Deftly slicing itself free – for the most part – from the big cosmic matters going down in Avengers Infinity War and the more cosmic reaches of the Marvel cinematic universe, this aptly goes small where other franchise films go big. It does enter a quantum realm – ‘do you guys just put “quantum” before everything?’ asks the least smart man in the room – to pick up on a sub-plot held over from Ant-Man, which means this could more aptly be called Ant-Men and the Wasps since it features different generational iterations of the size-changing team. There are also three Giant-Men (and a future Giant-Girl) in the cast, though we never get to see Laurence Fishburne’s Bill Foster expand to a height worthy of his Black Goliath alter ego.
In a holdover from the plot of the now-dim-and-distant-seeming Captain America Civil War, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the current Ant-Man, is under house arrest and being harassed by FBI guy Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), a Marvel character who’s been around since the 1950s. Former Ant-Man Henry Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) are living literally below the radar … in a laboratory block that can be shrunk to the size of rolling luggage, with vehicles stashed in a Hot Wheels carrier. The plot has to do with the likelihood that lost-to-shrinkage Janet Van Dyne is still alive in the quantum realm – Marvel might not have the copyright to their former microverse – and since a prologue partners a computer de-aged Michelle Pfeiffer with a similarly smoothed-out Michael Douglas it’s a dead cert that she’s going to show up eventually.
In the sort of structure 1940s serials were fond of, the good guys and a troubled villain – Ava Starr, aka the Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), an Iron Man baddie repurposed as the daughter of Pym’s sometime arch-nemesis Eli Starr aka Egghead (Michael Cerveris, following his role as Professor Pyg on Gotham) – are after chunks of technology that can be assembled to save Janet or prevent Ava dissipating into nebulousness. Both factions are pursued by others – the bumbling feds and a gang led by tech black marketeer Burch (Walton Goggins) – and the mcguffins keep getting passed from hand to hand between huge chases and fight scenes, with pretty much every variation of size-changing used for comic, dramatic or just plain weird effect. Whether by design or from lack of imagination, too many Marvel films have skimped on super-powers and have fight scenes that boil down to zapping or thumping … here, we have characters who can shrink and grow at will tussling with an intangible woman in dizzying battles … and a comic book parody of the San Francisco chase scene from Bullitt that goes on a tad too long but does deliver all the mini-car action you could wish for.
Rudd remains likeable as Lang, though it’s a shame that the first Marvel film to give title billing to a superheroine makes Lilly into a rather stern presence who doesn’t get to show much joy in her super abilities. I preferred her bobbed hair too. A script credited to various hands – Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari and Paul Rudd – suggests that everyone took a character or sub-set of characters (Scott’s ex-crook buddies get a showing again) and ran with them, then met at the weekends to staple all the pages together. Peyton Reed, who took over the original from departed Edgar Wright, is back in command, and still gives the impression of returning to the spell of his career when he remade Disney’s The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes for TV but with a ton more money. This offers mostly low-threat comic villains (Ghost is semi-tragic but has a nicely spiteful streak that at least makes her a proper menace), a sweet thread about families fighting to stay together (Abby Ryder Fortson, who plays Scott’s adoring daughter Cassie, is genuinely delightful again), and science gabble to excuse shrinking or growing set-pieces. It’s middling Marvel, but that means it lacks some of the pompousness of ‘bigger’ efforts like Black Panther and Infinity War. I had a good time with it.