ANT-MAN AND THE WASP | ★★★

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe inches closer to the end of its 22-film storyline, it has finally begun to show glimmers of maturation and inspiration in its mission to expand its universe and dish up varying emotional stakes. “Avengers: Infinity War” is, in many ways, the peak of the Marvel brand that has been peddled with little variation for 10 years now, but it is undeniably the most cathartic of the lot, if not the best. What better way for the next installment to change things up with stakes that are quite literally minuscule compared to the devastation of “Infinity War.” The ambitions of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” are no greater than the tiny hero’s first adventure, employing clear-cut motivations and objectives to serve some refreshingly light thrills. It suffers from the same shortcomings as before, but as a break from the typical good-vs-evil shenanigans, it’s a nice step above the first film.

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For the most part, the MCU prides itself on the pleasant portrayals of its masculine protagonists, throwing countless super-villains in their way only to come out with hardly a scratch on their chiseled physiques and unflappable egos (until “Infinity War,” of course). Aside from James Gunn’s deeply humanistic “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, the closest that the franchise came to giving us an imperfect hero was in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Peter Parker fumbled his way through saving the world and high school amusingly enough, but his actions and intentions were hardly met with significant consequences. After nearly getting a whole boat of people killed, and being met with the disappointment of his high school crush, he walked away just about the same person he was when the film started.

In “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) runs into trouble every time he has to put the suit on. The film even begins with him under house arrest, following his involvement in the events of “Captain America: Civil War.” This of course means sparse visits from his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), but it also forces partners-in-crime Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) to sever ties with him after their technology was exploited during Scott’s team-up with Steve Rogers. Once the film’s central adventure kicks off, Scott faces near-constant judgment from Hank and Hope, and even as he aids in their mission to save Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hope’s mother and Hank’s wife, from the dangerous Quantum Realm, he is still met with their disillusionment as he stumbles from one point in the mission to the next. Granted, Scott’s attempts to prove his worth as a helpful ally have little emotional traction, but it’s fun to watch a hero trip over himself repeatedly and actually get some scrutiny for it.

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The best moments of Scott’s adorable fallibility are framed with Hope by his side as The Wasp. There’s a hilarious bit where Scott’s suit malfunctions, reducing him to about half his actual size. As he and Hope sneak into Cassie’s school to retrieve something of importance, Hope has a field day chuckling at his child-sized mishaps. To see her zip through the frame with the kind of feminine badassery that the MCU has been lacking in is as cool as you might expect, but Hope’s inclusion in the action accomplishes just as much for gender equality as “Wonder Woman” did last year. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s empowerment for empowerment’s sake. Lilly’s confidence and no-nonsese demeanor make it all worthwhile, though.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” has no real stakes compared to the best Marvel efforts, but that’s precisely why it kind of works. Thanos was always going to be a hard act to follow, so the film ditches a chief antagonist altogether, allowing for action sequences with more dynamic catalysts. Sure, there’s the unstable Ghost (played wonderfully by Hannah John-Kamen), and black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), but they’re simply hurdles for the heroes to jump. On every other front, the film serves up the usual Marvel diet. Humor continues to bring everything down whenever the film stops itself for moments of improv - Michael Peña’s Luis more or less repeats himself here. Nevertheless, the action, though a little over-edited, remains as slick as ever, topping off a fun little entry in the Marvel pantheon that is clever enough to hold everyone over until the series reaches its final countdown.

(6/10)