Bigger seems to always be better in the eyes of many studio executives but Ant-Man knows better. Marvel quite literally blew up their world in this summer’s Infinity War, a massive cross-over event starring most of the biggest names in Hollywood and three of its favorite Chrises. If only by contrast, Ant-Man and the Wasp’s shrunken stakes and narrower focus on character gives it that much more super-powered punch. Threats of world domination, universe destruction or the untethering of reality itself only carry so much weight, particularly when they’re doled out as often as an E. Coli outbreak, so making this movie more a rescue mission than another save the world ordeal works to its favor. Shrinking everything down to a nice self-contained chapter allows director Peyton Reed to hone in on what really makes these characters work, and where they come up short.
A continuation of events established in Reed’s 2015 first ant outing, Ant-Man and the Wasp finds Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang suffering the consequences of his involvement in Captain America’s little Civil War. Under house arrest, Scott languishes, his time eaten by staging elaborate cardboard play spaces, banging on electric drums and studying close-up sleight of hand magic. Former cohorts Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and father Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) are none too happy with the once-thief, their having been forced to go on the lam after his mix up with the whole Avenger internal kerfuffle.
Scott’s two-year sentence is nearly up when he begins to have visions (no, not that Vision) of Pym family matriarch, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was thought to be lost in the subatomic realm nearly 30 years ago. With an arbitrary countdown ticking away, the trio is forced to reunite to find a way to save Janet from the realm of quarks and leptons (though no mention is made of what the hell she’s been eating for those three decades…are electrons nutritional?)
Hurdles to this rescue mission are none too threatening, even the movie’s villain (Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost) is kind of cute in a desperately single way, with an overwhelming sense of niceness populating every corner of the film. Despite impressively staged set pieces, Ant-Man and the Wasp can feel like a pillow fight. There’s rarely a moment where you fear things won’t turn out okay for just about everyone involved. Because at its core, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a family movie, both made for family consumption (this plays better to a younger crowd than something like Infinity Wars or even Black Panther) and very much about family.
Rudd expounds upon his characters aloof nature, sharpening Lang into a kind of well-meaning doofus with a lucky streak, and the script that he helped co-write definitely allows for Rudd’s quirky lovable side to shine through with all the power of a Batlight. Michael Peña’s affable Luis is given a bit more to do here as well, the script shoe-horning him in as much as possible, smartly knowing he is the film’s not-so-secret comedic weapon. Randall Park, limited though his screen time may be, totally steals the show as pencil-pusher Jimmy Woo. And despite her name now on the marquee, Lilly’s Wasp never really gets the attention paid she deserves. Though it’s undeniable that her haircut is a vast improvement. Yes, she’s privy to even more action beats than her male counterpart but Hope isn’t developed into a more deeply understood character so much as an omnipresent exposition delivery girl. She may be in the title but this is 100% still Scott Lang’s film and I don’t need to tell you about the missed opportunity here.
Both in terms of financial impact and his place in the roster, Ant-Man has proved the runt of the Avengers litter. Delivering the softest opening at the box office for any MCU installment since 2011, Ant-Man failed to make a big impression at the ticketing booth, and he’s never been involved in the larger MCU ensembles outside of the one consequential run-in. But that’s okay – and better still – something that this sequel largely embraces. There are no other Avengers making an appearance here, no push to connect the dots to Infinity Wars and beyond, no heavy implication of future events. This could well be the least extended-preview-for-the-next-one MCU installment since Iron Man 3. Surely a mid-credits scene erupts that standalone nature but the fact that Peyton and company waited until after the movie was over to piece together those parts is a hearty accomplishment in itself.
Warm, charming and taking full advantage of the oddities of a man who controls power over ants, this confident sequel improves upon its predecessor’s shortcomings by upping the comedy quotient and fine-tuning the character dynamics while shucking off the fat of excessive connective tissue. Featherweight though it may be, Ant-Man and the Wasp shows that phasing out massive stakes and lackluster Avengers cameos can still result in a big win.
CONCLUSION: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ is the closest Marvel has ever gotten to cute and cuddly, delivering a family movie filled with warmth and hope – and some nifty little uses of size – a needed small-scale anecdote from Marvel’s knack for everything yuge.