Ant-Man has always been the runt of the Marvel litter, swimming in the wake of the god-like Thor, the super-cool Iron Man and the bulk of the Hulk. It helps that Paul Rudd is a wonderfully appealing actor with the chops to go deeper. But how can Scott Lang, the petty (ouch, that word) criminal miniaturized into the crime-fighting Ant-Man hope to compete with the titans of the MCU? Even the $500 million worldwide box-office gross of the first movie in 2015 pales next to the $2 billion and growing take of Avengers: Infinity War.
Sometimes better-than-good things do come in small packages. The proof can be found in Ant-Man and the Wasp, a fizzy treat of a sequel that retains the becoming modesty of the original, but with a timely new twist. The Wasp, played by the radiant Evangeline Lilly, becomes the first female character ever to appear in the title of a Marvel movie. (Time's up for sexism in the MCU.) The Wasp, aka Hope Van Dyne, basically sat around waiting last time out while the action focused on Scott and her father, the original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) who discovered the formula that allowed him to shrink and gain superhuman strength. The guys did all the fun stuff. No more. Hope gets her own power suit this time – and wings! Eat your heart out, Black Widow. And her relationship with Scott, combative and romantic often at the same time, fires up the plot.
Speaking of which, the convoluted script – by Rudd, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari – picks up after 2016's Captain America: Civil War, when the Ant ballooned into Giant Man and got in trouble with the law. He's now under house arrest and awaiting the day he can be freed from his ankle bracelet and spend quality time with his adoring daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). Scott tells his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her cop fiancé Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) that he's ready to go straight.
Ha! That's when Hope and Hank drag him into their master plan. It turns out Hope's late mother, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) – the original Wasp – isn't dead. She's been trapped in the Quantum Realm (don't ask) and her family and Lang need to get her out. This, of course, must be done without the knowledge of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), which means our housebound hero must call on his old crew, led by his former cellmate Luis (the ever-hilarious, scene-stealing Michael Pena). And: a nice touch that the villain of piece is a woman. She's called Ghost and Hannah John-Kamen (Game of Thrones) plays her with a gravity that's as touching as it is unexpected. Ghost is a criminal who steals Pym's technology to phase through solid objects. But the process leaves her in great physical pain, which disturbs her surrogate father Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). He blames his former colleague Hank and wants revenge.
Are you still with us? The setup weighs a ton. But wait it out. Sparks fly when Ant-Man and the Wasp actually team up, and the FX wizards pull out all the stops so your eyes will pop in wonder. Yes, Giant-Man, shows up as well. Director Peyton Reed is just the expert juggler you want around to make sure the characters don't get lost in the avalanche of exposition. It's also great to see Pfeiffer take her place in the MCU; her scenes with Douglas are especially poignant – true stars playing Marvel icons.
But the thrill of the film is watching Ant-Man and the Wasp team up and raise hell together. Rudd is a winning combination of sass and sincerity. And it's a kick to watch Lilly break out and let her star shine. She hasn't had a part this juicy since she played Kate Austen on Lost; her smarts and screen presence lift the movie over its rough spots. The story tends to bogged down in family-audience pandering when you most want it to embrace its freaky side. And if you want to know how it connects to Avengers: Infinity War (it does, it really does!), stay for the post-credit sequence that will rock your world. The secret of Ant-Man and the Wasp is that it works best when it doesn’t try so hard, when it lets charm trump excess and proves that less can be more even in the Marvel universe.