For its first film of the summer, Marvel offered a climatic must-see event in the superhero crossover extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. For its second summer outing, Marvel pulls a Monty Python and serves up something completely different. Despite its considerable charms, Ant-Man and the Wasp is decidedly not a must-see event. In fact, it sometimes feels less like a movie than an episode of an ongoing superhero TV series. But it’s a really, really good episode of that series. And it’s the perfect antidote for the gravity of Infinity War.
With its origin story out of the way, Ant-Man and the Wasp devotes even more time to providing the madcap action-comedy blend that made the first film such a standout in its best moments. This follow-up is all-around stronger than the 2015 original, although those improvements are far subtler than, say, the jump in quality between Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t feel like a drastically different film than Ant-Man, but it’s a little snappier, a little more confident, and a lot more emotionally grounded.
Plenty of superhero films (if not the majority of them) have tackled the theme of parenthood in one way or another, but Ant-Man and the Wasp is one of the first to do so from the perspective of the parent as much as the child. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) may be Ant-Man, but he’s also a loving father to his adorably off-kilter daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) — even if their father/daughter adventures have had to get a little more creative, after Scott was placed on house arrest following his brief stint as an anti-government vigilante in Captain America: Civil War. Ant-Man and the Wasp balances its action and comedy with plenty of quieter character moments (something Infinity War lacked, despite being almost 40 minutes longer), and the relationship between Scott and Cassie serves as a lovely emotional fulcrum for the film.
Ant-Man and the Wasp also throws a mother character into the mix, as the film’s plot centers on a mission to rescue Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), mother of Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and wife of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). As we learned in the first film, Janet has been missing ever since she “went subatomic” in order to dismantle a bomb and save the world. But after Scott returned from his own subatomic journey in Ant-Man, Hank and Hope have spent the intervening years working on a way to enter the “Quantum Realm” and save Janet — assuming she’s even still alive.
Alhough Pfeiffer is immediately endearing in the flashback scenes in which she appears, the film makes disappointing use of her. That’s because the mission to rescue Janet keeps getting sidelined by additional missions, including the purchase of a part from a black market tech dealer (Walton Goggins), advice from Hank’s old S.H.I.E.L.D. colleague Bill Foster (DCEU transplant Laurence Fishburne), and face-offs against a mysterious phase-shifting figure known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who has her own agenda involving the Quantum Realm and her own parental issues to work through. As the McGuffins and side missions pile up, Ant-Man and the Wasp sometimes begins to feel like it’s moving through an increasingly rote video game. To its credit, however, the film’s action-packed climax pulls together all of those disparate threads with an unexpected elegance, even if several plotlines are intentionally left hanging for future installments to pick up. (That also adds to the film’s episodic feel.)
Thankfully, Ant-Man and the Wasp never forgets that it’s a part of one of the comedic pillars of the MCU, and it keeps the jokes flying fast and free. Rudd is the only credited screenwriter to work on both Ant-Man films, and even more so than in the first installment, Ant-Man and the Wasp roots its comedy in the goofy good-heartedness that has long been his signature. While its characters are sometimes in conflict, there’s very little of the sniping and sarcasm that defines MCU franchises like Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy. For the most part, the characters in Ant-Man and the Wasp are friends, family, or friends who treat each other like family — no one more so than Michael Peña’s Luis, a goofy scene-stealer who returns to steal more scenes without unbalancing the whole film. Rather than mining its comedy from petty squabbles, Ant-Man and the Wasp mines comedy (and pathos) from just how much its characters care for one another. That makes the film a consistent pleasure to watch, even when its quest-filled plot starts to drag.
Returning to the director’s chair, Peyton Reed proves that the success of the first Ant-Man wasn’t a lucky break based on Edgar Wright’s original work on the material. Reed and his VFX team utilize Ant-Man’s size-shifting premise even more dexterously this time around, and Reed has a great sense of when to stick with a character’s perspective during a size shift and when to let those shifts play out from a distance for greater dramatic or comedic effect. If there’s no one single sight gag that’s quite as perfect as the toy train derailment from the first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp at least offers a size-related gag a minute to make up for it — particularly during an enjoyably chaotic car chase sequence that takes great advantage of the film’s San Francisco setting.
Ultimately, the single biggest area in which Ant-Man and the Wasp course-corrects from the first film is right there in the title. Ant-Man and the Wasp is the first Marvel film to bear the name of a female superhero, and the film succeeds by not making too big of a deal out of that fact. While the first film went to bizarre lengths to justify why the overqualified Hope couldn’t just don the Ant-Man suit herself, Ant-Man and the Wasp simply takes it as a given that of course Hope is now working as a costumed hero known as the Wasp. There’s none of the patronizing pandering of the first film’s “it’s about damn time” mid-credits scene, and the mission to rescue Janet gives Hope an emotional arc independent of Scott’s. Freed from the blunt bob that previously defined her character’s icy pragmatism, Evangeline Lilly is allowed to be far more charismatic this time around, and she clearly has a blast doing so. It only makes it more embarrassing that the first film didn’t just do all this to begin with.
Yet, strangely, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a sequel that improves upon the original, while at the same time somehow feeling less essential. Despite dancing around some emotionally rich material, Ant-Man clearly doesn’t want to dive too deep into that particular realm. While big franchise moves are made within the film and its post-credits scenes (there are two, the first more important than the second), for the most part Ant-Man and the Wasp is just here to have a good time. In a world where size is always relative, Ant-Man and the Wasp mostly keeps its sights small. That’s both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.