Director Peyton Reed, star and co-writer Paul Rudd and the supporting cast for 2015's Ant-Man return for the inevitable sequel, and if you've seen the first one, you've pretty much seen this one. Last seen on the losing side of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang (Rudd) was sentenced to house arrest and is days away from completing his sentence when a strange vision brings him back into contact with his estranged mentor, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and Pym's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), still fugitives held responsible for Lang's use of Pym's shrinking-growing suit during the 2016 conflict. Coincident with the Pyms' attempt to contact the quantum realm, where Janet Van Dyne was lost thirty years earlier, Lang has a vision suggesting that during his short time in the quantum realm he had somehow made contact with the original Wasp (Michelle Pfeiffer, returning to superhero cinema after more than a quarter-century). Much as they resent Lang for forcing them into a fugitive life, the Pyms realize that he's essential to their plan to rescue Janet through all manner of quantum-this, quantum-that technology. Not only must Lang risk a longer sentence for breaking house arrest, and not only must the Pyms perform delicate science on the run, but all three have to deal with people muscling in on their work. A gangster (Walton Goggins) who'd provided the Pyms with crucial components for their projects now wants commercial control over their work, while a super-powered interloper who comes to be called Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) wants access to the quantum realm to cure her chronic intangibility, the by-product of an accident that killed her father, a former Pym colleague. Meanwhile, the audience expects the Infinity War to break out at any moment, and when it does in mid-credits, the consequences are dire.
That necessary business aside, has any film ever been more about fathers and daughters than this one? Not only do we continue the daughter-surpassing-the-father storyline of the first film, as Hope gets a shrinking costume of her own, and not only are we reminded of Scott's bond with his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), but even Ghost has a father figure in yet another of Pym's old partners, rival scientist and long-ago "Black Goliath" Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Resentment of Pym conflicts with humanitarian instincts as Foster initially strives to help Ghost but ultimately recoils from the selfish ruthlessness of the former SHIELD assassin, who has a mad notion of leeching quantum energy from Janet Van Dyne, should the good guys reach her, in order to save herself. I'm not sure what the point of this triplication is, unless the point is that these storylines are increasingly common as we insist on female empowerment in genre cinema. Whatever the point, Ghost is an entertaining enough villain but suffers from having to share the screen with Goggins and his gangsters, while everyone suffers from the involvement of a bunch of FBI idiots and especially from the return of Scott Lang's ex-con buddies (Michael Pena, Tip Harris and David Dastmalchian), who are now his partners in a budding security business. Those three were just about insufferable in the first film, and there's no question of their insufferability in the sequel. The film, really a Marvel B-movie, is bloated by comedy relief, including a reprise of the storytelling gimmick from the first film in which Pena's character recaps previous events, putting his words in the other actors' mouths. It was interesting the first time, but never since. At least Pena has some natural likability and his character has something of a personality. Dastmalchian's personality boils down to superstition, and Harris doesn't even have that. Nor is Rudd himself particularly hilarious in his comic showcases; Scott Lang often seems more like a shtick than a character, and it's hard to know what more can be done with him, even as we're promised that he'll return in another sequel if not sooner.
For all that the comedy was tiresome, the action kept me interested. While the fight choreography itself is nothing special, the idea of people who can shrink and grow (though the Wasp never becomes giant like Lang can) fighting someone who can turn insubstantial gives an inventive quality to the battles between Ghost and the title characters. I was also amused by the chase scenes with shrunken cars racing through San Francisco, which seem partly an homage to the toy-car chase scene in the SF-set The Dead Pool. These bits are good enough for me to spare Ant-Man and the Wasp a thumbs-down, though the stale comedy parts make it slightly worse than the original film. Both are definitely lower-tier Marvel films, but that seems to be understood by all going in. It also seemed to be understood that something light and possibly funny was needed after the sturm und drang of Infinity War and before the heavy lifting of its sequel next year. That the Ant-Man films are mere programmers by Marvel standards shouldn't be held against them, but I think we have a right to expect a third film to escape the rut the filmmakers seem determined to drive the series into. More of the same next time will be more difficult to forgive.