Ant-Man and the Wasp is a palate cleanser for the Marvel Cinematic Universe

After laying waste to literally half of all sentient life in Avengers: Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes a bit of a breather in Ant-Man and the Wasp, a breezy and mostly fun adventure for the low-level superheroes who use high-tech suits to shrink and grow by extreme proportions. Taking place over the course of just a few days sometime before the events of Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp (the sequel to 2015's Ant-Man) is almost entirely self-contained, with no appearances from other Marvel superheroes and no grand world-ending threats to stop.

It does take off from the events of 2016's Captain America: Civil War, though, in which Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), aka Ant-Man, violated the new international law against unregistered superheroics in order to aid Captain America. Now on house arrest for his crimes, Scott spends his time playing with his precocious daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) and planning the launch of his new security business with buddy Luis (Michael Peña). He's monitored closely by suspicious FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), who seems to be looking for any excuse to extend Scott's sentence.

With just a few days left before he's a free man, Scott is whisked away by his former associates Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hank's daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who are still mad at Scott for taking their technology without their permission so he could play superhero with the Avengers. But they need Scott's help to locate Hank's wife and Hope's mother Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who's been trapped in the microscopic "quantum realm" for 30 years, ever since shrinking down to subatomic levels to stop a missile during her own superheroing days. As the only person who ever entered the quantum realm and then returned to normal size, Scott has a permanent connection (via "quantum entanglement") with Janet, and he's the only hope for finally getting her back.

There is a villain in this movie (actually, there are a few), but the story is not primarily about an external threat, and the fate of the world (or the universe) is never on the line. The heroes' efforts to save Janet hit obstacles in the form of Scott's FBI monitors, a low-level arms dealer (Walton Goggins) who wants to get his hands on the Pyms' technology, and the film's most traditional supervillain figure, a mysterious antagonist known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who has the ability to "phase" through objects and people, and is after Janet for her own self-centered ends.

Even Ghost is more misguided than evil, though, part of a recent trend of MCU villains with more complex and sympathetic personal motivations. She's not a megalomaniac; she's a scared and hurt victim of circumstance who's lashing out in a sometimes violent and destructive way. The heroes fight her because she's trying to prevent them from saving someone they care about, but the more they learn about her, the more they end up caring about her, too.

It's a refreshingly character-driven approach that extends to the entire movie, in contrast to the plot-heavy monstrosity of Infinity War. Scott wants to be a superhero, but he also wants to be a good dad to Cassie and a good friend and colleague to Hank and Hope, whose respect he values. And he takes time out from his adventures to make sure that Luis has everything necessary for their company's pitch to a major new client. At times the story is a bit too laid-back for its own good, and some of the threats (especially from Goggins' dandyish arms dealer) don't feel particularly urgent.

The filmmakers (returning director Peyton Reed and five credited writers, including Rudd) also have trouble making Luis and Scott's other ex-con associates an essential part of the story, and the subplot about their attempt to get their business off the ground is pretty thin. Luis gets a reprise of his very amusing scene from the first movie in which other characters re-enact his skewed recollection of past events in a flashback montage, but the joke, like many here, is not quite as funny the second time around.

Even when the movie isn't hilarious, though, it's almost always pleasant and jovial, and Rudd and Lilly have strong chemistry as the bickering but supportive title characters. Mostly on the sidelines in the first movie, Hope is now a superhero in her own right, with a shrinking-powered super-suit, along with wings and laser blasters, and Lilly proves herself worthy of the title billing alongside Rudd. The two make for a great team in battle and in banter, although the movie never plays up their romance at the expense of action or comedy. It keeps things small-scale and low-key, and for the most part turns out better for it.♦

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