Perhaps the best way to approach “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” the sequel to the 2015 Marvel Cinematic Universe adventure that introduced the shrinking superhero, is as a Disney movie rather than a Marvel one. And when I say “Disney movie,” I mean a very specific kind: the goofy Dexter Riley comedies.
From 1969 to 1975, Kurt Russell played affable college student Dexter, who kept running afoul of science experiments that rendered him strong, super-smart or even invisible. Substitute Paul Rudd’s amiable ex-con Scott Lang for Dexter — with Michael Douglas subbing for scientist William Schallert, and Walton Goggins taking the Keenan Wynn/Cesar Romero role of the nefarious mobster — and “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is basically “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” for the 21st century.
Mind you, I mean this as a compliment; after a rough start in the previous entry, director Peyton Reed (“Down With Love”) seems much more comfortable balancing wacky antics, familial bonds and over-the-top superhero set pieces this time around. (Whether or not the problems of “Ant-Man” stem from Reed taking over for a dismissed Edgar Wright will be debated by future MCU historians.) And if the results feel a little slight, well, maybe we could all use a breather after the heavy stakes of “Avengers: Infinity War.”
Without getting into details: Yes, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” does tie in to those apocalyptic events. But you were planning on sitting through the closing credits anyway, so that’s hardly a spoiler.
The screenplay by a quintet of writers (including Rudd) doesn’t skimp on conflict or incident: Scott is nearing the end of his two-year house arrest over his actions in “Captain America: Civil War” when he has a dream about Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer); like Scott’s Ant-Man, she used her costume’s shrinking device to “slip between the molecules,” but unlike Scott, she never made her way back to normal size.
On the lam from the FBI, Henry Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) — Janet’s husband and daughter, respectively — have been working in a secret lab to bring Janet back, and Scott’s dream provides what might be the last piece of the puzzle. But while the Feds close in on our heroes — Hope has inherited her mother’s mantle as the flying, stinging Wasp — they’ve also got to fight off Goggins’ weaselly techno-thief while also contending with Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a costumed villain who has her own reasons for wanting to grab the Pym tech for herself.
Interspersed with all this plot are sweet moments between Scott and his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson, “Togetherness”); goofy interactions with his fellow reformed criminals Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris); witty banter with a nerdy FBI agent (Randall Park); and plenty of slapstick gags about large things becoming small, and vice versa. There’s even a car chase through San Francisco involving vehicles, people and objects rapidly changing size, and while it won’t rival the classic chases from “Bullitt” or “What’s Up, Doc?” it’s still a skillful balance of thrills and laughs.
With the notable exception of Lilly, who seems to be taking the proceedings far more seriously than her co-stars, the cast gamely juggles everything the movie throws at them. Rudd has been a master of this brand of Everyman deadpan for decades, and while I found Peña’s Luis grating in the previous go-round, he gets a truth-serum-inspired monologue here that’s a comic gem. Ryder Fortson is sweet without being cloying — it helps that Rudd is great with kids, as also evidenced in “Ideal Home” — and Laurence Fishburne swoops in to steal a scene or two as one of Henry’s former colleagues.
Visually, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” gets close to “Doctor Strange” levels of trippiness, particularly in that sub-atomic world where Janet is trapped. From random and kaleidoscopic fragments of light to some enormous, threatening dust mites, the film creates a whole weird and wonderful world that we can’t see. (Reed throws in the “universe in your fingernail” clip from “Animal House,” lest we miss the point.)
Ultimately, the film is hard to take seriously, even by MCU standards; we don’t really doubt whether or not Janet will be found since, hey, there’s Michelle Pfeiffer on the poster! But for audiences who like Marvel movies at their tongue-in-cheekiest, this sequel provides some breezy fun while we wait to find out just how permanent Thanos’ genocidal schemes really are. Dexter Riley would approve.