“Ant Man and the Wasp” is a rare insect: a sequel that is dramatically better than the original. Granted, 2015’s forgettable “Ant Man” set a low bar, but “Ant Man and the Wasp” clears it with lots of room to spare, delivering a fun and functional summer flick that feels like it was made with good intentions by people who genuinely cared about producing a decent movie. That “functionality” and “good intentions” are now noteworthy in a movie is sad, but here we are and here “Ant Man and the Wasp” is, and let’s talk about what it did right.
First, the movie fully capitalizes on the simple superpower of Ant Man: a nifty bit of technology he can use to resize any object, including himself, into gigantism, sub-microscopy, or anything in between. (The first movie focused this power on ants, arguably the one member of the insect kingdom who leastneed such an enhancement to be awesome.) With this power, the moviemakers transform fight scenes, which now contract and expand as combatants shrink from grapples and expand back into kicks, as well as car chases, which now feature an exciting new leapfrog element as miniaturized cars sneak beneath their regular-sized counterparts. A building, too, gets the shrink-ray treatment, popping up in abandoned parking lots and empty strip malls and once, charmingly, the Muir Woods. One can only imagine the frustration of the postal service.
Second, the additions of Hannah John-Kamen and Michelle Pfeiffer. You haven’t heard of the first one yet, but she possesses an uncanny quality in common with the second: a riveting physicality that borders on telepathy. Neither has many lines, and neither needs them—both can communicate volumes by gait alone, and do, walking away with all their scenes.
Third the five-man writing team responsible for the script (Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari) have taken two great flavors and realized that they tasted great together: Tarantino and the Coen brothers. As in Tarantino, tense conversations frequently meander down banal pathways, the threat of violence looming while the characters hash out a minor quibble (in one particularly memorable scene, whether truth serum actually exists outside of Hollywood). Unlike Tarantino, no one sounds cool while they’re riffing: all “Ant Man” characters remain as resolutely earnest as “Fargo” cops. It’s a baffling combination that shouldn’t work as well as it does.
Speaking of things that shouldn’t work as well as they do, Paul Rudd! Hey, buddy! I will admit to many years of Paul Rudd apostasy. For decades following “Clueless”, I thought he was the human equivalent of “Friends”: a banal, medium-salsa Ken doll just good-looking enough to carry a weak comedy, and just funny enough to bolster a weak romance. I was wrong. “Ant Man and the Wasp” puts Rudd firmly in the same boat as Jack Lemmon and Bob Newhart: mild-looking men whose humor rests entirely in your choice to notice them. Rudd’s performance as Scott Lang/Ant Man is quintessentially Midwestern: blink and you’ll miss a quiet moment of pathos. You are invited to laugh, but not prodded to. It’s a rare quality in a summer blockbuster, but altogether apt. If you want to see Ant Man, you’ll need to look closer.