'Ant-Man and the Wasp'

Ant-Man and the Wasp ends up being another notch in Marvel’s belt, a clever romp that is smartly removed from all the universe-altering actions of Avengers: Infinity War. But there’s also a creeping feeling that it could be more, one that is starting to pervade many of the studio’s standalone offerings.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) remains on house arrest after interfering in the events of Captain America: Civil War. He hasn’t spoken to Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) or Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) in forever, and he’s started a new security business with his former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña). But when Hank’s wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) calls out to him from the Quantum Realm, Lang finds himself reinvested in the family’s quest to find the original Wasp.

Sounds simple, right? Director Peyton Reed, his screenwriters (too many to name) and the Marvel machine all apparently wished to remove this entry from the larger story, setting it before Thanos launches his assault on the cosmos. This makes perfect sense; though, by the end, you can see how Ant-Man will get involved in the second part of the Thanos conflict, it’s much easier to tap into a fun, easygoing comedic tone when you remove the genocidal villain.

That doesn’t mean this movie is without flaws. For starters, the title is a bit of a misnomer. There are a few scenes where Lilly’s new Wasp establishes herself as a bona fide hero, but mostly this is a madcap quest to find Janet and our heroine fits in where she fits in. It doesn’t help that Lilly is lacking as an actress; she’s also given nothing to work with. It’s the perfect storm of forgettability; luckily, the downside is “you’re playing a titular superhero in a Marvel movie.”

Otherwise, Rudd remains terrific. The scene where he’s channeling the lost Janet might be the funniest in Marvel history; that’s damning with faint praise, but it really is terrific. Douglas once again proves great at being loudly frustrated with Lang’s antics, and Randall Park makes the most of every moment as Jimmy Woo, the FBI agent who is keeping tabs on Lang.

But, for such a straightforward story, it’s too jampacked. The bad guys include Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a mentally and molecularly unstable creation of Pym’s past experiments, and Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a shady businessman who wants Pym’s technology. Then there’s Laurence Fishburne as a former Pym partner, the criminally underused Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale as Lang’s ex-wife and her new husband, T.I. and David Dastmalchian reprising their roles as Lang’s ex-con buddies, and the list goes on. Beyond enabling a very complex and super enjoyable car chase through San Francisco, it’s hard to figure out why Reed or even Marvel would permit such bloat.

Fortunately, there is Peña. He was the breakout star of the first one, and he’s just as hilarious here. I don’t know if he serves a place in the larger Marvel story, but it’s wonderful to see him steal the show for a second movie. Plus, if you’re a The Shield fan, there’s a brief Shane/Army ‘reunion’ that’ll get you (and only you) very excited.

One of Marvel’s greatest strengths has been diversifying without deviating. The hits (Black Panther) make them appear fresh and cool, and even the misses (Doctor Strange) help them stand out from the crowd. Ant-Man is clearly their ‘comedy franchise,’ and it’s been about as satisfying as a Paul Rudd-led superhero series could be. But Ant-Man and the Wasp could’ve really benefited from being both streamlined and let out of its cage. Undercut by its Marvel association yet only existing because they willed it to life: If that wasn’t already the catch-22 of franchise filmmaking, it is now.