This spring’s Avengers: Infinity War featured approximately 616 characters familiar to fans of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, but there were a few conspicuous absences. Now, finally, we know what Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), and the cantankerous scientist Henry Pym (Michael Douglas) were up to while the Avengers were racing across the cosmos to stop a mad Malthusian from snapturing half of the universe out of existence: They were starring in a smaller, sillier, better movie called Ant-Man and the Wasp.
It is, admittedly, a familiar one: Every joke that made 2015’s Ant-Man so endearing gets a second outing here. Michael Peña’s Luis, a confederate of Rudd’s cat-burglar-turned-miniature-hero Scott Lang, is still telling overly drawn-out stories of dubious relevance to the plot over a funky timbale rattle. The first film set a climactic fight to a gloriously mopey Cure song playing out of a giant iPhone, while this one has a weird and funny bit about Morrissey. The 2015 movie took an action sequence into gonzo territory with a giant Thomas the Tank Engine; the 2018 model uses a giant Hello Kitty Pez dispenser. Ant-Man and the Wasp is an eager puppy of a $100 million superhero tentpole, and it knows precisely where on your face to lick you.
Like the Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy films, the superpower and crutch of the MCU’s Ant-Man franchise is its goofy, palatably off-kilter, utterly Apatovian banter, but unlike those movies, these ones actually feature an Apatovian mainstay. With Ant-Man and the Wasp, director Peyton Reed and his five scripters (including Rudd himself) have made a superhero film befitting its male star: shaggy in its presentation, big-hearted in its intentions, and tightly, smartly built to deliver chuckles and even some thrills. It’s joke-dense but disciplined, somehow managing to set up and eventually pay off gags involving truth serum, an electric drum kit, giant ants, tiny cars, the Slavic folktale of Baba Yaga, a shrinking laboratory with an extendable handle, and a World’s Greatest Grandma trophy. It’s so amiably bonkers and unpretentious that you might mistake it for a rebuttal of Infinity War’s overstuffed excesses. And by centering Scott’s family—both the one that includes his daughter Cassie and the one he stumbled into with Hank Pym’s clan of human-shrinking scientists—Ant-Man and the Wasp certainly comes out ahead in the warm-and-fuzzy category.
The plot mechanism that delivers all these yuks and good vibes is merely OK. Since we last saw him taking part in a hero-on-hero melée in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Scott has been under house arrest, concocting entertainments for Cassie, starting a corporate-security business with Luis and some other similarly daffy ex-cons, and keeping himself busy with home karaoke and The Fault in Our Stars. Hank and his daughter Hope Van Dyne have been on the run—remember, superheroes and their abettors are now illegal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—while they continue trying to rescue Hank’s wife Janet from the “quantum realm,” a place so microscopic you’re not supposed to be able to come back. (At one point a befuddled Scott asks, accurately, “Do you guys just put the word quantum in front of everything?”) When Scott gets a psychic whiff of Janet’s presence, he ends up back in his old allies’ company. What follows is a series of cat-and-mouse chases—between the heroes and some black-market tech dealers, between the heroes and a superpowered villain, between Scott and the FBI, and eventually between everyone—all in service of a quest: Rescue Janet, dammit.
It helps that the company is pleasant. Douglas still plays Hank as a gruff and determined secret softie while Michelle Pfeiffer inhabits Janet Pym like a cool mist, the missing matriarch who once made her otherwise-dysfunctional family unit work. Peña’s sidekick Luis is joined by rapper T.I. and David Dastmalchian as Dave and Kurt, his dumb and dumber business partners who fill the film’s bottom stratum of comic relief. Laurence Fishburne is Hank’s old partner Bill Foster, a more compassionate man who makes worse choices, while Hannah John-Kamen is Ghost, a sympathetic but barely there (in several ways) villain with her sights on Hank’s movable lab. Walton Goggins does his always-welcome Walton Goggins shtick as a sleazy, Southern-gent arms dealer. Even great actors like Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, and Randall Park are here in minor roles, though in a more just universe they’d be playing X-Men, or at least members of Alpha Flight. I’m not quite sure the film gives Rudd and Lilly the equal billing suggested by its title—the script allows Rudd to commit a full-on microscopic charm assault, while Lilly’s role is more strictly poignant and dramatic—but she does get pride of place when it comes to the film’s most exhilarating action sequences.
And they are exhilarating, mostly because they’re so balletically goofy. At one point Lilly stops an enemy’s escape by enlarging a salt shaker to block a door. Rudd and Lilly hop in and out of their itty-bitty states, but we follow along because cinematographer Dante Spinotti knows how to scale the action with the actors. He and Reed also have an eye for the majestic: When late in the film, one of the adventurers inevitably enters the quantum realm, it carries more than a hint of the bong-rip psychedelia that made the Marvel stories of creators like Steve Ditko so cool more than a half-century ago.
Quantum realms don’t come cheap, but the scene that stuck with me the most was one of the first and most DIY: Scott and Cassie conduct a make-believe caper in a cardboard tunnel, complete with giant cardboard ants and a mysterious vault, that Scott has built in his copious spare time. Yes, sit through the credits and you’ll get a hint of how Ant-Man will reconnect with the larger story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in some future film. But here first is a reminder, intentional or not, that our bloated superhero era can produce films of varying sizes, some of them small, weird, and gratifyingly unambitious.