Ant-Man movies offer a welcome respite from the endless gush of showier Marvel super-product. The action is confined to one planet, the banter is funny but not overbearingly zingy, and the super-suits are only modestly muscular. At first sight, the diminutive hero raises minimal action expectations, so in this second film, as in the first, they're easily exceeded.
The movie relies for much of its glowing likability on its star, Paul Rudd, who also had a hand in writing the script (as he did with the last picture). Rudd's easy, deadpan warmth is ideal for the role of good-guy ex-con Scott Lang, better-known to bad guys as Ant-Man. As the movie begins, we find Scott under house arrest in his San Francisco home for violating the Sokovia Accords in the last Captain America movie. Despite this confinement, Scott is still able to operate the little security firm he owns with his old cellmate Luis (Michael Peña); he also gets to spend extra quality time with his nine-year-old daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), whose custody he shares with his ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer).
One night Scott has a dream about the mysterious quantum realm, where he believes Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer)—a superhero known as the Wasp, who disappeared there 30 years ago – is still alive. Scott contacts Janet's husband, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas)—the original Ant-Man, and Scott's mentor—who now carries out exotic scientific inquiries with his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). These two work together in a huge laboratory that—thanks to Hank's proprietary shrinking technology—can be folded down into something the size of a carry-on suitcase when necessary, and simply wheeled away.
Pym immediately starts planning a mission into the quantum realm to rescue his wife. Naturally there are complications. One of them, Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins, always a pleasure to welcome aboard), is a technology hustler who wants to buy (or steal) Pym's mobile lab. Another is a glowering young woman named Ava (Hannah John-Kamen), whose alter ego, the robo-eyed Ghost, can move through matter as if it weren't there, and kick lots of butt on the other side. (One of Pym's estranged colleagues, played by Laurence Fishburne, is trying to cure Ava of this painful superpower, and now hopes, for obscure reasons, that Janet Van Dyne's return will help.) Then there are the unresolved love vibes that Scott and Hope developed in the first movie; as we see after Hope dons a Wasp suit herself, they're still abundant. (Lilly is a good match for Rudd—they have a similar gentle appeal.)
Returning director Peyton Reed appears to be having a lot of fun here, and he deserves some sort of public-service ribbon for fending off superhero bloat and keeping the movie's runtime down to just under two hours. Also, while it's easy to pay little mind to digital effects anymore (they often just fly by in a blur), the CGI in this movie—which involves characters shrinking down to bug size, then swelling back up to human size, then down again to half human size, then up again to giant size, often in rapid succession, and in the midst of the most hell-bent action—actually is amazing. There's a wonderfully crazed kitchen-battle scene in which a wasp-size Hope finds herself dodging mallet swats and frying pans and running the length of a flying chef's knife as if embarked on a 50-meter sprint. Reed also works up some clever 3D flourishes for a big car chase around the streets of San Francisco (and throws in a giant Pez dispenser, too).
For all of the technical pizzazz on display, the movie's greatest asset is its cast, an actual comic dream team. Michael Peña has possibly never been funnier than he is here, especially in a motor-mouth truth-serum sequence that builds into an aria of mad rappery. And extra-large props are also due his fellow loons T.I. and David Dastmalchian and the reliably droll Randall Park. There may never be room enough for these guys in the larger MCU omni-franchise, but may all of them continue returning in future installments of this mini one.