Ant-Man and the Wasp

2 and a half stars

Now that the dust has settled (literally, figuratively, financially) from the Avengers’ cosmic clash with finger-snapping nemesis Thanos, Marvel Studios is back with a lighter, lesser sequel in the form of Ant-Man and the Wasp, a change of pace that’s too busy to be breezy.

The Ant-Man franchise exists on the fringes of the Avengers universe, affected by the adventures of Thor and Iron Man, but free to squeeze between the massive tales of world destruction to tell smaller stories with shrunken stakes. The titular hero was last seen in a scene-stealing cameo during the pivotal airport brawl in Captain America: Civil War, but now he’s back in his own movie again, unshackled from the complicated logistics of the tangled team-up pictures.

He’s shackled by everything else this time around, though. For a sequel that represents a break from the sheer bigness of the other Marvel blockbusters, there is far too much narrative red tape in Ant-Man and the Wasp, way too many characters to attend to in any sort of meaningful way. While the Avengers movies have even more characters to juggle, they at least march forward with the knowledge that each character matters, is defined, and plays a role in connecting the many pieces to the whole.

Here, the script is written into a corner almost immediately and it takes the entire runtime to figure a way out. The events of Civil War have left Ant-Man’s alter ego Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) on house arrest and original Cold War-era Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) on the run from the feds. Hank and Hope have been working on a top-secret device that will allow them to safely access the mysterious Quantum Realm, where they believe Hank’s wife and Hope’s mom Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) has been trapped for decades, as hinted at in the previous movie.

Ant-Man and the Wasp director Peyton Reed treats this info as a mere exposition appetizer as he ramps up for a full-on feast. It turns out that Hope has her own shrinkable super-suit, allowing her to become the also-titular Wasp, and she’s relying on slimy black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) to provide a necessary piece of equipment for the Quantum Realm tunnel thing that she and her dad are building.

Sonny is a bad dude backed by some nasty-looking henchmen, but he’s not enough to fulfill the movie’s need for a flashy antagonist, so there’s also a mysterious new super-suit-wearing character called Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), whose powers are basically described by her name. She requires a tragic backstory and generally becomes a thorn in the heroes’ sides, but mostly a dramatically justified thorn.

All the while, Scott is getting roped into helping Hope while skirting around his house arrest punishment, which basically amounts to several scenes in which the FBI raid his home as lead investigator Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) makes awkward comic relief banter with the wily Scott. And this, in an increasingly enlarging nutshell, is the movie. Over and over again, Scott has to fool the FBI, which exist only to be fooled and act foolish, and Sonny keeps popping up to allow for action scenes to happen and Ghost turns up to add more conflict, except it’s emotional conflict, and Laurence Fishburne shows up because why not, and the “rescue Janet” storyline floats around the periphery, and it’s all too much.

One of Marvel Studios’ greatest strengths is that the writers and directors have become very adept at handling large ensembles by giving everyone a clear sense of something to accomplish, which translates to a particular purpose in not only the plot, but the respective movie’s main theme. In Ant-Man and the Wasp, the connection between all the different characters is too tenuous to feel cohesive and the characters are often too inconsequential to be dramatically relevant.

Sonny adds nothing, except for mechanically unleashed action, Ghost is too disconnected from the emotional core of the story to really click as a sympathetic antagonist, and all the FBI stuff just continually stalls the movie’s momentum. It’s clear that the story Reed is invested in exploring is the one about rescuing Janet, but the problem is that there’s not enough content there to fill a feature. So a whole lot is built around that, to keep preventing the heroes from accessing the Quantum Realm before a required running time has been reached, and also to insert balancing blocks of humour since that’s the franchise’s most distinct trait.

This series is supposed to be slick and slim, turning the cogs of the Marvel machine with an effortless efficiency, but the sequel has a plodding feel derived from the immense amount of information it insists on processing. While there’s clearly a warm-hearted ode to family woven through the plotlines, the script never makes so touching or rich a statement about blood bonds as previous Marvel titles Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Black Panther managed to do with their effective twists.

Marvel has been mining the family theme for quite a while now, directly linking villains to heroes and questioning how one’s legacy is defined within the context of a group. It’s become a key focus of their last several movies and has allowed them to create more memorable, impactful antagonists. The theme is too limply examined in Ant-Man and the Wasp, though. All Reed’s movie has to say is that it’s nice if Scott can get out of the house to be with his daughter and also nice if Hope can see her mother again. Of course that’s all nice, but it’s a far cry from the profound pain and alternative worldview that Killmonger brings to his clash with T’Challa in Black Panther.

Perhaps the simplicity here would be more palatable if the comedy had more spark. Many of the gags don’t land as crisply as they intend and even Michael P&etilde;na’s motor-mouthed sidekick Luis is slightly less entertaining the second time around. The element of surprise must have worked well in the first Ant-Man’s favour, because Luis finds himself with a lot to live up to here. On the positive side, the playful use of the size-changing technology is often cute and clever, the cast is charming, and giant ants are still worth a chuckle.

Given the general size of a Marvel blockbuster nowadays, it’s tempting to say that this one is too small for its own good. But really, the issue is the complete opposite. Ant-Man and the Wasp ends up surprisingly bloated and cluttered, a movie forced to travel within the confines of a narrative perimeter set by various Marvel pictures from Ant-Man to Civil War to the recent Avengers: Infinity War, which takes place at the same time. There are roadblocks everywhere and the movie struggles to slip past them. What aims to be a plucky adventure on a pint-sized scale ends up a rather rote reminder of how many puzzle pieces Marvel has in play and the inevitability that some of them will fall by the wayside.