I think there’s a truth to the alarmist talking point of Marvel Studios ruining cinema that I want to respect, even if I don’t agree with it. Sure, the shared-universe minded, four-quadrant approach to the movie business can be suffocating when that’s all we seem to be fed at times, but it’s an extension of a Hollywood philosophy that’s been in play ever since Spielberg and Lucas blew onto the scene and showed the suits how much money there is to be made in event filmmaking. The question is whether you find validity in this specific iteration of that philosophy—or in plain English, “Are you sick of these goddamn superhero movies yet?” I’ve yet to have my fill; others are over it. For those people, I feel an urge to make clear that I’m not giving Ant-Man and the Wasp the same rating that this site gave You Were Never Really Here because this is some kind of gamechanger for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that lends it sudden arthouse cred. On the contrary, this latest film still pulls from the old playbook. It just runs those old plays incredibly well, at least for someone who still enjoys the brand, with an added florish that gives the whole venture a refreshing air.
The trailers are smartly vague on what Ant-Man and the Wasp is actually about—Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is back in action, he’s working with Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) again, they’re fighting a mysterious “ghost” (Hannah John-Kamen, Killjoys, Ready Player One) that phases through physical matter, and somehow Laurence Fishburne and an ant that plays drums is involved. The trailer is selling big, brassy fun, a light tonic to May’s heavy, heartbreaking Infinity War. It’s not wrong.
What it hides is just how low the stakes are, at least in comparison to other cape films. After the events of Civil War, Scott’s taken a plea deal that leaves him under house arrest for two years and forbidden from ever associating with anyone in violation of the Sokovia Accords, including Hope and Dr. Pym—not that they want anything to do with Scott after he dragged their tech into the fight to begin with, making them unwitting fugitives from justice. When the film picks up, Scott’s a weekend away from the end of his house arrest; if he can go 48 more hours without a violation, he’ll be free to be with his family (Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Abby Ryder Fortson) and run his security business on his own terms. However, Scott has a strange dream about Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), prompting him to reach out to Pym, dragging him into his and Hope’s desperate quest to rescue her from the Quantum Realm.
That’s the movie. There’s no great evil to defeat, just a beloved family member to save and two people whose agendas mercilessly parry any meager chance our heroes may have to save her. The aforementioned Ghost, Ava Starr, can barely control her phasing and is slowly dying; only Pym’s technology can save her. Then there’s Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a small time guy wearing big boy pants who smells tons of money to be made through quantum energy and will not be denied his shot at greatness. These people have very flexible morals, but it’s hard to even call them major threats to the public good, much less flat-out evil.
Starr in particular follows the recent MCU tradition of antagonists whose villainy has sympathetic roots. Her anger at Pym isn’t as well-earned as, say, Killmonger’s anger at Wakanda or Adrian Toomes’ anger at Tony Stark, but it doesn’t need to be. John-Kamen paints Starr as a woman in a blinding amount of physical and emotional pain, who has fully bought into the darkest ideas of her nature—a nature forced onto her as a child by the powers that be under the false promise of a cure—and is thus only barely able to be reasoned with. There’s an implication that our heroes would drop everything to help Starr out if she entered the picture on literally any other weekend but this one, but alas, she’s in the way and she couldn’t care less. On the other hand, Goggins’ Burch isn’t nearly as fleshed out, but again, for what the movie is trying to do, he doesn’t need to be. It’s arguable that Goggins deserves much better, but he understands the simple pleasures of a simple antagonist and makes Burch perfectly slimy and fun to watch with what little material he’s given.
The modest, even approachable nature of these villains gives the film a unique charge despite operating well within the MCU’s usual parameters. The first Ant-Man was often set apart from the other movies by being compared to a heist film, but the sequel seems to leave most if not all of that behind. More than any other Marvel joint, Ant-Man and the Wasp takes on the vibe of an Amblin-esque comic adventure from the 80s; Innerspace is the first one to jump to mind. Joe Dante’s film has a darkness to it that the MCU is usually allergic to, but Peyton Reed (and his small army of screenwriters, including Rudd himself and Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s Chris McKenna) nails a similar balance of tones and has a similiar affection for the humanity of his heroes in these extraordinary circumstances.
Scott Lang’s relative normalcy has always set him apart from the other Avengers; here, Rudd expertly grounds his performance in that normalcy. He’s not super-strong or super-smart, he’s just a decent guy torn between wanting to do what he feels is right and fearing the toll that might take on his relationship with his family. Tempting him back into action is Evangeline Lily as Hope Van Dyne, still stubborn, still hardcore, but visibly relaxed compared to the first movie and better for it. She actually gets to be a partner to Scott this time, bantering with him, cracking jokes of her own, radiating real warmth and affection for him and visible concern for her mother. It’s a refreshing step to the left from the first movie’s ice queen who had to slowly learn to let her guard down around her dad and his new protegé. Closing out the main trio, Michael Douglas is just as much prickly fun as he was last time, but here he gets to round out Hank Pym with some welcome notes of desperation and a quiet reckoning with his own distrustful nature. All put together, the three performances form a hell of a spine for this movie to build on.
It’s Scott’s daughter Cassie who carries the heart of the movie, though, and Abby Ryder Fortson does a wonderful job. She might play to a few cute kid clichés, but she remains real and lovable on her own terms, someone who is very clearly her father’s daughter. Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale also return as Scott’s ex-wife and her husband, but they’re mostly relegated to Scott’s cheerleading section—admittedly disappointing, but a frankly welcome change after they spent most of the first movie scowling at him.
Which kind of backs up the movie’s point. Nearly every one of our characters acts on behalf and in support of family: Pym and Hope are trying to save their matriarch. Scott’s assistance is conditional upon his ability to return to his daughter afterwards. Luis (Michael Peña) concerns himself with the day to day of Scott’s new business because that’s the only way his little family (also including Tip “T.I.” Harris’ Dave and David Dastmalchian’s Kurt) stays together. Even Starr’s pain is tied into her lack of a family to fall back on, and there’s a lot of empathy for her to go around. The MCU tends to be a family-friendly franchise, but this is the first one that I’d actually call a true family film—one of, if not the best non-animated one to come along in years, closing out with a rollicking third-act action sequence that rockets close to the top of my favorite superhero set pieces.
Ironically, that’s where I find my one big issue with the movie: The fact that this sweet-minded romp ultimately has to tie in with the dark fallout of Infinity War somehow. To the film’s benefit, they save the Avengers 4 setup for the post-credit scenes so that it’s not technically part of the story that was told. However, the situation it leaves our heroes in here is brutal, to the point of being somewhat tonally off with the film that preceded it. I’m not necessarily sure kids will have nightmares about it—if they could handle Infinity War, this should be fine—but even knowing that this will probably be undone was cold comfort to me personally. It’s a disappointingly off-key landing for this otherwise warm, wonderful adventure.
That’s kind of how the MCU gets me every time. Some see through the swerves and find a basic blueprint that they’re mostly just tired of, but I can’t help but enjoy the little variations each time out, especially as of late. Spider-Man: Homecoming was a solid coming-of-age comedy. Thor: Ragnarok mixed in a little space opera with a John Milus-esque gladiator movie. Black Panther had a bit of a Bond thing going on (in addition to everything else that makes that movie so essential). But this is a riff that really impresses me: exciting and action-packed as it is, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a rare blockbuster action movie where everyone is mostly just nice to each other.
Watch the trailer here:
All images via Marvel Studios
Directed by Peyton Reed
Written by Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers and Paul Rudd & Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Ferrari
Produced by Kevin Feige & Stephen Broussard
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lily, Michael Douglas, Hannah John-Kamen, Walton Goggins, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 118 minutes