Credit: Ben Rothstein/©Marvel Studios 2018

After I saw Ant-Man and the Wasp, I tried to remember if I saw Ant-Man and the Wasp. This is one of those Marvel products peddling self-aware detachment as a defining narrative strategy. Scientists will say science stuff — “quantum realm,” “quantum entanglement,” “quantum tunnel” — and then Scott/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) will deadpan that everyone says “quantum” too much. Characters joke so much about Captain America: Civil War that you start to wonder if you paid movie-ticket prices to read the internet two years ago. It feels less like a feature film than a meme somebody made about an Ant-Man trailer.

It’s forgettable, but some things are better forgotten. Like 2015’s Ant-Man, this sequel opens with a digital-botox prologue, de-rezzing a couple fine performers into the uncanny valley. Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer were two of the most exciting actors of the 1980s, the era of Wall Street and The Fabulous Baker Boys. “But what if Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer were totally boring in the 1980s?” is the note this movie decides to start on. Married superheroes Hank Pym (Douglas) and Janet Van Dyne (Pfeiffer) leave their daughter behind for a fateful super-mission. Pfeiffer mostly disappears after that. Janet was tragic backstory in Ant-Man. Now she’s the plot point of the sequel, The Thing To Pursue. Perhaps in another sequel she’ll get to be a character.

In present-day San Francisco, Avenger-adjacent Scott is under house arrest because something something Sokovia Accords. But he dodges the law to help Hope (Evangeline Lilly) — daughter of Hank and Janet, now reborn as the next-generation Wasp — to rescue Janet. From there, Ant-Man and the Wasp almost feels like an old-fashioned caper. Walton Goggins plays a gleeful criminal sharpie, and Michael Peña’s Luis remains a fast-talking delight. Those two have one big scene together that’s as good as anything Marvel’s ever done.

Notably, that scene involves no Ant-Men and even fewer Wasps. Rudd’s a charmer, and Lilly looks happy to finally have something to do. But the story is too busy, and too removed, to let them have any noticeable chemistry. The details of their dynamic are vague, almost obtuse. We know they made out at the end of Ant-Man. This sequel is set a few years later, and Lilly recalls a time when they were something like a couple. “We were working together, training together,” she says, “And, you know, other-stuff-ing together.” Pure PG-13 poetry: other stuff-ing.

But Hope and Scott barely seem to be in the same movie. They’re two flavors of heroic blandness. She’s resolute, laser-focused on rescuing her mom. He’s a snarkbot, perpetually unprepared until he knows exactly what to do to save the day. The storytelling algorithm coughs up the token moment of prefab emotion (one scene where Scott has a tender conversation with his daughter) and its token moment of cheerful objectification (must Ant-Man be ripped, too?)

The script has five credited screenwriters, including Rudd. You get the feeling one of them wrote the plot on the back of the napkin, and the other four got hired to make fun of the first guy. Not a bad instinct. Part of what made Thor: Ragnarok so great was the sense that you were watching a great defacement of the whole Thor idea. But Ragnarok had a whimsical sense of humor sprinkled atop a decadent retro-junk style. Ant-Man and the Wasp stumbles by trying to take itself even half-seriously. Poor Hannah-John Kamen looks stranded as the notional super-baddie, the space-phasing Ghost. Sad flashbacks, bad attitude, lame powers: She’s the most boring villain since that time Thor punched some elves.

Director Peyton Reed is a steady comedy director. He tries his best to inject the action scenes with size-swapping intrigue, but you’ve seen these manic punchfests before. The film has a bland look — gray labs, glorby quantum blobs left over from Doctor Strange. And the Wasp has a cool set of “stingers” that fire energy bullet things at people. That feels like a cheat, somehow. If you have energy bullet things, why do you need to fight the bad guys in a heavily-choreographed body-shifting twirlfight? Just shoot them with the energy bullets. I know, I know, the comics.

Anyhow, there’s one droll visual: Dr. Pym has a gigantic laboratory, a huge multi-level warehouse space — which he shrinks down to carry-on size and pulls as a suitcase. (Make your own joke here about Bay Area real estate.) The occasional lightness of Ant-Man and the Wasp feels unique to this sub-franchise. Very little is really at stake here, beyond the freaky possibility that Paul Rudd will play Michelle Pfeiffer more than Michelle Pfeiffer does. (It’s a quantum entanglement thing.) But the forced whimsy is a pose, a defensive posture, a way to excuse all the clockwork plot mechanics and halfhearted characterizations.

And the costumes, yeesh. The superpowered people wear outfits that look like expensive athleisure. Which makes sense. Ant-Man and the Wasp is working too hard to look unconvincingly relaxed. C+

Ant-Man and the Wasp
  • Movie
  • 118 minutes