Paul Rudd in a scene from “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” (Disney/Marvel Studios via AP)

“Ant-Man and the Wasp”: In theaters.

After the cultural splendor of “Black Panther” and the epic team-up of “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp” sets itself apart by going small. The sequel to 2015’s underrated “Ant-Man” takes a scaled-down approach to an exciting, clever and funny superhero story with personal stakes. It completes the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s hat trick of excellent films this year.

Taking place before the events of “Infinity War,” the 20th film in the comic book franchise catches up with cat burglar-turned-superhero Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). The Avenger and dutiful dad has been on house arrest – and out of the superhero game – after running off to help government fugitive Captain America in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.”

Because of his rash actions, Scott is estranged from his mentor, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the inventor of the Ant-Man shrinking suit, and his girlfriend, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Hank’s daughter. On the run from the feds, the father and daughter have been feverishly working to find Hope’s missing mother, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeifer), who disappeared 30 years ago in a subatomic dimension known as the Quantum Realm. Hope herself has been training to become a superhero – the Wasp, another shrinking suit formerly worn by her mother enhanced with more abilities than Ant-Man’s.

The three are reunited when Scott has information about Janet’s whereabouts in the Quantum Realm, from where he escaped in the previous movie. Hope and Hank have been developing valuable technology to bring back Janet. But their work is in high demand as a mysterious villain who phases through walls – Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) – wants to steal it, along with opportunistic crime boss Sonny Birch (Walter Goggins). Can the gang rescue Janet in time?

With its dynamic direction and fast pace, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” improves upon its predecessor. While the 2015 film had original director and screenwriter Edgar Wright’s fingerprints on it, returning director Peyton Reed wields a more confident grasp this time around. The first film’s plot was pretty straightforward as a superhero origin story. But the sequel juggles its many plates masterfully, deftly balancing action, comedy and heart-tugging moments.

The action sequences deliver more of the size-altering hi-jinks that made the first film so much fun. There’s shrinking car chases, supersized PEZ dispensers, obedient ants and the return of Ant-Man’s growing ability, Giant-Man, as first seen in “Civil War.” One hilarious sequence in a school highlights Rudd’s flair for physical comedy. The film also brings Douglas and Michael Pena – as scene-stealing ex-con Luis – in on the action.

Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas star in “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” (Disney/Marvel Studios via AP)

While the first “Ant-Man” was a heist film, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is a family film. Instead of saving the world, the heroes are working to save family. Scott, Hope and Hank must repair their pseudo-family if they have any hope of rescuing Janet. While trying to redeem himself in Hope and Hank’s eyes, Scott also seeks to protect his precocious daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), from the dangers that come with being a superhero. Rudd once again shines as Scott, a relatable everyman driven by his love for his daughter.

While the first film established a father-son dynamic between Scott and Hank, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” beautifully explores the mother-daughter relationship between Hope and Janet. Hope follows in her mother’s brave footsteps to try and bring Janet home.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is the first MCU movie to feature a female superhero in the title, a momentous occasion for the franchise. And Lilly’s Wasp is worthy of the honor. The first “Ant-Man” established Hope as intelligent, strong and more than capable to take on the Wasp mantle, showing her teaching Scott how to punch. In the sequel, Lilly fulfills her potential, having a blast as a full-fledged superhero. In a dazzling debut amid flying knives and skilled fight moves, her first action sequence as the Wasp comes before Scott even puts on the Ant-Man suit.

The film makes it clear that the Wasp and Ant-Man have an equal partnership, with each taking turns saving the other. Lilly and Rudd make a good romantic and action pair. The two complement each other as Hope’s thoroughness balances Scott’s recklessness.

Most of the villains in “Ant-Man and the Wasp” are not really villains, continuing the MCU’s recent trend of better-developed antagonists. As Ghost, John-Kamen is sympathetic and complex, a victim of circumstances whose special abilities have been exploited. Introduced as a rival to Hank, Laurence Fishburne adds gravitas as Bill Foster, a former colleague who had a falling out with the scientist. But Goggins’ crime boss is strictly a plot devise used to drive the characters from one location to another.

Despite its connections to other films in the MCU, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” largely feels like a standalone adventure, a delightful pick-me-up from the gut-punching ending of “Infinity War.” But be sure to stick around for two end-credits scenes that remind us of what we’re in for when the “Infinity War” follow-up hit theaters less than a year from now.

4.5 out of 5 stars