Five years ago, a C- or even D-level superhero carrying his own standalone franchise seemed like a risky proposition, but where Marvel – and more specifically the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – goes, moviegoers have followed (10 years, 20 movies, and counting), with little or no signs of boredom. It’s helped that the MCU has Marvel’s 60-year (give or take a few years) history to pick and choose from, but it’s also helped that Marvel’s leadership, specifically uber-producer Kevin Feige, have pushed the boundaries of what the superhero genre can offer mainstream audiences, while giving an increasingly diverse group of filmmakers creative opportunities unusual for corporate-owned, billion-dollar franchises. For Edgar Wright and his long-in-the-making Ant-Man, that didn’t happen. He left the production months before shooting began over “creative differences,” but Marvel being Marvel, they pushed on with Peyton Reed taking over for Wright. Wright’s fans might have been disappointed, but the Reed-directed Ant-Man still managed to deliver quality superhero thrills. Spoiler alert: Ant-Man and the Wasp (the first MCU film to headline a female character) does Ant-Man better in just about every way (e.g., story, character, and visuals).
When we meet up again with Scott Lang / Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), he’s at the tail end of a two-year sentence (house arrest) for playing superhero in Captain America: Civil War in violation of the Sokovia Accords (aka, the Superhero Registration Act). He’s three days away of being free and clear of unscheduled, intrusive visits led by government agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), but Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Scott’s onetime professional and romantic partner, and her father, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the genius-level creator (the MCU has no shortage of geniuses capable of changing and/or destroying the world) of the Ant-Man’s super-powered costume, aren’t so lucky: They’re fugitives from the long arm of the law. Scott’s antics in Berlin also created a split with Hope and Hank: He’s no longer dating (or even seeing) Hope; Hank has put Scott on his pages-long sh*t list. A little thing – literally – called the Quantum Realm pulls Scott, Hope, and Hank back together. Scott’s escape from the subatomic Quantum realm – a first – and his contact with the first Wasp, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), long thought lost, if not dead, give Hope and Hank … hope that she’s still alive.
Forget save-the-world or save-the-universe stakes (forget save-the-country-and/or-kingdom stakes too). The stakes in Ant Man and the Wasp never rise above the personal. Once Hank pulls Scott back into the superhero game, it’s a race across, around, and through San Francisco (Atlanta, mostly, with San Francisco providing background plates), to complete a working Quantum Tunnel that will directly access the Quantum Realm, and find Janet before she’s lost again. The word “quantum” comes up a lot in Ant-Man and the Wasp, probably more than any other word except “the” and “a.” Scott even makes a knowing joke about putting “quantum” in front of every word, a wink and a nod to the borderline ridiculousness and absurdity of a character who can shrink down to the subatomic level and blow up to the size of a colossal beast or man (roughly 65-feet) and tech that can shrink or grow practically any object (and does, consistently without diminishing the non-stop barrage of visual gags and one-liners).
Reed, a screenwriting team that includes Paul Rudd, and a virtual army of visual effects artists, come up with some of the most inventive, imaginative visual gags in or out the MCU. Scott and Hope don’t just use their shrinking/growing abilities in fight scenes or breaking-and-entering a villain’s hideout, but also to slip into an elementary school to recover a prized object Scott left with his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). Reed and crew add a new wrinkle to Ant-Man’s new, improved suit: Sometimes it malfunctions, sometimes it just doesn’t work, putting Scott in all kinds of physically and socially uncomfortable positions, exploiting each situation for maximum, comedic impact. Reed leaves no joke, no gag unused, but what’s really surprising is that 10/10 times they flat-out work, delivering a seemingly unending barrage of light, all-ages humor that manages to be equal parts hilarious and family friendly at the same time.
Huge, massive credit, of course, goes to Paul Rudd. Two films into what’s likely to be the signature role of his career and it’s impossible to see another actor playing Scott Lang / Ant-Man (just like Robert Downey Jr. and Tony Stark / Iron Man). Rudd’s two-plus decades in comedy serve extremely well here. He delivers every line with just the right amount of emphasis to maximize audience laughter, but he also knows how to balance Scott’s nervous, confidence-challenged chatter with the heart and emotion beneath the chatter. Rudd’s performance, added, of course, to Lilly’s, Douglas’, and to a lesser extent given her minimal screen time, Pfeiffer’s performances, elevate Ant Man and the Wasp well above the first movie and right next to Thor: Ragnarok as the MCU’s funniest, most enjoyable entry (emphasis on “enjoyable”). Ant Man and the Wasp might not have the welcome depth or diversity of Black Panther or the grimness or gravitas of Avengers: Infinity War, but it also offers something they don’t: A just as welcome diversion from the real world and its problems.