsequential of the bunch — Ant-Man, the Wasp or Ant-Man and the Wasp. But while pondering this conundrum for two hours, it becomes increasingly difficult not to notice that this latest entry in the unstoppable Marvel Studios takeover of the world is probably the most amusing film the company has made since the Kevin Feige reign began a decade ago. With a domestic haul of “only” $180 million in 2015, the original Ant-Man stands as the company’s second-lowest grosser during that period, so Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War will not feel threatened. But young summer audiences will nonetheless delight in the goofy, low-stakes nonsense the mostly engaging characters generate.
Black Panther instantly became a landmark by placing black characters and culture front-and-center in such a mass audience attraction. Now it seems as though Ant-Man has exerted a strong influence of its own by demonstrating that actors of a certain age can once again play characters decades younger. Having passed 70, Michael Douglas, submitting to the miracle of digital facelifting, three years ago paved the way with his entirely convincing turn as the fortysomething downsizing genius Dr. Hank Pym. Michelle Pfeiffer and Laurence Fishburne clearly took note and told their agents, “Hell, get me some of that stuff, too.” And here they are, looking (part of the time) as ready as ever for their close-ups.
Trying to slip these wispy little insect characters into a world dominated by the likes of Thor, Thanos, Iron Man, Hulk, Drax and so many bulging others was always a long-shot challenge, so it was a smart move to push a disarming sense of humor to the forefront in this series. Star Paul Rudd is the only returning writer from the original’s team of four, and replacing the departed ones are four more — Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (The Lego Batman Movie, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) along with Andrew Barrer (Haunt) and Gabriel Ferrari — whose marching orders clearly mandated coming up with as many jokes and gags as possible for returning director Peyton Reed to spin into the action.
The result is an effects-laden goofball comedy in which anything goes and nothing matters. Not that this is an entirely plot-free extravaganza or just an excuse for comic riffs. But the filmmakers are so cavalier about the idea that any of this is supposed to make any sense that there’s a certain liberation in not burdening two human-brained insects with the fate of the entire universe. If the filmmakers don’t pretend to take the proceedings too seriously, you don’t have to, either.
It’s refreshing to feel that the little corner of the universe known as San Francisco hasn’t yet come to Thanos’ attention. All that really matters for good-natured goofball Scott Lang (Rudd) is to serve out the remaining three days of his house arrest without lapsing back into his superhero guise. Given all the hubbub in the household, you can bet it won’t be easy.
Scott is under strict orders not to re-enter the Quantum Realm, but this is like telling Eve not to eat the apple — especially since the Realm’s pioneer explorer, Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas), believes his beloved ex-wife, Janet (Pfeiffer), the original Wasp, remains in limbo there, and Hank and Janet’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), is also a quantum physicist keen on helping out. Part of the film’s antic comedy grows out of Scott’s slippery maneuvers to elude the authorities on this score, and another part of it rests in the sort of flippant attitude that allows one character to snort to a scientist, “Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?”
But even more of the mirth springs from the fact that, in this installment especially, size matters. A lot. Part of the minute lead characters’ effectiveness stems from their minuscule stature and consequent near-invisibility, hence their ability to zip around mostly unnoticed. But now they can get really large on a whim as well, and so instantaneously that the filmmakers’ decision to essentially dispense with justification and explanations becomes part of the romp’s charm.
But the main benefit of this devil-may-care attitude is the running gag relating to the size of Dr. Pym’s top-secret lab headquarters. Since size-changing is the central given of this series, why not then logically extend it to a building, specifically the one where all the secrets are kept? Possessing this edifice becomes the prime concern of bad guy Sonny (an amusing Walton Goggins), and the sight of the building repeatedly being reduced from the size of a city block to that of a suitcase that can be stolen and carried around provides a droll kick, both for its own comedy value and for the way it intermittently pushes the silliness to the level of quasi-inspiration.
By Marvel standards, the film is reductionist in every way, and what’s at stake couldn’t be further from what lies in the balance at the conclusion of the studio’s recent mega-blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War. But therein lies most of its modest charm. Almost by necessity, it takes the low road, but its underdog status is embraced, even exulted in.
Rudd does more than anyone to set the mood by walking a tonal balance beam with a seriousness shot through with an irrepressible edge of goofy insubordination. While the sincere grownups in the room are played by Lilly, Douglas and Fishburne, the latter as a brainy former academic colleague of Pym’s, counterbalancing them with antic comic relief are Scott’s former small-time criminal cohorts (Michael Pena, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, David Dastmalchian) trying to make a move into the security business.
Given that there’s really nothing that the filmmakers could have done to disguise the truth of the matter, which is that Ant-Man really is a pipsqueak compared to the A-cast of Marvel superheroes, Marvel has done a pretty good job with its B team. After the heavy lifting involved in the studio’s most recent blockbusters, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man lays out a welcome picnic.
Production company: Marvel Studios
Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas
Director: Peyton Reed
Screenwriters: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barber, Gabriel Ferrari
Producers: Kevin Feige, Stephen Broussard
Executive producers: Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Charles Newirth, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Dante Spinotti
Production designer: Shepherd Frankel
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Editors: Dan Lebental, Craig Wood
Music: Christophe Beck
Visual effects supervisor: Stephane Ceretti
Casting: Sarah Halley Finn
Rated PG-13, 112 minutes