It's not meant to be a pun to call "Ant-Man and the Wasp" the smallest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to date, but especially after the smorgasbord of brutality that unfolded in "Avengers: Infinity War," Peyton Reed's follow-up to "Ant-Man" feels like sorely-needed counterprogramming.
Scruffy, understated and fun, the sequel sidesteps just about all of the gravitas left hanging after the events of April's highly-anticipated superhero crossover, instead focusing on few more than the characters from the first film, some remarkably inventive action, and a story aimed, directly and satisfyingly, at resolving emotional baggage rather than driving forward the machinery of a cinematic universe.
As briefly mentioned in "Infinity War," Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) took a plea deal for his participation in the events of "Captain America: Civil War," and is serving out his sentence on house arrest in San Francisco. But a strange vision of Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) prompts him to contact Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who coincidentally are working on a device to try and locate her in the Quantum Realm, where she got lost decades ago.
Desperate to complete his sentence and re-establish a presence in his daughter Cassie's life, Scott is reluctant to help them further, especially since they're still on the run from the authorities. But when a mysterious figure called Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) shows up to steal a much-needed part, disrupting Hank and Hope's work, Scott agrees to help track her down, locate the materials needed to complete their device, and hopefully bring together not one but two families -- all before S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) discovers what they're up to.
Although his abs are as capable of scrubbing out tough stains as the next hero's, Scott Lang is the outlier of the MCU -- in virtually all other respects, an ordinary guy whose costumed exploits are secondary to his priorities as a father and aspiring business owner. "Ant-Man and the Wasp" leans refreshingly heavily on his "regular" life -- or at least a reasonable facsimile of the life this guy might lead -- if he actually faced some of the consequences of his actions, including the ones he was paying for at the beginning of the first film. Although he likes bragging about his escapades with the Avengers in Germany, his central concern is not screwing up his relationship with Cassie, and helping launch a security company with Luis (Michael Pena) and the rest of his crew of ex-convicts. It's a much more interesting, identifiable foundation than the calling that some have, or the inescapability that many others do, and Rudd maximizes his natural "better to be clever than smart" charm in the role.
That said, a preponderance of exposition greets viewers at the beginning of the movie to make sure that you know exactly who Janet Van Dyne was, what happened to her, why and how Hank and Hope are trying to find her, and who plans to stop them from accomplishing that goal and for what reason. The result is a decidedly underwhelming first few scenes, but what quickly emerges is the delightful discovery that the movie doesn't need "more" happening for it to entertain audiences; with the stakes clearly defined and the characters established, we never have to worry about what it all means for the future of a larger film series, or really even just this franchise. Instead, we get to simply revel in watching them face an escalating series of obstacles in their path.
If "Infinity War" felt like too much, "Ant-Man and the Wasp" feels like the right amount of "too little," content to explore its tiny corner of this larger universe in suitably meticulous detail.
Lilly, a commanding actor since her debut on the TV series "Lost," finally gets the chance to be as tough and in charge as she's always deserved, and effectively sidelines the guy audiences came to see the first time. Additionally, her character's relationship with her father, Hank, gets sketched in with more nuance this time, enabling both her and Douglas to provide some real pathos, and at the same time be more playful. Meanwhile, Pena's improvisational excesses once again give the movie some of its funniest moments; among Lang's crew, he comes away with the most to do in the film. Conversely, Hannah John-Kamen oozes wounded anger as Ghost, but a surplus of backstory does as much as the actress' own talents to keep her from simply being the film's erstwhile villain.
Some viewers may find themselves disappointed by the lack of showstopping moments that they haven't already seen in trailers and promotional materials, but in terms of sheer character-oriented action, the film delivers some of the best that the MCU has seen. Director Peyton Reed, granted seeming free reign after inheriting the first "Ant-Man," makes the most of his two heroes' superpowers with visuals that utilize their rapid shifts in size and play well into the franchise's self-aware sense of humor.
Ultimately, whether it means Lang's foray into his daughter's school for a family heirloom, the collapsing secrets of Hank Pym's portable lab, or just the comparable scale of this story to the rest told in the MCU, "Ant-Man and the Wasp" works best when it's at a little bit smaller than life size -- consistently buoyant and thrilling, but also surprisingly intimate, which makes it just as important as any of its predecessors.