NEW YORK — Paul Rudd is neither an aunt nor a WASP but he’s fantastic in “Ant-Man and the Wasp.”
Is there another movie star out there who can play the hero, rogue, romantic lead and self-deprecating dope all in the same picture? I say, no. And even if there were someone else, he wouldn’t be as dreamy as Mr. Rudd, the Midwestern Jew and former bat mitzvah DJ who never seems to age. (Somewhere in his attic rests the portrait of Dorian Gray.)
If you didn’t see the first “Ant-Man,” or if, let’s face it, you did see it but don’t remember much, don’t worry. This is chapter 20 (20!) of the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it has almost nothing to do with any of the others. And thank heavens for that. “Avengers: Infinity War” was just so serious, it’s time to lighten up a little.
“Ant-Man and the Wasp” makes its “fun first” philosophy evident from the opening scene. Rudd (Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, but no one calls him that) is the most adorkable dad ever, playing superhero with his moppety daughter. He’s constructed a funhouse of homespun action movie tropes that I think we’d all like to romp around in. Especially if Paul Rudd, credited as one of the film’s writers, were cracking all these witty zings.
They are cooped up indoors because Scott Lang is under house arrest. The reasons are succinctly explained by FBI Agent Woo (Randall Park) in one of a few winks to the audience. (Another, Lang’s frustration with everyone’s overuse of the word “quantum,” was perhaps a joke among the film’s five writers that stuck.)
There’s just one more day left in Lang’s sentence, but the scientific noodling of his genius kinda-sorta love interest (Evangeline Lily as Hope Van Dyne, aka The Wasp, but no one calls her that either) and her father/Lang’s mentor (Jewish actor Michael Douglas as Hank Pym) calls Lang back to the Quantum Realm. Hope’s mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who martyred herself to save the world in the last movie (but we see it again, don’t worry) may still be alive after all! And they are going to need Scott’s help.
Thus begins a number of zany antics that exploits director Peyton Reed’s peppy style and a number of creative perspective shots.
Special effects can often be so dull in superhero movies. Even a good one like “Black Panther” ends with 20 minutes of dudes in masks clobbering each other. Ant-Man was never one of the A-list comic book heroes, but his powers (growing really, really small and, sometimes, when he absolutely needs to, growing humongous) lend themselves nicely to shifting perspectives and extremely entertaining visual tableaux. A San Francisco car chase is a cliché at this point, but not when the getaway car can shrink down to the size of a toy.
Most of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is set in one day. If they don’t return to the Quantum Realm now, Hope’s mother will be lost forever. But first they need a special gewgaw, and that means tracking down a shady arms dealer (Walton Goggins) and then a side mission to Lang’s daughter’s school, then the unforeseen double-cross from one of Hank’s old partners and a masked villain whose out-of-phase powers are almost as crafty as Ant-Man and the Wasp’s. This culminates in a big showdown at Fisherman’s Wharf where, to someone the size of an ant, the local seagulls are as big of a threat as any nefarious human.
Through it all there are a cavalcade of jokes, especially from Lang’s partner in ex-crime, Luis (Michael Peña). Luis and Scott are former burglars determined to go straight, you see, so their theft prevention company is called X-Con Security. That’s a joke everyone can love! (Unlike the heavier “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is very kid-friendly, so long as the occasional cuss word doesn’t offend.) This is also the first movie I’ve ever seen that makes note of curious adoration the Latino community has for mope-rocker Morrissey. Like so much else in the Ant-Man saga, it’s the little things.
A skyscraper shrinking to the size of carry-on luggage and looking real is a tremendous example of movie magic. That the story around it is funny and even a little bit touching is what sets this movie apart. There’s greatness big and small in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.