Where other so-called “franchises” fall into monotony, Marvel Studios under Disney has an uncanny knack for shifting gears, so that just after we’ve been softened up — or, rather, pulped — by the scorched-earth epic, Avengers: Infinity War, we get the hearty slapstick family comedy, Ant Man and the Wasp. I liked it. It’s a way more expensive version of the second-rate but congenial farces that Disney churned out when I was a kid, like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes with Kurt Russell (who’d just as soon purge it from his memory banks) or any of the movies with Dean Jones and a cat, a big dog, a pirate’s ghost, or a sentient Volkswagen. In this kind of film, no one dies, not even bad guys. They sit on a curb in handcuffs, glowering and doing variations on, “Curses, foiled again!” It’s busy, harmless fun. Very, very busy.
Mr. Congeniality Paul Rudd returns as San Francisco hacker Scott Lang, completing his second year of house arrest after helping Captain America go mano a mano a mano a mano a mano etc. with Iron Man & Co. in Berlin in Captain America: Civil War. Although Scott has no intention of getting very small or very big any time soon (he could go to prison for 20 years and wouldn’t be around for his little daughter, Cassie, played by Abby Ryder Fortson), he has a peculiar link to Janet Van Dyne, lost lo these many years ago in subatomic “quantum realm” from which Scott managed to escape at the end of Ant Man.
Fugitives Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his and Janet’s daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), kidnap Scott, shrink him down, and whisk him away to their laboratory in an enormous building that can also be carried like a briefcase — or stolen. Hope wants Scott to help locate her mom. But even though they had a thing, she’s pissed at him that he didn’t invite her to Berlin. Seriously, that’s why she hates him. She’s now the Wasp, with little wings that make her look like a kung fu Tinkerbell, and she wanted to fight with the Avengers, too. Maybe next time, Waspy.
To enjoy Ant Man and the Wasp, you have to keep track of three sets of antagonists, not including the formidable quantum realm, which would be enough by itself for a sci-fi thriller. Scariest is Ava (the darkly charismatic British actress Hannah John-Kamen), also known as the Ghost, who, because of a complicated backstory rooted in Pym’s general assholery, is blessed/cursed with the ability to do some kind of phase-shifting thing that someone else will have to explain to you. She wants to get into that quantum realm herself, as does a slimy entrepreneur played by Walton Goggins and three scary henchmen. Another ball that the multiple screenwriters and the director, Peyton Reed, have to keep in the air: An FBI agent (Randall Park) really, really wants Scott put away, so even with only two days left of Scott’s house arrest, the feds are ever near. Expect Donald Trump to cite the movie as yet more evidence of unfair FBI persecution.
Nowadays you risk persecution for spoilers, so here’s a generalized roundup of the pluses. Several fights and chases are unusually fluid and well-choreographed for a Marvel movie, especially one between the Wasp and Ghost in which they go back and forth between dinky and life-sized. (They go big to kung fu kick and then dinky to evade the counterblows.) Going dinky is an asset in the car chases, too, as the good guys’ cars can slide under obstacles that the bad guys plow into full speed. Size matters. Any bit featuring large, amusingly fake-looking insects kills. At one point, Ant Man Godzillas his way around San Francisco while the lab — now pint-sized — passes from hand to hand. (Recurring phrases: “Get the lab!” and “I’ll get the lab!”) In a hilarious setpiece, Scott goes pint-sized himself and has to toddle around a middle school while the other characters offer him juice boxes and string cheese. Although Michael Peña’s chatterbox sidekick comes perilously close to being “ethnic comic relief,” a scene in which the bad guys inject him with some sort of serum (its nature is disputed) is an absolute haymaker. The payoffs aren’t plot points but the gags, which somehow defuse the tension without — as in the barely sufferable Deadpool 2 — turning the picture into camp. Another good creative decision: deep-sixing Lilly’s silly Louise Brooks coif and restoring her familiar Lost locks. Nice to see you again, Kate.
On the debit side, Michael Douglas doesn’t do much more than grit his teeth and try to get his tongue around his clunky expository dialogue — he had trouble with it in the last one, too. Laurence Fishburne as an ultra-earnest former colleague gives a solid but inescapably paycheck performance. The only thing that offended me were the naked product placements for Altoids, Pez, Entenmann’s cakes, Hot Wheels, and even the U.S. Postal Service, which now lets you track your packages, doncha know. I must admit that the ongoing Altoids plug was so effective that I became unbearably conscious of my rotten breath and couldn’t not reach into my bag for my own box of Arctic Peppermint flavor. I’m sure if they read this the company’s black hearts will soar. Even the responses of a wiseass critic can be controlled.
See Ant Man and the Wasp in 3-D for the full jack-in-the-box effect. Every gimmick helps. Although Marvel fanboys will probably find the movie too lite, they’ll spend their money on it anyway, because what else do they have to do with it? The first post-credits scene ties up some predictable loose ends. The final post-credits scene is … a diss of genius. Joke’s on us, as ever.