The new sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp comes on the heels of two paradigm shifting movies earlier this year. February’s Black Panther offered not only the first Marvel movie featuring a largely black cast and creative team, but also a rarely seen example of Afrofuturism on the big screen. April’s Avengers: Infinity War capped off ten years of stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a bleak and galaxy-shaking (and, to be honest, likely to be reversed) climax.
In light of those films, Ant-Man and the Wasp feels as diminutive as its heroes, and that’s a good thing. Set before Infinity War, the movie relegates references to the rest of the super-heroing world to expository dialogue, focusing instead on comedy and character.
Well, character actors, anyway. Gone is the heist plot that held together the first film, replaced with what seems to be a rescue story, as Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) joins his partner/love interest Hope Van Dyne/The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) on a trip to the subatomic Quantum Realm to retrieve her long-lost mother Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfiefer). Aided by Hope’s father, the supergenius and original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglass), the team runs afoul of two others who want the heroes’ shrinking tech: evil business man Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and phasing super-villain Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), aided by Hank’s jilted former colleague Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Also, Scott needs to help Hank and Hope while showing authorities that he’s staying on house arrest. Also while co-parenting his young daughter with his ex-wife and her husband. Also while starting a security business with his best friend Luis (Michael Peña).
That’s a lot of plot and as a veteran of film and tv comedies, director Peyton Reed finds plenty of gags in the storylines he juggles. As in the first film, Reed stages inventive action sequences, in which people and objects get bigger and smaller as the fights ensue. But his real strength is in the likable performances he gets out of his actors. Fishburne and Douglass lend their considerable gravitas to undercooked dramatic arcs, John-Kamen brings a believable degree of tragedy to her bad guy, the action hero chops Lilly honed on Lost and The Hobbit are welcome additions to the MCU, and Rudd and Peña are as charming as ever.
In fact, we like the cast so much that we’re willing to overlook the movie’s many flaws. The worst of these is simple over-plotting, with the various storylines and motivations choking out any clear throughline in the film and short-change many of the characters. Goggins and Pfiefer, in particular, make a vibrant mark in their few minutes of screentime, but ultimately draw attention to how much more attention they deserve. And while the movie features some great gags, too many — such as the way Luis tells stories —are repeated from the first film.
None of which is enough to ruin the film. It’s still a pleasing, low-stakes way to pass two hours, a likably small movie amidst a film series obsessed with world-changing consequences.