In 2015’s Ant-Man, the underlying technology that powers the title character’s shrinking suit is referred to as a “miracle.”
Three years later, the sequel to the zippy tale that introduced movie-going audiences to one of the more oddball heroes in the Marvel stable performs another astonishing trick: proving that after the punishing drudgery of Avengers: Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe can still be fun.
Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t break much new visual ground for the MCU. We’ve already seen Ant-Man shrink (and grow), special-effects artists blow up actual ants to the size of horses, and characters float through colorful spectral planes.
Yet Peyton Reed’s follow-up to Ant-Man’s first outing still manages to crackle throughout. Mostly, that rides again on Paul Rudd, who imbues burglar-turned-superhero Scott Lang with even more Paul Ruddiness than the original. Who can resist a near-genius-level, sarcastic goofball who just wants to do right by his daughter? (And looks like a guy who’s barely aged since Clueless?)
For a sprawling franchise that sometimes stumbles with its characters’ second solo outings—cough Thor: The Dark World cough—Ant-Man and the Wasp keeps its premise relatively simple. The only prerequisite viewing seems to be Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War, which featured Rudd as one of Cap’s renegades. In the two years since the Avenger-on-Avenger blowout, Scott’s surrendered himself to house arrest, while Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the scientist who invented the Ant-Man tech, and Pym’s daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are on the lam thanks to their association with Scott. Pretty straightforward, by MCU standards.
But Ant-Man’s second solo outing keeps things much closer to home. This time around, the action is driven by Hank and Hope, who reunite with Scott on a mission to rescue Hank’s wife, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), from the “quantum realm,” which Ant-Man visited briefly at the end of his first adventure when he went “subatomic.”
Enter the Wasp. Marvel has done a better job recently of elevating its female heroes to more than just sidekick status—think Thor: Ragnarok’s Tessa Thompson and Black Panther’s trio of Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright—and it’s easy to see why the Wasp gets equal billing with Ant-Man. As Hope van Dyne, Lilly was a bit robotic in the first Ant-Man. Here, her dialogue is looser and she gets just as much of the action as Scott. An early brawl between the Wasp and a goon squad set in a restaurant kitchen establishes her as the more lethal of the shrinking superheroes.
Dazzling fight scenes, though, are mostly secondary to a script built largely on its characters bouncing off each other. Michael Peña again steals just about every scene he’s in, complete with another rambling flashback that reconstructs the first Ant-Man’s events in less than 45 seconds. Delivered by Douglas, Hank’s gruff mentorship of Scott is at once fatherly and brutal, especially after the Ant-Man suit malfunctions. Even Laurence Fishburne, appearing as one of Hank’s many spurned ex-colleagues, gets a few licks in. Randall Park gets a memorable bit role as an FBI agent who tries to filter no-nonsense crimefighting through an aw-shucks wholesomeness.
What’s less memorable, though, is who exactly Ant-Man and the Wasp are supposed to be fighting. The movie has a couple nominal villains in Hannah John-Kamen as a woman who’s motivated strictly by a need to cure herself of a condition that enables her to phase through objects, and Walton Goggins as a gray-market technology dealer with unclear ambitions. (Though casting The Best Show’s Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster as two of his thugs is a deft comedy touch.)
But Reed’s direction, breezier this time around, understands that the action is mostly a delivery vehicle for the clever sight gags Ant-Man physics allow: cars that can escape by shrinking to Hot Wheels size, an office building that doubles as roll-aboard luggage, a weaponized Pez dispenser.
Ultimately, Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t about saving the world, or fighting bad guys, as it is about families trying to put themselves back together. Hank and Hope are on a mission to rescue Janet; Scott wants to be the ideal single dad who’s still embraced by his ex-wife and her new husband (the underused Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale); even Fishburne’s alliance with the phase-shifting Ghost is well-intentioned.
And yet for an entry in a movie series that’s all about spectacle, this one’s greatest asset is its relative smallness. There’s nary a mention of some big purple jerk hunting magic rocks. There are dazzling set pieces, sure, but the best moments come when characters mend ties or—more often—roast each other. In a summer of indistinguishable franchise entries, it’s one not to swat away.