Pardon me if this sounds academic, but the best thing about Ant-Man and the Wasp is when things change in size. The film offers plenty of variations on this theme: Sometimes large things become very small, and other times small things become very large. One time, Ant-Man himself (Paul Rudd) shrinks a little bit and spends a scene standing at about three feet high, just for kicks. The movie’s MacGuffin is an office building the size of a city block that can be zapped to diorama size—it comes with its own carrying handle installed. Every single time it was carried around like a rolling suitcase, I couldn’t help but giggle.
This film, like the first Ant-Man (2015), was directed by Peyton Reed, one of the few American comedy auteurs still working today. He’s made gems like Bring It On and Down With Love, and as a last-minute replacement hire for Ant-Man(after Edgar Wright’s departure), he did a solid job with a B-list hero, making a loose and funny caper flick on an appreciably small scale. Ant-Man and the Wasp bets on everything that worked about the first movie—it’s a light and sunny entry in the ongoing Marvel canon that gets by on the cast’s easygoing chemistry. And, of course, on all the shrinking and growing.
Perhaps most crucial to its success is that it largely ignores the goings-on of Marvel’s last film, Avengers: Infinity War, which was all epic-scale brutality, with the stakes turned up to cosmic levels. Ant-Man and the Wasp basically gets to tell its own story, though some working knowledge of Captain America: Civil War (the last movie that Ant-Man appeared in) will help explain why Scott Lang (Rudd) is now under house arrest and estranged from his inventor mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and Hank’s daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly).
Quickly enough, the plot spins into motion, and the group has to reunite to battle a mysterious thief, called Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who has the power to walk through walls. Scott again dons the shape-changing suit that lets him ride ants into battle as if they were noble steeds, while Hope now has a shrinking suit of her own, complete with insect wings and laser blasters. Even more so than in the first film, she’s the one really taking care of business; Rudd is on hand for the bon mots, which he delivers with the usual chilled-out panache.
Where the first Ant-Man had a corporate-warfare plot that was hard to get invested in, here Reed largely jettisons the typical Marvel story structure (centered on a similarly powered bad guy) to make what amounts to a rollicking hangout comedy. The interplay between Scott (goofy), Hope (matter-of-fact), and Hank (grumpy) is warm and familial, and Michael Peña, the first Ant-Man’s secret MVP, is on hand to tell more long, hilariously rambling stories at the camera (trust me, it’s funnier than it sounds). Joining the cast is a gruff Laurence Fishburne as an old partner of Hank’s and Walton Goggins as a small-time criminal, but this isn’t really a film where villainy is a focus.
There is a quest for our heroes to go on: rescuing Hope’s mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), from the subatomic “quantum realm” that she vanished into decades ago. But that, plus the ongoing chase after Ghost, is just a gossamer excuse for Reed to construct action set pieces that play with scale in all sorts of inventive ways, and inject them with witty banter. The script has five credited writers (including Rudd), but it’s surprisingly fluid—props to Reed, who has always managed to spin real human comedy out of high-concept screenplays (like the underrated house-divided farce The Break-Up, or the Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man).
There’s nothing in this movie that packs the kind of emotional punch Marvel aimed for in Black Panther and Infinity War, its behemoth hits of 2018, but that’s a welcome relief. Though this is its 20th entry, the Disney-owned super-franchise still knows how to find a light touch, and not every superhero battle needs to be bigger and more expensive than the last. Ant-Man and the Wasprevels in wringing joy from mundane items—a giant salt shaker is a weapon in one scene, as is an inflated Hello Kitty Pez dispenser in another. The moment I could really tell Reed was firing on all cylinders was when Ant-Man grows to giant size, kneels on a nearby truck, and starts using it like a scooter, pedaling his way to the nearest fight. I’d like to see Thanos try that trick.