With its sharp screenplay, dynamic use of scale, and caper-ish elements, Ant-Man proved an unlikely stand-out in Marvel’s filmography. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe began to accelerate toward crossover events, Peyton Reed’s romp felt refreshingly small-scale, both in its plot and thematic focus on fulfilling one’s potential. Not for nothing does the film’s sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, take place prior to the apocalyptic events depicted in Avengers: Infinity War. The film has no greater desire than to ensure that its characters are free to go on their own adventures without each and every action feeling weighed down by the crippling demands of continuity.
Ant-Man and the Wasp picks up two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War, with Scott Lang, a.k.a. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), under house arrest for his role in the Leipzig/Halle Airport incident. In the final days of his sentence, he’s seen to be on good terms with his assigned F.B.I. handler, the suspicious but hapless Woo (Randall Park), and amusing himself by crafting elaborate playdates with his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). Just before he can re-enter society, however, Scott finds himself recruited by estranged allies Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope van Dyne, a.k.a. Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), who seek to use his knowledge of traveling the subatomic Quantum Realm in the earlier film to find Hank’s long-lost wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Staying true to the character-driven approach of Ant-Man, the sequel foregrounds Hank and his daughter Hope’s quest to find their missing loved one as a means of exploring the way that the characters’ personal relationships have changed as a result of Scott’s rogue actions in Captain America: Civil War. Hope, who spent too much of Ant-Man simply hanging back and feeling irritated by Scott, is now more complex, gripped as she is by feelings of betrayal and exhausted from living her life as a fugitive from a government that seeks to place limits on superheroes. The crabby and sarcastic Hank is also more shaded as a character, his vulnerability close to the surface as he ponders the possibility of being reunited with Janet.
Meanwhile, Rudd brings a sense of abashed regret to Scott’s affably carefree persona as the man grapples with his mistakes while simultaneously coming to the aide of his friends. The character’s redemption arc, coupled with the way the film’s action pulls away from the cataclysmic stakes that define nearly every plot of nearly every other superhero movie, ensures that Ant-Man and the Wasp feels almost relatable on a human level. Indeed, because Scott and his allies are pitted against two villains who don’t seek to take over or end the world, the film is effectively grounded in something close to reality. The first baddie, Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), is nothing more than a dirty capitalist who wants to steal Hank’s nanotechnology. The other, Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), is a young woman who was left permanently altered by exposure to the Quantum Realm and can pass through material objects. Faced with impending death from her collapsing molecular structure, Ghost also chases after Hank’s Pym Particle technology, albeit to save her life.
Reed continues to get great mileage out of fight scenes that play on Ant-Man and Wasp’s abilities to shrink and grow at will, turning combat into a series of feints and sneak attacks that are conducted with whip-fast intensity. As in Ant-Man, the characters’ size-shifting allows for every space to serve a dual purpose. Common objects are transformed into colossal and labyrinthine obstacles, most boldly in a chase sequence through San Francisco’s hilly streets. This also leads to a number of great visual jokes, including a gag where Scott summons a series of flying ants to come grab him near a dock, only for each of the ants to be plucked out of the air by a hungry seagull.
Throughout, Reed’s sprightly direction is matched by a consistent brightness scarcely found in Marvel films. Ant-Man and the Wasp is downright giddy with the notion of characters having the power to make a difference, and this energy informs everything from the unabashedly fun action to the supporting turns, especially Michael Peña as Luis, once again stealing the show with his motormouthed monologues. Because dour thematic arcs, apocalyptic stakes, and ironic wit have defined Marvel and superhero cinema writ large for so long now, Ant-Man and its sequel’s old-fashioned vision of superheroism feels vitally, and ironically, fresh. These films are ebulliently funny, visually inventive, and above all passionately committed to the idea that heroism isn’t a burden but an uplifting realization of our best qualities.