Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena, Walton Goggins, Hannah John-Kaman, Randall Park, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer
Written by: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari
Directed by: Peyton Reed
Studio: Marvel Studios (Walt Disney Pictures)
Run Time: 1 hr, 58 min
Fun has been in very short supply this summer. From the horror-show theatrics of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom to the staggering ending of Avengers: Infinity War, the cinematic mood has tilted decidedly dark in the weeks leading up to July 4th. Solo bombed (unjustly so, I feel), Deadpool 2 arrived awash in cynicism and blood, and even the largely upbeat Incredibles 2 arrived with a less-than-bouncy threat of seizures in sensitive views. All this from the season of popcorn escapism.
All I’m saying is, it’s dark out there. And if you’re starved for a little levity and light, then the MCU – as it has in so many other ways – has come to the rescue.
One of the reasons Marvel’s cinematic juggernaut has accomplished so much is that it understands when and how to shift gears. Namely, when you hit your audience with something as overwhelming as Infinity War, you ratchet the scale down and lighten the mood considerably for the next entry. Enter Scott Lang (Paul Rudd): minor-league criminal fuck-up made good whose initial adventure as Ant-Man still stands as the funniest entry in Marvel’s cinematic canon. He’s just what the doctor ordered, and with Evangeline Lily’s Hope Van Dyne finally joining him as the Wasp, the pair provide the perfect tonic to the bring-downs that have dogged us this summer.
Lily actually constitutes the best part of the film. With the possible exception of the She-Hulk, the Wasp is the last figure who really needs to be a part of the MCU: a co-founder of the Avengers and a staple of the non-mutant side of the Marvel pool since the 60s. She starts out on the run with her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), thanks to Lang’s participation in the events of Civil War. Lang turned himself in after that big fight in Germany, lest the life as a fugitive keep him apart from his beloved daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson). He’s foresworn his superheroic alter-ego in exchange for leniency, which means house arrest and regular checks from the FBI. But then he starts having dreams about Pym’s missing wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) – lost in the teeny-tiny quantum realm decades ago – and we’re off to the races.
The storyline involves both corporate espionage and a mysterious figure called the Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) with eyes on Pym’s technology, but the focus stays simple and personal. Hope and Hank want to save Janet; Scott risks prison to help them do it. The stakes remain intimate for everyone involved… and yet director Peyton Reed makes it feel as important as the universe-altering impact of Infinity War, with a simpler follow-through and a smaller cast that can really focus on the emotional impact.
Which isn’t to say it’s a downer. The often-improvisational humor flies along, with Rudd in fine form as a well-meaning knucklehead trying to measure up to gods, and Douglas the exasperated straight man who has to put up with him in order to get his wife back. That gives Lily the lion’s share of the superheroic stuff, not only using her form-shrinking outfit to maximum effect, but strategically shrinking and growing all kinds of convenient objects to pound the bad guys. (She and Pym carry an array of escape vehicles around in a Hot Wheels case.) That gives the action scenes all kinds of cool directions to go in, and the film never runs out of clever little tricks to make the effects budget more than just empty noise.
The humor gets a further boost from Lang’s three dipshit buddies, trying hard to walk the straight and narrow and WAY too excited to get involved in the action. Yet the jokes never come at the expense of the danger, and the risks all of the characters take are very real. The resulting mixture is as balanced and easy-going as you could hope for.
Those looking for signs of the future are apt to be a little disappointed, though the post-credits sequences involve a few tantalizing hints. (No sign of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye anywhere, for the record.) Ant-Man and the Wasp aims to be as self-contained as possible, which again makes sense considering the cliffhanger we’ve currently been left on. It’s a necessary breather: a bit of straight-up entertainment with nothing on its mind beyond helping us forget our troubles for a few hours. But in a summer this dark – inside the theater and out – its quiet optimism feels both welcome and badly needed. This is the pair to do it, and its spot-on tone reminds us that the MCU is king of the cinematic cage for a very good reason.