It’s nice, for a change, to see a superhero movie in which a big building doesn’t blow up. Even nicer to discover that, with the help of a handy remote control, the building can suddenly shrink to the size of a suitcase, small enough to tuck away in the overhead compartment.
“Ant-Man and the Wasp,” for its part, proves just as winningly compactible. Its zippy action scenes and trippy bursts of kaleidoscopic color look great in a theater, but in some ways its whimsical sensibility and playful, diverting story might feel just as well suited to the dimensions of your in-flight entertainment screen.
That may not sound like a compliment, but it is. The Disney-Marvel movie cycle and its various subfranchises have always been haunted by dreams of global domination — something craved by emotionally stunted supervillains and, not to be redundant, box-office-hungry studio executives. In this bigger-is-better context, a movie about a hero who finds his strength in tininess is, well, no small thing. Even multi-billion-dollar enterprises need a bit of modulation every now and then.
And so “Ant-Man and the Wasp” — nimbly directed, like its 2015 predecessor, by Peyton Reed — is being rolled out as a midsummer tonic, something bright and cheery to chase away the apocalyptic torpor of “Avengers: Infinity War.” Presumably it will also serve to cleanse the audience’s palate before that movie’s even-more-epic sequel, due out in theaters next year along with another Disney-Marvel extravaganza, “Captain Marvel.”
Ant-Man’s lovable underdog status, perfectly embodied by Paul Rudd’s lazy charm in the lead role, is thus every bit as carefully engineered as any of the larger, more consequential goings-on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Happily, his latest adventure is no less enjoyable for its calculation. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is a movie of deliberately low stakes and, for that very reason, enormous charm.
There is no need to prepare yourself beforehand by perusing a copy of “The Natural History of Ants,” or by subjecting yourself to a 31-hour Marvel movie marathon, as some gleeful mega-fans did in anticipation of “Avengers: Infinity War.” Even if you haven’t seen the first “Ant-Man” — or if, like me, you’re hard pressed to remember what happened in the first “Ant-Man” — chances are you won’t get too lost here.
As scripted by a learned consortium of amateur myrmecologists (Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Rudd, Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari), the sequel more or less functions as its own Wikipedia entry. The story may be full of head-spinning digressions on quantum mechanics, but it is also carried along by the steady buzz of exposition — never more entertainingly than when Ant-Man’s buddy Luis (an exuberant Michael Peña), recycling a verbal gag from the first film, goes into delirious plot-recap mode.
I will do my best to be brief by comparison. After his participation in the climactic battle of “Captain America: Civil War,” Ant-Man, also known as former cat burglar Scott Lang (Rudd), is serving out two years’ house arrest in San Francisco. His sentence is mitigated somewhat by the presence of his loving daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson); her mom (Judy Greer) and stepdad (Bobby Cannavale); and a harried S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (Randall Park) assigned to monitor his arrest. Friendly faces keep popping in and out, to the point where we could almost be watching not another overblown superhero smackdown, but rather a goofy neighborhood sitcom with visual effects.
Eventually, alas, the plot must kick in, though it’s not a bad one as these things go. The venerable scientist Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), creator of the original Ant-Man suit technology, and his equally brilliant daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), have gone into hiding, forced to get around in incredible shrinking cars and work in the aforementioned incredible shrinking laboratory. Although still annoyed with Scott for going renegade years ago, they have no choice but to work with him again when they learn that Hank’s long-missing wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), might be using Scott as a vessel to communicate from a micro-dimension known as the quantum realm.
Happily, we get to spend a lot more time in that wondrously multi-hued place, which — not unlike previous capers including “Doctor Strange” and the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies — pushes the typically polished, professional-looking Marvel aesthetic in a more adventurous visual direction. To behold this world, invisible to the naked human eye but dazzlingly amplified on the screen, is marvelously transporting: Who hasn’t dreamed of swimming in rainbow sherbet?
You might wish the whole movie had found a way to go quantum; you’ll certainly long for more Pfeiffer, who has too few scenes but invests each of them with her usual luminosity. It’s no surprise that the most memorable moment of Rudd’s amiably low-key performance finds Ant-Man suddenly possessed — damn quantum mechanics! — by Janet’s warm spirit and dazzling intellect. Otherwise, Rudd is content to function as a walking sight gag, thanks to a conveniently malfunctioning suit: Reduced to third-grader proportions one minute and bumping up against the roof the next, he’s a veritable Ant-Man in Wonderland.
Those sudden shifts in size and scale turn the action sequences into marvels of comic dynamism. (A wacky car chase down the steeply inclined streets of San Francisco, complete with Micro Machine-sized cars and giant Pez dispensers, plays like a Super Mario Brothers remake of “Bullitt.”) The entire movie races along with such breathless agility that it’s not until afterward that you realize how little the characters seem to live and breathe beyond their assigned shtick.
That’s somewhat to the detriment of Lilly’s role as Hope, who, in lieu of meaningful character development, has been gifted her own superheroic identity, the Wasp, complete with svelte shrinking suit and fluttering wings. She and Ant-Man make an effective crime-fighting duo, easily taking down annoying quasi-bad guys such as the sadly named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins). They have a tougher time opposite Ava, or Ghost (a striking Hannah John-Kamen), whose mysterious powers are rooted in grave emotional trauma and unbearable physical affliction.
Ava can walk through walls and penetrate solid matter, a gift rooted in a curse: She is forever “phasing” in and out, torn between person and presence, never fully achieving tangible form. Her desperation makes her a memorably complex character and an all-too-human troublemaker. In a movie of fast, fleeting pleasures, it’s her struggle with her own impermanence that stays with you.
‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’
Rating: PG-13, for some sci-fi action violence
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes