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‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ comes up big

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become one of the primary driving forces in the world of movies over the past decade. Each of these films makes hundreds of millions at the box office and continues the ever-evolving and unfolding story, moving toward massive paradigm shifts and crossover events.

But here’s the thing – operating on global and cosmic scales presents some issues. Namely – you can’t just keep raising the stakes; narrative stakes can only be raised so many times before things begin to lose their impact and feel forced. To avoid reaching that point, some sort of reset is necessary. With the 20th film in the MCU, the powers that be have chosen to cleanse our palates after the cataclysmic consequences of “Avengers: Infinity War.”

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” brings the MCU back down to Earth, choosing to tell a smaller, largely self-contained story. Taking place before the events of “IW,” the film doesn’t deal with fate-of-the-universe-level consequences. Instead, its impact is primarily on a more individual plane. It exists mostly independent of the other films, without the numerous cameos and tangential MacGuffins that often riddle MCU offerings. That freedom allows “AM&TW” to be lighter and funnier while still providing the superpowered set pieces audiences have come to expect.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, “The Catcher was a Spy”) is under house arrest under the constant supervision of the FBI and Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park, TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat”) as a consequence of his participation in the events of “Captain America: Civil War.” Despite his criminal status, Scott has a solid support system – his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson, TV’s “Togetherness”) loves him, while he has a (weirdly) great relationship with his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer, “The 15:17 to Paris”) and her police detective husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale, “Ferdinand”) and a burgeoning new security business in partnership with his old pal Luis (Michael Pena, “A Wrinkle in Time”).

He’s still on the outs with his old partners, though. Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, “Little Evil”) and her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, “Unlocked”) are on the run from the government following Scott’s actions in Germany. Their quest is to track down Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer, “Murder on the Orient Express”) – long thought lost in the microscopic quantum realm – and bring her home, using a machine called a “quantum tunnel.”

As part of that effort, Hope and Hank have dealings with an unscrupulous dealer in black-market tech named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins, “Tomb Raider”) who has more mercenary plans for Pym’s devices. Plus, there’s a mysterious villain named Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen, “Ready Player One”) who is trying to get her hands on the tunnel for reasons of her own.

Despite their lingering animosity, Hope and Hank need Scott’s help if they’re going to be able to pull off the rescue. While Scott yearns for their forgiveness, he also has just a few days left before his sentence is up and he can go back to living a normal life … but if he screws up, he’s looking at 20 years in prison.

With enemies all around them and a limited window of time, Scott and Hope must suit up and become Ant-Man and the Wasp once again; it’s up to the diminutive duo to save the day.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is the third MCU movie of 2018, following February’s “Black Panther” and the aforementioned “Avengers: Infinity War” – and it is the ideal follow-up to those two films. This latest offering is a wonderful bit of cinematic sorbet, cleansing the palate after the apocalyptic events of “IW.” “AM&TW” doesn’t have the world-weariness and grand scale of 2018’s other two Marvel offerings – and that’s just perfect.

(Stick around for the stingers if you want an idea of how this one connects with the MCU’s bigger picture.)

Director Peyton Reed has embraced this character’s place as a sort of quirky tertiary participant in the MCU. Ant-Man isn’t an American icon or a Norse god or an African king or a green rage monster – he’s just a dude who happened to stumble and joke his way into being a hero. Reed captures that inadvertent superhero vibe wonderfully; his light comedy bona fides make him an unexpectedly effective steward for Scott Lang and company.

There’s a lot of room for comedy in the MCU; never is that clearer than when watching Ant-Man in action. There’s an inherent silliness to the character’s power set – he makes himself tiny and talks to ants (though they’ve also embraced the other side of the size-changing coin as well) – that offers a lot of opportunities for sight gags and comedic action. The script doesn’t skimp on the jokes either. The end result is a lot of fun.

Paul Rudd is an ideal Ant-Man; he has a mastery of self-deprecation that suits the character beautifully. Add to that his inherent sensitivity as a performer and you’re looking at something special. Lilly is a great partner to Rudd; she’s great on her own, while the two of them together have a lovely screwball chemistry. You occasionally get the sense that Douglas can’t quite believe any of this s—t, but he’s good too. Goggins chews on some scenery as Burch, vaguely dandified and Southern-fried. John-Kamen is fine as Ghost, although ultimately the character is kind of forgettable.

And once again, we see that the “Ant-Man” films have the most fun tertiary characters of any in the MCU. Greer and Cannavale are legitimately fun, while I remain convinced that Michael Pena’s Luis is the most entertaining supporting character in the entire Marvel movie oeuvre.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is just what we needed, a step back from the breathless bombast of the previous film. It is funny and sweet, a more grounded story that serves as a welcome respite from the upward-spiraling stakes we’ve been getting.

In short, they go small and come up big.

[5 out of 5]

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