These days, it’s fair to say that Marvel Studios films are a genre unto themselves. The rest of Hollywood may covet their Über-franchise powers—the logo alone can turn a title with the words “Ant-Man and the Wasp” into one of the summer’s must-sees—but it is really the marked tonal and aesthetic consistency that keeps audiences coming back. Guardians of the Galaxy movies are the funny ones, the Captain Americas are the slightly more somber detours into globetrotting superheroics, and Avengers are the star-studded epics in-between. But the similarities that bind are far stronger than their minimized differences.
In such a homogenized landscape, there is precious little room to distinguish, which has long left Ant-Man as the odd man out. Hastily reimagined a few years ago from an Edgar Wright project into a down-the-middle case study in Marvel boilerplate, the 2015 original can probably be best recognized as the harmless one, reminiscent of the type of benign family entertainment Tim Allen or Chevy Chase would’ve starred in during the 1990s. Well if Ant-Man is The Santa Clause, then Ant-Man and the Wasp is The Santa Clause 2: a blander, safer, and more generic rendering of an already saccharine property. Albeit one that occasionally hits modest heights for a film about a guy who can grow to the size of a building.
Picking up well after the original, but slightly before last May’s Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp actually acknowledges the “civil war” between those films had consequences. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is at the end of his two-year house arrest stint for helping Captain America lay the smackdown on Iron Man. This also makes him a pariah from his other teammates in spandex, as Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and her father Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) are fugitives from the law after refusing to register their amazing shrinking technology with the government. But soon they’re forced to recruit a reluctant Scott (again) into their schemes, as Lang is having dreams of Hope’s thought-to-be-lost mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer).
If you don’t recall, it was revealed via exposition in the first film that in the ‘80s, Janet vanished on a mission when she and her husband were the original covert Ant-Man and the Wasp. In actuality, she had been transported into the subatomic Quantum Realm, an area so small that Rudd’s Ant-Man 2.0 practically stumbled upon it in the first movie. That experience has now also given him a psychic link to Janet, who Hope and Hank are desperate to reunite with. So they force Scott to help them save Janet by enduring one beige set-piece after another, all while they are being pursued by the potentially more interesting, yet underwritten, Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), an antagonist who a better movie would have realized should be the star.
As the latest superhero product, Ant-Man and the Wasp is serviceably innocuous. Unlike so many other films about masked do-gooders, and more than a handful of 2018’s would-be blockbusters, Ant-Man and the Wasp is still built from an assembly line that understands story structure and character motivation better than most frazzled conference room strategy sessions in Tinseltown. The basic necessities of narrative momentum are all given the requisite focus and care that in better properties can occasionally produce exceptional Marvel entertainments. However, in the case of both Ant-Man films, and more damnably the sequel, words like “basic” and “requisite” are always the ceiling.
Lacking any chance of displaying cinematic flourish or a point-of-view, Peyton Reed’s straightforward effort misses the righteous zeal of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther or the playful cheekiness of James Gunn and Taika Waititi’s Marvel entries. Ant-Man and the Wasp, by comparison, is just there, a flat-looking comedy that’s bereft of too few laughs when juxtaposed with Thor: Ragnarok, even though that film was ostensibly about the apocalypse and this one is supposedly a laugher.
At the very least, Ant-Man and the Wasp is anchored by the ever appealing affability of Paul Rudd. As an actor who can be delightful in supporting work, including as Ant-Man, he makes for a pleasant enough central lead in this picture, despite the character arc of getting his ex to take him back being ruefully antiquated. And as that ex, Lilly is sadly not given nearly enough to do in spite of now getting billed in the title. While the marketing of the film suggests “it takes two,” a film that should be the Wasp’s story—it is her mother, after all, they’re trying to rescue—is often playing second and even third banana to Scott and Hank. Additionally, Lilly, who cannot be accused of being the most charismatic thespian in Marvel’s stable, is further saddled with a script that often only provides her two notes to play: annoyed with her male co-star or flirtatiously accepting of his shortcomings.
The real spark of humor that comes into the piece is ignited by Michael Peña, who once again is allowed to steal scenes as the fast-talking comic relief sidekick. When his character gets dosed with truth serum, the chuckles finally start flowing. Much of the rest of the supporting cast unfortunately gets a lot less to do, including the perpetually wasted Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale, who are now joined by Walton Goggins as the wallpaper in the back. The introduction of Laurence Fishburne as Hank’s old frenemy fares very well though.
Indeed, Fishburne’s history with Janet and Hank, particularly with how it indirectly relates to John-Kamen’s enigmatic Ghost, is a dangling thread full of potential. Ghost is ultimately as underserved as most pre-2018 MCU baddies, but her motivation and connections with the other characters not only drive the conflict of this film, but suggest a more radical and outside-the-Marvel-box approach could have made her the magnetic anti-heroine of an intriguing story.
In the one we’re stuck with, she phases in and out of the action scenes to marginally cool effect and makes for a nice CG-alternative to Ant-Man and the Wasp’s rotating-size schtick, which grows stale long before the third act throws in a Buick-sized Hello Kitty Pez-dispenser. (The Fantastic Voyage-inspired Quantum Realm is pretty nifty though!)
Of all the computer-generated wizardry running rampant, however, the most impressive effect continues to be Marvel’s de-aging process. Early in the movie we get a glimpse of not only Michael Douglas but also Michelle Pfeiffer circa 1988. For just a moment, when Pfeiffer and Douglas are standing next to each other, one forgets it isn’t the 1980s. Are we about to see some kind of sci-fi thriller starring two of that decade’s most charming leads? When the illusion is shattered, and you realize you’re trapped inside Ant-Man 2, interest begins shrinking faster than its two leads.
Ant-Man and the Wasp opens on Friday, July 6.