Every so often, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp manages to channel the same kind of lo-fi irreverence that made the original Ant-Man so memorable. To the new film’s credit, those moments come regularly, welcome blasts of fresh air; to its detriment, they serve to remind us of a better movie that we could be watching — one actually built on that kind of cheeky spirit rather than merely utilizing it to distract us from a cumbersome, uninteresting plot.
Reed’s 2015 film, one of the unlikelier entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, dispensed with the typical heroics and focused on the humor inherent in its concept: A mopey, down-and-out thief winds up with the power to shrink to microscopic levels, whereupon he can ride insects and mind-meld with ants and even kick some occasional human ass. Reed also foregrounded the small-scale emotions of the movie's storyline. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) was simply trying to get back into the good graces of his estranged family, especially his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson); the added complication of him now becoming a not-very-good superhero was a force that threatened, sometimes hilariously, to disrupt everybody’s lives even further.
This time, Scott isn’t trying to make a new life post-prison. He’s waiting out the last few days of house arrest after having been dinged by the Feds for violating the Marvel Universe's superheroes-must-register law the Sokovia Accords to go fight with the Avengers in Berlin, as seen in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, where his appearance was one of the few bright spots. But let’s not get distracted here. You don’t really need to know (or remember) what happened in Civil War. Just know that Ant-Man is now wearing an ankle monitor and stuck at home shooting Nerf baskets and fiddling with his drum set while dreaming of the day that he’ll be able to take Cassie for a real walk in a real park.
That becomes a problem when he gets wrapped up in the efforts of his mentor Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hank’s daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) to help retrieve Hank’s beloved and long-presumed-dead wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm, that dreaded subatomic dimension in which one gets lost forever if one shrinks too much. Hank and Hope have built a tunnel to that dimension, complete with a tiny submarine-type doohickey they can ride in. Of course, Ant-Man himself survived a brief descent into the Quantum Realm at the end of the last film. It now appears that some element of Janet’s consciousness conjoined with his while he was down there, suggesting that she’s still alive, stuck for decades in this infinitesimal alt-universe, calling out to her loved ones.
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That’s all intriguing enough, even if the fact that Janet is played by the always-luminous Pfeiffer makes the issue of whether we’ll get to see more of her later a foregone conclusion. But such a setup is apparently not enough to power a whole superhero movie, so we’ve got a super-villain, too: Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a mysterious figure who can pass through walls and other solid objects, and who has some kind of unresolved history with Hank Pym. There’s also Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a corrupt restaurateur and businessman who wants Hank’s laboratory, which contains all his world-altering research and can be shrunk to the size of a small carry-on suitcase. Add to all that the fact that Scott has to evade the Feds looking to catch him breaking the conditions of his house arrest, and the movie is just clogged with incident and subplots while running low on cohesion.
One of the first Ant-Man’s strengths was its refusal to play the annoying stakes-raising game of most modern superhero films. Ant-Man and the Wasp tries to have it both ways. It keeps the conflicts relatively inconsequential, but piles them indifferently atop one another as if to reach a prescribed level of momentousness.
The performances make for bright spots amid the clutter. Ghost's story is generic, but John-Kamen has a genuinely nihilistic energy; you sense that Ghost really wouldn't mind killing everyone onscreen if she could. And Lilly's Hope Van Dyne, who, of course, becomes the Wasp, has a higher profile this time around — an excellent development, since Lilly is a tremendously charismatic performer. (She was pretty much the only good thing about those stupid Hobbit movies.)
And the picture is enlivened by some of the same things that made the first one so endearing. Reed and Rudd deliver plenty of the goofy antics we’ve now come to expect from Ant-Man: size-change cock-ups, charming incompetence on the macho bluster front, etc. Michael Peña, T.I., and David Dastmalchian return as Scott’s bickering ex-con partners in the security company he’s trying to get off the ground, and their back and forth remains funny. (Peña nearly stole the first film out from under everybody else; he doesn’t come close to doing that here, which speaks to his reduced, tangential presence.) It’s disjointed, and cluttered, but it’s also entertaining in spurts. Is that enough? Just about, and not quite. Ant-Man and the Wasp overloads and underachieves, but it also never entirely squanders the first film's goodwill.