The central conflict of Ant-Man & The Wasp is introduced during the very first scene of Ant-Man. Brilliant scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) won't give up his radical molecular technology to S.H.I.E.L.D. and, upon refusing his services, is insulted by Director of Defense Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan). "If only you protected [your wife] with such ferocity," Carson sneers, prompting Pym to punch him in the face, and Howard Stark (John Slattery) to snicker across the table. It's a great introductory scene for Douglas' driven yet bullishly stubborn scientist, as we learn both his defining achievement and his greatest regret, all in one violent outburst. His wife is gone and, judging by that vicious pimp hand, he still feels some sort of way about it.
Fast forward to Ant Man & The Wasp – which opens with a similar expository flashback (recycled and re-shot/dubbed from its predecessor) – and we see Hank (in full Ant-Man get up) trying to diffuse a missile with his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) before it lands and kills thousands of innocent people. Janet was the original Wasp, as the husband and wife were something of a dynamic superhero duo. Only she uses Hank's revolutionary shrinking technology to advance to sub-atomic levels and diffuse the weapon of mass destruction, not only entering but becoming trapped in the dreaded "Quantum Realm" while doing so. "It should've been me," Hank tells his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) before revealing that he has a plan to get Janet back after thirty years of trying and failing.Together, they build a bridge to the Quantum Realm, and only need one last part before Hank can open the portal and be reunited with his lost love, while Hope can finally meet her mother as an adult.
In terms of both narrative structure and the timing of its release, Peyton Reed's Ant Man & The Wasp is almost identical to Ant-Man, but both elements are good things (as opposed to marking the movies as easy targets for those who criticize the Marvel Cinematic Universe for its formulaic nature). Just as Ant-Man arrived immediately after Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man & The Wasp is dropping directly on the heels of Infinity War, offering up a fun, flighty palate cleanser following those rather portentous, ponderous comic book adventures. They're the character-driven capers that remind us just how special the MCU pictures can be when they place the needs and emotional desires of their characters first, allowing them to save themselves as opposed to the entire universe (a unifying theme Pym verbalizes while training his buggy protégé).
Also like Ant-Man, the first time we catch up with safe-cracker-cum-Avenger Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), he's in a prison. Except that in Ant-Man & The Wasp, he's not behind bars, but trapped in his own home, due to an ankle monitor and constant surveillance from FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park). Thanks to the events of Civil War, the resulting Sokovia Accords placed Scott in a touch of trouble with the German government. Through a series of back-alley deals made between the US and their allies – which are rather hilariously explained by Agent Woo to Scott's adorable daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) – Lang was escorted home and placed on house arrest for two years; a term that's due to expire in three days. Now, Scott's just got to sit tight and wait to be a free man…again.
Of course, if that seventy-two-hour period expired without a hiccup, there'd be no Ant-Man & The Wasp. Despite being rather grumpy with Scott because of his actions with the Avengers (which sent Hank and Hope into hiding), the father/daughter duo kidnap Lang from his house to recruit him for another job. No, the Yellow Jacket suit doesn't come back into play; instead, Hank and Hope have had some difficulty with black market tech dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who tried to hold the last part of their Quantum Tunnel hostage, before it was intercepted by Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a literally spectral supervillain dealing with a molecular dilemma all her own. With Scott's super-heroic help and some advice from Hank's former partner (he has a lot of those, it seems) Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), the team’s going to track that grey apparition down, while Scott attempts to not alert the FBI to the fact that he's broken the terms of his confinement.
What's spectacular about this storytelling structure – which was designed by a legion of script architects in Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari – is that the familiar narrative points allow us to feel the characters’ growth as they bounce from beat to beat. Scott's still sort of a loser, but he's no longer a master thief. Ant-Man & The Wasp is much more of a pure superhero movie, as this younger iteration of the Pyms' alter egos are taking on an adversary who may possess more strength than both put together. Even the reasoning behind Lang being chosen to help his old pals is anti-real, as Scott now shares a psychic connection with Janet, thanks to his own journey into the Quantum Realm. Some may see this refusal to return to the character’s criminal skill set as something of a flaw (due to it reducing the sequel’s “heist film” vibe), but Lang's simply not that guy anymore.
Yet these growths in the “comic book cinema” nature of this entry are felt beyond the primary players. Scott's former cell mate and forever best friend, Luis (Michael Peña, continuing to be these movies' MVP), has now started up his own security company (which is already teetering on the edge of bankruptcy) with loveable goofs Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and Dave (T.I. Harris). While Burch hunts Scott, Hank and Hope, he ends up injecting Luis with "truth serum", resulting in another one of the homie's motor-mouthed tirades (and a straight up sidesplitting Latinx/Morrissey joke). Now that we're familiar with all these folks, Reed and his team of screenwriters have upped the pulpiness to ridiculous highs, including shrinking buildings and a trip to the Quantum Realm that reveals some, uh, gross parasites residing at that sub-atomic level.
Unfortunately, one side effect of Ant-Man feeling like a throwback to a slightly earlier epoch in the MCU is that the series' "villain problem" rears its head. Goggins is somewhat wasted – despite bringing his usual venomous Southern cadence and ability to wear a fine suit to the role – as he mostly just runs around, barking orders at henchmen. Ghost fares slightly better – especially once a second act twist regarding her backstory is revealed – but she's also barely a character, never really given a solid motivation beyond self-preservation. After the smarmy greatness of Ragnarok's Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the moral relativity of Black Panther's Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), and conflicted conqueror of Infinity War's Thanos (Josh Brolin), this sort of blandness in the nemesis department is somewhat inexcusable.
Thankfully, Reed stages the action in Ant-Man & The Wasp with sunny, size-shifting flair, to the point that it's somewhat easy to overlook the lack of antagonistic menace thanks to the set pieces being so damn fun. Ant-Man & The Wasp really exploits its San Francisco setting for all the city's hilly beauty (courtesy of legendary Michael Mann cinematographer Dante Spinotti), as a car chase through the metropolis becomes one of the absolute highlights in this franchise. On top of the action, Christophe Beck layers a mix of old school percussion and wonky synths that will send astute viewers back to the swinging '60s, reminding them that Reed is also the guy who counts making a period set Fantastic Four film as his "dream project". It all adds up to a visual schematic that falls in line with Marvel's oft-noted "house style", yet owns enough punchy playfulness to separate it from the pack.
However, the most impressive part of Ant-Man & The Wasp is how – despite going a little bigger and bolder – it still feels intimate and heartfelt. Where Ant-Man was all about a father getting his daughter back into his life, Ant-Man & The Wasp sees an aging husband desiring to see his wife, if even for one last time. It’s refreshing to watch one of these huge blockbusters tell a tale that revolves around the simple need to hold onto your family amidst a sea of chaos. In an age where we seem to lose hope with every passing day due to real world events, it’s always pleasant to have pulp fiction present in the multiplexes that reminds us of the most important things in our lives. Ant-Man & The Wasp is a triumph not because it sees its heroes saving us all from oblivion, but because they desire the same comfort their audience does when they’re possibly doomed to the void: a gentle embrace from those closest to them.
Ant-Man & The Wasp opens in theaters July 6th.