Over the course of 19 features, the interconnected productions of Marvel Studios have perfected the art of quality control: there is an extremely narrow band of not-too-good and not-too-bad that the films consistently hit. But there's never been a point when the quality was quite as controlled as with Film #20 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man and the Wasp, which so precisely replicates the strengths and weaknesses of 2015's Ant-Man that I'm almost tempted to call that the end of the review. Certainly, insofar as the point is to offer a thumbs-up/thumbs-down recommendation, that's all there is to it: did you have some kind of response to Ant-Man, any kind at all? I think you will have precisely the same response to Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Or maybe not. For one thing, AMatW has a much better third act - legitimately, in fact, one of the best third acts any Marvel movie ever has had, for my tastes, which is in part because of the kind of story its telling. Which is the second thing: while this may be in a lot of ways functionally identical to its predecessor, it's coming out in an awfully different context. It might have seemed like there were a lot of superhero movies in the first half of the 2010, but 2016 and 2017 have redefined what "a lot" looks like. And regardless of what studio is putting them out, or what property they're based on, they have a lot of commonalities. Ant-Man and the Wasp, to a much higher degree than I expected, does away with many of these, and is rather a refreshing change of pace as a result.

The biggest thing, by far, is that it strips its stakes right down to the bone. The situation at the start of the film is that, following the events of Captain America: Civil War (whose events are summarised enough that it doesn't feel like cross-promotion; one of the more appealing things about AMatW is that it really doesn't feel like you need to have seen any other film besides Ant-Man to be able to watch it), Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is under house arrest for misusing the "Ant-Man" technology developed by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas); for similar reasons, Pym and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) have been on the run, using the technology to shrink the building housing their super-science lab down to the size of a suitcase when the time comes to flee. After two years of no contact, Scott reaches out to Hank and Hope when he has a strange dream about Hope's long-missing mother, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), which turns out to be the first clue on a trail that leads into a quantum realm of sub-atomic particles where Janet has been stranded for 30 years, as her husband and daughter put the finishing touches on a jerry-rigged machine that will make it possible to save her.

So those are the stakes: reunifying the Van Dyne/Pym household. Nothing more. The film has an anti-hero, Ava "Ghost" Starr (Hannah John-Kamen), whose body is being disintegrated by her own exposure to quantum energy, and she wants to be cured even if it means hurting or killing other people; it also has an outright villain, Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who wants money and influence and will exploit Pym's inventions to get both. And that's it. No world-threatening events, not even city-threatening; every single member of the cast is motivated by the comic book version of a thoroughly quotidian human feeling. It feels like a throwback to the days when comic book adaptations were in and of themselves new and exciting: the pleasures of the film lie almost entirely in watching how Pym's shrink-and-grow technology are used to handle a very small-scale - personally important, but cosmically nonexistent - crisis.

This does run against the usual problems: like almost every other Marvel movie, the action choreography isn't terribly interesting, and the fight scenes are more engaging because of their offbeat settings and "shrink/expand" gimmicks (the best one comes early, when Hope, as "Wasp", racing through a restaurant kitchen that has ballooned to titanic size) than because they've been terribly well-choreographed. To say nothing of director Peyton Reed's enthusiasm for cranking up the slow-motion every time something even a little bit "cool" happens, and the choppy editing that turns the whole movie into a skittish, wired affair, always darting around looking at this and that even in the most sedate dialogue scenes. The flipside is that the third act, as mentioned, doesn't devolve into the usual "punching and flying" affair, instead taking place mostly in the form of a car chase that uses shrinking and expanding cars to pretty fun effect, while reducing the scope of the action to which of three or four individuals is currently holding the shrunk-down Pym building.

It also inherits the problems particular to the first Ant-Man: Rudd is weirdly clenched and uncomfortable, Lilly tediously plays the same note over and over again, and the difficulty of making an outright comedy in a franchise whose omnipresent quips are one of its most notably characteristic features means that there's a lot rather strained, forced-jolly humor that doesn't play (one of the worst of these, a tepid dick-measuring joke between Rudd and a surprisingly warm and thoughtful Laurence Fishburne, somehow ended up as the button the film's main trailer). As before, the best solution is to replace the good-natured japery of basically every superhero movie in the world right now with acutely manic, aggressive absurdity, in the form of Michael Peña's dazed motormouth Luis, who is once again  easily the best single thing about the movie.

There are plenty of other ways to find fault with the movie, undoubtedly: the plot is, if not quite full of "holes", marred by some things that are definitely missing a couple steps (Janet Van Dyne crosses a bridge from "superscientist" to "actual deity" in ways that the script thinks it has covered, but not really), and it is criminal (if totally unsurprising) how little Pfeiffer gets to do; it doesn't take having seen to many of these to predict with close to 100% accuracy what parts of the film she'll be in, and what she'll be doing there. It's comfortable a middle-of-the-pack MCU film, and it's not a pack I hold in very much esteem to begin with. Even so, the willingness to go breezy and small scale is extremely welcome, and the commitment to grounding every single aspect of the film in basic, understandable character goals is more welcome still. We have here an unfussy comic book movie, and I frankly didn't suspect anybody still knew how to make those.

Reviews in this series
Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) | The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008) | Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) | Thor (Branagh, 2011) | Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) | The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) | Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) | Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013) | Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014) | Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) | Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015) | Ant-Man (Reed, 2015) | Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016) | Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) | Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017) | Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017) | Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017) | Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) | Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018) | Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)