Ant-Man and the Wasp goes so big it can't go home again

By Leigh Monson

   The original Ant-Man was something of a surprise hit for Marvel; despite being plagued by the loss of original director Edgar Wright mid-production, the film managed to rework the Marvel origin story formula into a refreshing little heist film with its own share of wit and spectacle. At a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe looked as if it were about to collapse under the weight of its ever-expanding roster and interconnectivity, Ant-Man demonstrated that Marvel could make smaller stories along with their more universally expansive counterparts. It's a small shame, then, that Ant-Man and the Wasp foregoes the contained approach of its forbear, delivering on the promise of hilarious and inventive size-shifting action shenanigans while losing something of the small charms that made the first Ant-Man so memorable.
   Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is under house arrest for his unauthorized use of the Ant-Man suit while scientists Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) are on the run from the government for possessing their size-manipulation technology and are apparently very upset with Scott for having used the Ant-Man suit without consulting them. However, after Scott has a dream flashing back to his brief time in the microscopic quantum realm in the first film, Hope and Hank abduct Scott, believing he holds the key within his mind to direct them to Hank's wife and Hope's mother Janet van Dyne(Michelle Pfeiffer), who has been trapped in the quantum realm for thirty years.
   This would make for a compelling enough story on its own, focusing on the importance of familial relationships that define this collection of characters while functioning as a scientifically-inclined MacGuffin hunt for machine components that eventually leads to an exploration of a new and strange world. And, in its bones, that's exactly what Ant-Man and the Wasp is, but it's also such a narratively busy film that the emotional core is threatened with sublimation under all the competing noise. Not only do we follow the three main characters in their quest to save Janet, but we also have a subplot about Scott and his friend Luis (Michael Peña) developing a security business after reforming their lives of crime, a ticking clock of an FBI agent (Randall Park) keeping tabs on Scott as he supposedly remains under house arrest, a set of gangsters led by Walton Goggins who want to sell Pym's quantum technology, and a mysterious young woman (Hannah John-Kamen) who can phase through matter due to her own troubled relationship with quantum mechanics. This is a lot of narrative balls to keep up in the air, and while Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn't drop any of them, it also doesn't juggle them in such a way that creates even the illusion of a cohesive performance.
   However, what the film loses in muddying its emotional resonance, it gains in comedy and spectacle. There is an inspired running gag in how Scott is perpetually confused by the technobabble spouted by Hope and Hank, allowing the mountains of exposition the film throws to go by breezily and with a consistent wink and a nod. Hope finally gets to capitalize on the metajoke of the first Ant-Man – that she should have been the protagonist instead of Scott – by acting as titular co-lead The Wasp this time around, and it's her emotions that drive the plot's critical mechanisms from point to point. And, of course, there are numerous gags and action setpieces built around the idea of shrinking and growing, whether it's people, buildings, or cars, making for some visually and conceptually momentous chase scenes that equally play with notions of incorporeally shifting through solid matter and fighting at varying scales in the space of seconds.
   Ant-Man and the Wasp is a fun movie, funnier and more action-packed than the original, moving at such a kinetic clip that it's practically impossible not to be caught up in the excitement. However, the beating heart of the franchise consequently feels buried under all the explosive levity, leaving you to sort out the emotional throughline amongst all the distractions. But those distractions are engaging enough on their own to justify the experience, and that's certainly enough to warrant the trip to the quantum realm.

3.5/5 stars

  
Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.