I don't know about you, but in the wake of Avengers: Infinity War, I needed a Marvel Cinematic Universe palate-cleanser. Sure, plenty of fans grooved to the story's massive cast of battling super-heroes, and were shaken by the monumental casualties of the finale—likely temporary though they might be. But the "everything has been leading up to this moment" set-up resulted in a movie that tried to take the inherent frivolousness and reversibility of comic-book narratives and load it down with Significance. How many light-years removed did it feel from 2015's Ant-Man or last year's Thor: Ragnarok, in which being a costumed do-gooder could feel like silly, self-aware fun?
Director Peyton Reed and a team of writers including star Paul Rudd return for Ant-Man and the Wasp, and while it's significant to note that this movie is set chronologically before the world-shifting events of Infinity War, it's also temperamentally separated from that apocalyptic scenario. There's a kind of blissful relief in remembering that a super-hero story can be small, personal and not burdened with the fate of all existence.
That's not to say that the events of other Marvel movies don't play a role in the premise, as Scott Lang (Rudd) finds himself under house arrest at the outset, a consequence of his involvement in the German airfield donnybrook in Captain America: Civil War. Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are fugitives as a result of their Ant-Man technology being involved in that battle—don't ask; it feels like a pretty tenuous thread on which to hang a criminal charge—leaving Scott estranged from his one-time partners. But when Scott has a strange dream about his Ant-Man visit to the Quantum Realm, Hank and Hope come to believe that he might hold the key to freeing Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer)—Hank's wife, Hope's mom and the original Wasp—from her 30-year imprisonment there.
Ah, but there's a catch: A mysterious character known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) wants to get her hands on the Quantum Realm-visiting technology, for reasons that are ultimately described in a fairly epic piece of exposition dumping. A shady black marketeer (Walton Goggins) is similarly pursuing the tech, overly complicating a story that seems like it would have been full of sufficient emotional consequence had it simply been a rescue narrative—and indeed, the relationship between Hope and her mother feels fairly shortchanged. If there's one reliable thing about the MCU movies, it's that they rarely find the most streamlined way of getting from Punch A to Punch B.
This one does, however, usually find the funniest way of getting there. Like the first Ant-Man, it's an action-comedy that doesn't simply toss in a few jokes. The laughs come with regularity, whether it's from the vaguely ineffectual FBI agent (Randall Park) overseeing Scott's case, or an absurdist argument over what does or does not constitute a "truth serum," or most definitely thanks to the return of Michael Peña as Scott's motor-mouthed prison buddy/business partner Luis. Reed grasps how to craft action sequences that aren't just kinetically effective—and they are that, even though there's a sameness to the shrink-grow-kick-shrink dynamic—but can leave you with a goofy smile.
Most of all, Ant-Man and the Wasp figures out how to use Paul Rudd in a way that the original movie never quite did in its focus on Scott's ex-con unhappiness over being separated from his daughter. An early montage finds Scott trying to figure out ways to stave off boredom during the waning days of his house arrest, including karaoke and learning to play drums, making the most of Rudd's loose-limbed charms. He has a sense of comedic timing that's kind of unfair in someone as conventionally handsome as he is, and it's delightful to see this movie understand how to use it.
If there's one disappointment connected with how well Rudd's talents are employed, it's how much he overshadows Evangeline Lilly, who's mostly stuck with the angst that weighed down Rudd the first time around. The long wait to finally get a woman in the title of an MCU movie doesn't yield the best results here, as the story places all the seriousness on Hope and Hank. Everything clicks better when the emphasis is on wit, craziness and the delight of knowing it's not the end of the world as we know it, and they feel fine.