I’ll probably change my mind once the cold front comes in, but right now “Ant-Man and the Wasp” feels like the Platonic Ideal of the summer air-conditioning movie. It’s fast, it’s funny, it’s superficial, it’s full of likable stars and scientific mumbo-jumbo, and, above all, it taps into the human urge to see big things become little and little things get big. It’s as close to lizard-brain entertainment as superhero blockbusters get, and as the mercury pushes toward 100, I’ll take it.
How can this be? The first “Ant-Man” (2015) was a lackluster affair that felt pulled in several directions at once, which it was: Original writer-director Edgar Wright departed production midway over “creative differences” (and went off to make “Baby Driver,” so it’s all good), leaving Peyton Reed to take the reins. Reed (“Bring It On,” “Down With Love”) is a smooth studio-friendly stylist, less gonzo (and less gifted) than Wright but capable of effervescent pleasures when the pieces line up. Now that he has the sequel all to himself, they do.
It helps to have seen the earlier film, but you’ll be able to find your way well enough without it. Anyway, one of the strengths of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is how little it has to do with the larger Marvel-movie mythology — it’s just spirited summer junk. Cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a.k.a. Ant-Man, is nearing the end of two years’ house arrest after the events of one “Avengers” movie or another, and right away we’re treated to a combination fort-maze-carnival ride he’s jury-rigged out of cardboard to amuse his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson).
Scott’s former partners in crime are trying and failing to run a legit security business; Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), and Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) are the movie’s Three Stooges, and they earn their laughs (Peña especially), but there’s still a whiff of ethnic shuck-and-jive to their shenanigans.
More to the point, testy scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is working with daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) — a.k.a. the Wasp — on a years-long project to bring his wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) — a.k.a. the first Wasp — back from the Quantum Realm, the sub-atomic plane to which she shrunk during a mission three decades earlier.
There are at least two plot strands too many here, what with Hank and Hope trying to rescue Mom, a slick restaurateur/black-market tech salesman (Walton Goggins) chasing after Hank’s inventions with a small army of killers, a vengeful refugee from the Quantum Realm named Ava and nicknamed Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), Ghost’s mentor (and Hank’s ex-partner) Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), the comic byplay among the Stooges, and Scott’s keeping one step ahead of the FBI in the person of Randall Park’s prissy agent Woo.
All of these story lines feel cobbled together from various parts and stray lug-nuts, and one of the unfortunate side-effects is Not Enough Michelle Pfeiffer. But the resulting cinematic hippogriff is still extremely enjoyable because: a) people, cars, and things get eensy-weensy or ginormous in the middle of hectic yet balletic action sequences; and b) Paul Rudd.
I like Chris Pratt fine, but his “Guardians of the Galaxy” character is really just Han Solo version 4.2. Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool is all sass and snark, if that’s your thing (it isn’t mine). But Rudd brings a unique brand of blue-eyed subversion to “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” Scott Lang is, refreshingly, not the smartest person in the movie — not even close. He’s the slightly flummoxed charmer who stumbled into an Ant-Man suit and now has to make good on it if he wants to keep the thing going with Lilly’s no-nonsense Wasp.
The triangular byplay among Scott, Hank, and Hope is droll and dry and graced with splendid crack timing, and if these three want to keep making sequels, I don’t care what they’re about. True, the dialogue directly pertaining to the plot makes it easy not to care: “The size coils are malfunctioning!” “Modify the differentiation units on one of your regulators!” “Molecular disequilibrium!”
In a movie less limber, such gobbledygook would just sound ridiculous, but here it somehow adds to the demented Saturday-matinee fun. Reed interlaces the “serious” Marvel stuff with the gags about proportion that draw us to properties like “Ant-Man,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
You see, a lot of us want to see a Hot Wheels toy with flame decals turned into a real life-size muscle car. We like to fantasize about being small enough to feel threatened by a giant pigeon or an immense microscopic water bear. The sight of Ant-Man using a flatbed truck for a scooter tickles some primal nerve cluster in our brains. And Reed uses the film’s action sequences to play with size even further, growing and shrinking cars, characters, buildings, and, in one marvelous burst of visual whimsy, a Hello Kitty Pez dispenser.
It’s as though the movies had discovered the high-speed equivalent of 3-D chess — you feel a whole wing of visual possibilities opening up. (For that reason, this is one of the very few movies that’s worth catching in 3-D.)
And still I say “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is disposable pop trash, not worth taking seriously for a moment and therefore eminently worthy of your attention at this moment. Best of all (for some of us, at least), the movie exists almost entirely separately from the Marvel Cinematic Universe that links all those superhero tentpoles into one ongoing mega-story to which the culture must pledge troth, Or Else.
Stick around through the end credits, though, and you’ll be rewarded with a sequence that ties Reed’s film into the larger “Avengers” mythos. At the screening I was at, some members of the audience gasped, but some of us groaned. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is as blissfully disengaged from purpose as a summer vacation should be, and it’s all right if you don’t feel ready to go back to work.
ANT-MAN AND THE WASP
Directed by Peyton Reed. Written by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferarri, Paul Rudd. Starring: Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hannah John-Kamen, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordans IMAX, Reading and Natick. 118 minutes. PG-13 (sci-fi action violence)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.