Ant-Man and the Wasp is a solid improvement on Ant-Man

Given the far-ranging, universe-shaking implications of Avengers: Infinity War just a few months ago, it’s hard to remember that there are still stories to be told within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that don’t take place on cosmic stages, or have world-shaking stakes. Ant-Man and the Wasp, the third and final MCU film planned for 2018, jumps back in time and scale from Infinity War. Instead of taking in the fate of every sentient being in existence, it focuses on the attempts to rescue one woman who’s been gone for 30 years. And instead of enlivening suffocating dread with occasional banter, it fully invests in its silly sight gags and endearing humor. It’s a breath of fresh air after Infinity War.

It’s also a breath of fresh air after 2015’s Ant-Man, an enjoyable but messy movie that spent too much time on poorly motivated action sequences, and hinged its big climax on the idea that love is the fifth element that fixes any scientific problem. Ant-Man and the Wasp is flat-out funnier, smarter, more exciting, and better written than Ant-Man. It’s still a minor entry in the Marvel pantheon compared to standouts like Thor: Ragnarok, which went further in upending Marvel’s established superhero-movie template, playing with tone and puncturing the characters’ self-importance. But in a year where the other MCU movies (Black Panther, then Infinity War) trended toward an almost DC-esque grimness, this one is particularly enjoyable because of its comparative lightness, and the way director Peyton Reed gets to stage inventive fights that take full advantage of the Ant-Man growing and shrinking technology.

Ant-Man and the Wasp starts about two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War, in which new Ant-Man Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) flew to Germany to fight on Captain America’s side in an airport-destroying battle between superheroes with conflicting agendas. After the fight, Scott was captured and imprisoned (as seen in Civil War), then apparently tried and convicted in America, and sentenced to two years of house arrest. He’s three days away from freedom, but Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), a competent, personable, but overzealous FBI agent, is keeping an eagle eye on him anyway, in case he steps out of line. Meanwhile, Scott is trying to co-parent his young daughter Cassie with his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her enthusiastic new husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), and he’s helping run a security business pointedly called X-CON, because he co-founded it with several of his ex-convict friends. Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian) function as broad comic relief, just as they did in Ant-Man, but there’s also a real concern that they might lose their business if they can’t land a major client.

Scott’s Germany mission also endangered original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, acerbic as ever) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). Since they designed the shrinking-and-growing suit Scott used to violate the superhero-restricting Sokovia Accords, his actions turned them into wanted fugitives, which is complicating their current project of rescuing Hank’s wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the “quantum realm” he lost her to 30 years ago. As the first Wasp, Janet used Hank’s shrinking technology to reduce herself to subatomic size to save the day on a mission, even though she knew she’d end up lost in the quantum world. Hank assumed there was no coming back — until Scott pulled the same move in Ant-Man, and was able to return. (Because his daughter more or less loved him back into existence, and again, love is magic. Too bad Hank apparently didn’t love Janet well enough to retrieve her back then.) Now, armed with the knowledge that Janet could still be alive, Hank and Hope are working on a “quantum tunnel” that will take them into the quantum realm. (Scott speaks for the audience when he wearily asks at one point, “Do you guys just put ‘quantum’ in front of everything?”)

 Photo: Film Frame/Marvel Studios

The science plot in Ant-Man and the Wasp is entirely arbitrary and ridiculous, packed with rapid-fire “don’t examine this any further” explanations, and an inevitable artificial deadline before something-something quantum alignments shift and Janet becomes unreachable. Virtually all Marvel movies have some questionable price-of-entry element that audiences just have to decide to accept if they’re going to enjoy the movie, and here, that’s virtually every element of Hank and Hope’s plan. The real tension in the movie comes from the many non-quantum elements arrayed against them, including rich thug Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who wants to steal Hank’s technology and sell it to the highest bidder, and a mysterious figure the heroes call Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who’s also trying to get her hands on that tech.

And then there’s the fact that Hank and Hope’s deadline means they can’t wait three days for Scott’s house arrest to end — but if he’s discovered violating the conditions of his arrest, he risks 20 years in prison. The Janet deadline means every round of interference from Sonny, Ghost, or the FBI is a dangerous setback. But mostly, it’s an excuse to compress the action, build tension, and turn every other scene into a complicated chase or a multi-cornered battle.

Like the original film and the Ant-Man scenes in Civil War, Ant-Man and the Wasp depends heavily on Paul Rudd’s boyish, disarming performance as Scott, who is, after all, not the most unassailable or upright hero. More specifically, he’s a former small-time criminal who has now stolen the Ant-Man suit from its owners multiple times, most recently in order to go joy-riding on Captain America’s Germany mission. He’s still easily impatient, easily distracted, and openly sheepish about the ways he’s failed Hank and Hope.

 Photo: Marvel Studios

On top of that, he’s still the least-competent fighter of the bunch — Hope, now geared up as the new Wasp, is better at pretty much everything, from martial arts to science, and Ghost is fully a match for her in a fight. Scott periodically winds up as the butt of the film’s jokes, especially when his shrinking regulator keeps malfunctioning, or when he’s physically or intellectually overmatched. But the five credited screenwriters (including Lego Batman Movie and Spider-Man: Homecoming partners Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, plus Rudd himself) are in no way invested in some sort of individual uplift narrative for Scott, like the usual dynamic where a doofy male hero with an ultra-competent female trainer surpasses her to prove he’s the true Chosen One. Scott is more sidekick than hero, even though his name is first on the marquee, but the filmmakers are fine with him being charming, well-intentioned, and relatable, rather than being the biggest, most emotionless badass in the room.

That dynamic goes a long way toward making him unique in an overcrowded Cinematic Universe full of much bigger badasses, and it contributes significantly to Ant-Man and the Wasp’s relatively modest ambitions. Just as Spider-Man: Homecoming reset the MCU’s stakes to a personal level after the globetrotting adventures of Civil War, this film reduces the impact of its superhero fights to a small area of San Francisco, and the question of whether Scott can stay out of jail, X-CON can stay in business, and a couple of beleaguered women can fix their current problems. That smaller scale gives it a lot more room to focus on individual, personal beats, like Scott’s relationship with Cassie, Hope’s memories of her mother, Ghost’s backstory, or the fast-paced exchanges of opinions, perspectives, and stories among the X-CON group. And it lets the filmmakers focus on a primary theme that’s often been significant to the MCU: the importance of family, whether they’re connected by blood, choice, or circumstance.

 Photo: Ben Rothstein / Marvel Studios

Not all of the sidelines contribute equally to either the adventure or the humor — as adorable as Cassie is, there’s a mechanical calculation to every line the writers give her, both in terms of how well she works as an accessory to humanize Scott, and how she doles out periodic awww moments. And all the sidelines together start feeling like too much information, like the story is going in too many directions at once. The biggest loser in that regard is Walton Goggins, an excellent actor wasted on a bad guy so one-dimensional, it’s a wonder he casts a shadow. He isn’t alone in his blandness — while Evangeline Lilly gets a lot more room to take an active hand in this film than she did in Ant-Man, and her opening fight scene in particular is thrilling, her character is still a bland straight-man type compared to the other heroes.

But other cast members get more space to contribute to the narrative and play with their characters. Peña is still a hoot. John-Kamen makes her role urgent and upsetting for most of the film’s run, though she has a disturbing dip into kittenish flirtation with Rudd at one point, and runs out of energy and purpose toward the end. And Laurence Fishburne gets to play something that’s fairly rare in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a character with a little nuance in his motives and moral values. From his first introduction, the twists in his story are obvious — until they suddenly aren’t.

Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t have much time for that nuance, though. It’s too busy cramming one action sequence or verbal riff atop another, for a breakneck pace that resembles one of Luis’ breathless “and then he said, and then she said”-style stories. Like the first Ant-Man, it’s surprisingly playful visually, and it lands in that sweet spot between taking itself seriously enough that the action sequences matter, and not taking itself so seriously that they become leaden and bleak. Given how much of the film is spent on watching tiny items grow to improbable size, and huge objects shrink down to the scale of toys, it seems only appropriate that Ant-Man and the Wasp neatly balances its big, serious concerns with its little petty ones. It’s a movie that understands all the variances of scale, and takes the audience along for the ride as they constantly change.