Review Ms. Marvel 1×1: Generation Why

✯✯✯✯½

This is the start of a 6 week test for me so we will see how this goes. I’ve never reviewed a TV show without at least a season or even a second episode. Future reviews may be wisps. But we will see.

Who is the breakout comic book character of the last 15 years? There are a number of good answers. Harley Quinn pulled away and got a semi-solo film along with a hit show. Obviously Deadpool. I could argue the Guardians of the Galaxy. But there is a character that feels unique to me. Kamala Khan made her first cameo 9 years ago, her first true appearance 8-1/2 years ago, and had her first TV episode yesterday. I know a ton of people who don’t really read comics but who got in to read her. To me, Kamala is the indisputable breakout character.

So it goes without saying her first appearance in live action–she was in Marvel Rising in animation–had to be correct. The pressure was almost impossibly high with the maximum amount of eyes. There couldn’t be a Thor that gets summoned by a college student here. Especially when you factor in the glorious climate we’re in. If you’re doing a show with a Muslim heroine good enough absolutely isn’t. Great was needed. The pilot had to be true to the character and high quality. If not, no second shot.

Whew, we’re good for now.

The first episode is a fantastic start, a stylish, funny, clever adaptation of the comics that draws from a diverse blend of influences ranging from the comics and the Avengers game to Clarissa Explains it All and Chris Columbus’ golden age. This is a 40 minute ride that also accomplishes what most Marvel pilots haven’t and feels like an actual pilot to an ongoing series as opposed to a self contained story. I actually felt like I was watching a show.

The pilot, named after the first arc of the comic in one of many nods to the material, focus on Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), a Muslim teenager in New Jersey facing a very normal life as a fangirl. She’s Avengers obsessed with her YouTube channel rapidly filling in how the world views the heroes along with answering the plothole of how anybody on the street knows what happened at the end of Endgame. (Scott Lang is a constant podcast guest.) She’s a normal high schooler with a best friend (Matt Lintz), a popular girl enemy (Laurel Marsden), and of course parents that don’t understand her (Mohan Kapur and Zenobia Shroff).

The show kicks off when a box of her grandmother’s things is sent to Kamala as she is looking to fix up a Captain Marvel costume for a fan con. Kamala discovers a bracelet and adds it to her costume as she sneaks out to the con. Then she puts the bracelet on and of course everything goes awry as it gives her hard light powers. A disaster ensues. And of course she gets caught by her mother. But we know what she can do. End of episode.

I’m working from what amounts to one issue of a comic. And I think the fact that I can judge this in those terms is how you know it nailed the job it has as such. We have a heroine. We have a cast. We have a world. We have a distinctive tone. We have an origin. The only thing we don’t have is the costume yet. But we have so many things in place to run from here. And it’s hard not to want that next episode.

I’ll get the obvious thing everyone is praising out now. This show belongs to Iman Vellani who is Christopher Reeve and Hugh Jackman level perfect as Kamala. Yes there’s a lot of metatext that she’s very similar. I don’t care. I care that she sells Kamala and she is from the first word the character we love. If the character never got her powers, I would be hooked on just her.

But of course she’s not the only actor singing. I was shocked at how much Kapur and Shroff sell their work as her parents. The easy thing to do is to have these characters be stern and unlikable. They’re deeply warm, funny people that obviously love their daughter. They really help push this to another level. If the show is to be about a daughter going against her parents, I genuinely feel like the deck is stacked fairly to make it hurt. Lintz and Marsden also fill their roles well, though they don’t have all the material I know their characters can get just yet from the comics. These are characters to watch.

The show gets off to a strong start technically. The pilot comes from directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah who show tremendous flair here. The show has a distinct, weird look with graphics that feel genuinely of a young woman’s mind and even a great fantasy scene. It’s also well written by showrunner Bisha K. Ali. The dialogue crackles.

I’m not all in here. It’s too early to tell if the change of origin from Inhumanity (one of my least favorite comic events ever for the record) to a family artifact will work. It feels like it could go bad. I also feel like while a clash between generations is a teenage trope, I want this to feel real and earned and not the typical one we see with Muslim characters as if conservative families of all kinds don’t have it. Lastly, it really does irk me her Muslim friend Nakia is barely in it while her white bully gets far more screen time. (Bruno, Lintz’s character, is in proportion to the comics.)

We’re off to a great start though. This is what Kamala Khan deserves.

‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ Review: The Wall-Crawler Returns in Fine Form

✯✯✯✯½

It’s pretty great to be a Spider-Man fan. The character has had several high quality cartoons, a number of good video games, a fairly consistent level of quality in the comics as long as we ignore the Clone Saga, and of course multiple good to great movies. Sure there have been misfires but honestly I’d only really call The Amazing Spider-Man 2 outright awful. Overall the character is remarkable in his consistency.

Thus my expectations were quite high for Spider-Man: Far From Home, his second starring role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While his handling in the MCU has been rather divisive, I’ve honestly enjoyed it. I’m kinda happy to have an angst-light take after The Amazing Spider-Man duology drowned in sadness. This is a different, more upbeat take and I’m for it. Add in Mysterio, one of my favorite villains, and I was ready. Was I let down?

In the aftermath of the “blip,” life is slowly returning to normal. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is back at school alongside his friends, all of whom also fell prey to Thanos’ snap and the subsequent unsnap. While he’s under pressure as one of the few living Avengers, all he wants is to unwind and relax on a school trip to Europe where he hopes to tell MJ (Zendaya) how he feels about her. Of course that’s not going to happen. A series of element monsters are ravaging the continent and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) taps Peter to help stop them. Fortunately, help comes in the form of otherworldly warrior Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) who might just be the key to everything provided you know nothing about the character.

This movie is an unadorned blast. I want to get that out of the way fast. This is one of the most unrelentingly entertaining comic book movies in a while. Unlike the epic scale of Avengers: Endgame or the dour tone of Captain Marvel, this is an old fashioned stop the bad guy slugfest like Shazam was earlier this year. It’s constantly laugh out loud hilarious with a cast of talented comedic actors crushing every line.

That light tone doesn’t erase the thrills though. I really love how strongly the film puts the focus on heroism. Peter wants to have fun and be a normal teenager but he still stands up at every moment to save the day. A sequence in Venice where he has to protect his friends unmasked is a delight while the film delivers one epic climax in London that gave my fanboy heart a rush.

What helps is the fun of for once having an outright evil villain in a Spider-Man movie. I’m not going to pretend that Mysterio is in fact a hero. Of course he’s not. He’s not a victim like The Vulture or Doctor Octopus. He’s a greedy supervillain without any complexity and Gyllenhaal is having so much fun here it’s infectious. His particular power set is brilliantly executed on screen and cleverly connects to things we’ve seen earlier in universe.

The returning cast is great. Holland continues to be a different yet identifiable take on Spider-Man. Zendaya’s MJ gets an upgrade to love interest but none of her darkly comical snark has been muted. The supporting cast gets more to do this time with Jacob Batalon’s Ned and Angourie Rice’s Betty getting a hysterical romantic subplot while Tony Revolori’s Flash Thompson gets to be more of the bully from the (early) comics.

It’s not perfect though. For one thing, it’s pretty clear this started life long before the effects of Infinity War/Endgame were known and no amount of retrofitting can mask that. It’s a bit hard to swallow high schoolers would just be sent to Europe after half of all life was wiped out and reemerged 5 years later. Also, yes, it would be nice to just once hear the name Ben Parker while Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) continues to largely be played as eye candy.  And no, I didn’t need the “Peter Tingle” running gag.

But I’m a fan at heart and more than any time in the last 15 years, this gave me the rush of Spider-Man in live action. Is it the fidelity of Raimi or the emotional core of TASM? No. It’s a lighter, individual take. But it still understands that Peter Parker is the guy rushing into danger when he’d rather be having fun. Forget anything else. That’s my Spider-Man. Far From Home nailed him.

And oh that mid credits scene. More than ever, stay seated because this one is the best credits scene yet. It sets up the next film in a way that will blow your mind.

‘Dark Phoenix’ Review: A Sour Final Note for the X-Men Series

✯✯

Following Hugh Jackman’s final tenure as the Wolverine in Logan, the X-Men series finally comes to its own end by directly adapting the Dark Phoenix Saga – if the title wouldn’t already give that away. But even as a story of this sort would have had so much potential given what the X-Men have always stood for in their long run on the big screen, Dark Phoenix doesn’t even feel engaged with its own story to feel like there’s any sense of closure coming about. It doesn’t even feel like it was made to be a proper ending to this series with Disney having acquired Fox as a means of getting the rights to include the X-Men into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For his directorial debut, it doesn’t even seem Simon Kinberg was even prepared to give this an ending and thus he tried to make Dark Phoenix too many things all at once but there was never a point in time when it ever felt like it were on its way to adding up properly. It doesn’t have anything to answer now that it’s all come to a finish, but it’s not quite the disaster it could have been with all the constant reshoots pushing the film back over and over again.

Continue reading →

“Avengers: Endgame” Review: Achieving a Sense of Finality Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe

✯✯✯✯

**SPOILER WARNING: This review does not spoil Endgame, but spoilers for Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Captain Marvel are also brought up. If you have not seen the aforementioned films, read this review at your own risk.**

Although I’ve never loved any of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe I’ve always admired the impact that they left behind on modern culture and with the latest Avengers film there’s already a sense of finality to the first phase as these films continue coming out over the years. But the biggest challenge that Infinity War had already faced was how it could still manage to mix the stories of nearly twenty films to come together for one big face-off, and with two more films having followed since, Endgame already has us awaiting something even grander now that the second Ant-Man film and Captain Marvel have already gotten out of the way. At a running time of a little bit over three hours, Marvel already promises something of such a grand scale and to say the least, they’ve accomplished a task that almost seemed near impossible. For Endgame isn’t only the best of the four Avengers films but it’s also a film that utilizes the legacy that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has accomplished in a little over ten years in order to give viewers who have followed suit for the longest time more than what would already make a memorable closer. It’s a film that was made out of love for everything that made the Marvel Cinematic Universe so grand, and the results may not be perfect but also provide a satisfying climax.

Continue reading →

‘Glass’ Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s Belated Sequel Fulfills its Shattered Potential

✯✯✯½

M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass is a film that seems to feel like in its own sort of league from the many other superhero films that also come out over the years, and that’s one among a few things that I find to be most welcoming about it. Nearly twenty years after the release of Unbreakable came out and offered a refreshing perspective on the superhero genre, with its deconstruction of the general structure, Shyamalan’s many ideas continued flowing with the potential of reaching a greater stature. When Split came out in 2017, there was that reminder Shyamalan has yet to lose his touch – because of the bridge presented between the two films. So with bringing both films together in Glass, one would only be left wondering how much further can we bring these ideas to come together in order to create a different sort of superhero film by bridging the gaps between both films. For a while, I’ve been wondering about how exactly everything would be culminating in the end, and though I didn’t quite get the answers that I was hoping for, there’s still a lot to be admired about what how the threads come together in Glass.

Continue reading →

Shazam! Review: Funny and Innocent on the Outside, Dark but Sweet on the Inside

✯✯✯✯

Almost a different entity entirely from the rest of the films of the DC Extended Universe but it also shows itself to be for the best in the case of Shazam!. It’s the sort of film that one can look at in their late teens, or maybe even early adult years to allow oneself to think about how much they would have wanted a film of this sort to have come out when they were younger because it stands for just about everything that made these points in life so wonderful for ourselves. Yet besides being a nice little crack at comedy from the DC Extended Universe, it’s also a film that never feels afraid to enter darker territory in order to develop a sense of growth in its eager leads. Though that’s only the least of what made Shazam’s journey every bit as endearing as it was in here. It’s a pure delight because it’s never afraid to just embrace the kid inside, especially in its own lead character, but also because of how surprisingly sweet it is as a tale about families coming together, and better yet, what defines a loving family.

Continue reading →

‘Aquaman’ Review: Working with Too Much Within Too Little

✯✯✯

There’s a lot about Aquaman that easily should have placed it above most other films from the DC Extended Universe, but even if that were the case it also shows how much they still have yet to overcome after starting off with a rather rocky note. In bringing the underwater superhero to the big screen, James Wan does the very best that he can in order to try and improve upon the rather rough introduction that we got from him through the halfway-completed Justice League but even the roughest patches of Aquaman still ended up reminding me of what held back Justice League from being as great as it could have been. Yet despite that, it’s also a case where the film’s weirdest moments also churn out some of the more fascinating aspects to come out from the film because it’s hard enough having any clear idea what’s going on, the least of what can be said when you have so much going on underwater with so much dramatic heft. You’re left wondering how much of this really is necessary, and how much actually means anything.

Continue reading →

Review: Characters and Theme Do the Heavy Lifting in Captain Marvel

✯✯✯¾

…hiring Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck to direct a major tentpole superhero film is like getting Jenny Lewis to form an arena rock supergroup to play at Madison Square Garden. After you manage to convince yourself that it’s not a joke, the next question becomes “How does someone as introspective and particular as Jenny Fucking Lewis get interested in doing something big, catchy, and crowd-pleasing?”

[…]

It’s absurd to think that Captain Marvel is actually going to be a reflective indie drama about a young woman trying to make her way in a complicated world as she comes to terms with the Kree being that is fused within her. The core of it is probably going to involve a lot of impressive fighting over a glowing doodad that has the power to remake or destroy the world, set to a big ol’ Brian Tyler score and hopefully laid against a strong emotional spine. Still, putting Boden and Fleck on the job gives everything around that core the potential to be very, very interesting.

Yours Truly, “How Boden and Fleck Changes the Game for Marvel Studios and Captain Marvel,” Deadshirt.net, 4/25/17

I’m honestly shocked at how close to the mark I was on this.

Even as I was making that call, I was mentally hedging my bets. I felt like whatever the married filmmaking team would bring to Captain Marvel had to be different than the stuff that propelled movies like Half Nelson, Sugar, and Mississippi Grind. The game changes significantly when you’re doing tentpoles; a can-do Brooklyn spirit only gets you so far when you have to deal with multiple VFX houses, coordinate with a second unit that shoots your action scenes as opposed to just inserts, take corporate considerations into account, and so many other headaches that get in the way of the art. And that’s before you remember that any work you do for Marvel has to be tied into its greater Cinematic Universe—something that severely dampened the lovable Amblinesque spirit of Ant-Man and the Wasp.

And on one level, it feels like the machine broke them. Captain Marvel is the work of someone who isn’t super comfortable playing to anything bigger than the orchestra halls they’re used to. The action scenes are mostly okay (with one standout I’ll talk about in a bit), but poorly paced; Boden and Fleck try to infuse them with a fluid, unpredictable sensibility, but it comes at a cost the film can’t entirely cover. An example: There’s an early action scene where Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is fighting off a bunch of Skrull warriors; one of them growls at her in a poor attempt to intimidate her, but Carol mockingly growls back before kicking his ass. That’s a gag that was used in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy—not that I’m calling foul. But whereas Sommers was smart enough to sell the gag by slowing down the cutting and using close-ups to give the audience a chance to fully absorb it, Boden/Fleck just runs the play like it was an afterthought. Granted, that’s what makes it not, you know, outright theft, but the upshot is it lacks impact—and it’s a problem with all the action scenes in this ostensible action movie. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to rub this thing’s shoulders and whisper, “Breathe.”

There’s other little things that detract from the whole experience of the film: There’s a major continuity error in the first fight that even I, Mr. “Plot Hole Culture Is A Blight On Film Appreciation,” feel compelled to call out (though it’s such a stupid mistake I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed something that explained it) [UPDATE 6/18/19: Without going into detail, I sure did. I’m leaving this up for academic purposes, but feel free to disregard this complaint.], and the alien designs are a little samey, making it difficult to tell one character from another sometimes. As a tentpole, it doesn’t quite hit the spot. It’s mid-tier MCU; plenty good, just not impressive when compared to what some of these films have been able to do within Marvel’s tight constraints. Yet as unimpressive as that core is, everything swirling around it is interesting and flat-out entertaining, keeping this movie heroically afloat. It’s not exactly how I called it, but I’ll sure take it.

Captain Marvel is set in 1995, but we don’t get to Earth until about the end of the first act. We’re introduced to Carol on a distant planet that’s home to an advanced civilization, the Kree. The Kree are locked in a war with the shapeshifting Skrulls, who keep invading and colonizing border planets by disguising themselves as ordinary citizens of the galaxy. Carol—who lost her memory six years prior—is part of a specialized task force led by her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). One of their missions goes bad, placing Carol in the clutches of Talos (perennial bad guy Ben Mendelsohn). Talos is desperate to extract information about possible lightspeed technology from Carol’s memories, alerting her to the whole other life she had on Earth, complete with a best friend (Lashana Lynch) and a very different kind of mentor (Annette Bening). Her escape crash-lands her into a Blockbuster Video, and with the help of a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the mission is set: Get her hands on this tech before the Skrulls do, and figure out why she knows so much about it.

The script’s thematic work is smart, building off the talent Skrulls have for impersonation to talk a little bit about identity and perception, how we define being a soldier or a woman. The twists of the narrative are fairly easy to see coming if you’ve studied enough MCU movies (there’s plenty of shared DNA with The Winter Soldier), but they mostly feel appropriate and earned rather than hackneyed. I’ll steer clear of major spoilers, but I’d like to go in depth here: during a spar with Yon-Rogg in the film’s opening minutes, Carol is cautioned by her mentor not to let her emotions get the better of her in a fight. Those who remember Guardians of the Galaxy know that Kree government isn’t exactly considered noble or innocent; those that don’t might have their red flags up anyway because a man telling a woman not to get emotional is usually a sign that he’s a douchebag. Yet the context softens it at first glance; control is important in the study of any martial art, and having this conversation in the second scene of the film, during a spar, suggests to the genre-savvy viewer that Carol’s arc will involve controlling those pesky emotions of hers to become a stronger fighter.

Of course, that’s not what the movie is going for. Now to be sure, “We are better for having emotions” isn’t a revolutionary observation at all; it’s been around since before Gene Roddenberry’s day, and just last summer, Christopher McQuarrie built one of the greatest action movies ever made on that idea. But the way Captain Marvel builds to it draws interesting parallels to how women are seen and treated in patriarchal societies. So even if I saw the twists coming—and though I had some vague feelings, I thought the mystery at the center of the film did a great job of holding its cards close to the vest—it wouldn’t have mattered to me because the film plays fair and it all clicks.

On a related note: This movie started getting firebombed by the alt-right after Brie Larson had the nerve to insist that people other than white men should be part of the film’s press tour. (Which, of course, makes it that much more difficult to say anything negative about the film, regardless of faith or fairness. Thanks, assholes.) But if that didn’t scare the ever-living shit out of those chuds, the content of this film almost certainly would have; it’s critical of patriarchal rule in far less veiled ways than Wonder Woman ever was. The climax even hilariously comes down to the film’s male antagonist essentially screaming for Carol to “DEBATE ME,” a common alt-right discrediting tactic on social media. (And not for nothing, but the whole movie could also be read as an aggressive two-fingered salute to the so-called “Mary Sue” criticism these scumbags just love to fall back on.)

Even beyond what it stands for, however, the film does great work in another crucial area: character. The action scenes may be take-or-leave, but character has always been Boden and Fleck’s strength, and even in a genre that fits them like an older sibling’s formal wear, they’re still delightfully on brand. Larson’s performance is actually emblematic of this. In action, spitting out one-liners and trying to play tough, she’s oddly stiff and subtly over-mannered. (One particular exchange she has with a secondary antagonist feels like it came out of a Wes Anderson film.) Put her in an explosionless room with Lynch or Law or Mendelsohn or Bening or Jackson, and she’s the same brilliant, natural performer you remember from Short Term 12 and Room.

While certain people on the fringes of the main cast don’t get enough material to really make an impression (Clark Gregg, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Gemma Chan), anyone who gets a proper turn at the plate knocks it out of the park. Sam Jackson has an absolute blast playing this younger, more freewheeling version of Nick Fury, and his buddy-cop chemistry with Larson (who previously acted with him on Kong: Skull Island and directed him in Unicorn Store, which is finally getting released on Netflix next month) is on point. Lynch and Law are similarly great foils for Larson, and Mendelsohn makes the absolute best of his typecasting. And as someone who shamefully has yet to check out 20th Century Women, I can’t believe I didn’t realize how much I missed seeing Annette Bening around until I saw her kick an astonishing amount of ass here. Strong character work has always been a part of the Marvel Studios brand, but here it’s the best I ever remember it being, and future Marvel directors would do well to study how Boden and Fleck staged these dialogue scenes. In fact, if Captain Marvel 2 is just these people playing poker and talking shit with no superheroics, I’ll preemptively declare it the best film of whatever year it’s released.

Of course it won’t be, but there’s plenty of hope for a better sequel: there’s a surprisingly tense chase scene set in the file room of a secret USAF base that suggests the filmmakers have their suspense fundamentals down and could probably top themselves with a stronger second unit. Technical credits are otherwise solid across the board; Ben Davis’ photography is often gorgeous. Andy Nicholson’s production design does a great job recreating the mid-90s LA we remember from movies like Speed, True Lies, and Face/Off. And Pinar Topak’s music is…there, honestly, but I give her points for occasionally breaking out a fake Rhodes keyboard like all the great 90s TV dramas did at one point. It’s ultimately another thing emblematic of Captain Marvel as a whole: It doesn’t connect like I hoped it would, but the inspired elements around it point to a very interesting future.

It feels good to be mostly right.


Watch the trailer here:

All images via Marvel Studios


Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Screenplay by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Story by Nicole Perlman & Meg LeFauve and Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Produced by Kevin Feige
Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Lashana Lynch, Annette Bening
Release Year: 2019
Running Time: 124 minutes

The Joys of Spider-Man’s Long Lasting Legacy with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: A Review

✯✯✯✯½

I’ve never been the biggest Spider-Man fan growing up, even to the point I find Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy quite overrated minus Spider-Man 2. Yet watching Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse I never found myself watching Spider-Man in the same way that I’ve always done so for way too long. As a matter of fact, this is also the first time in which I’d actually felt I was watching a take on Spider-Man that I’ve been waiting on for way too long, one that feels like the sort of superhero film I’d wanted to see all my life. It’s a superhero film that embraces everything that made the subgenre resonate so perfectly in our minds, because of how much it embraces its comic book roots. And for being the perfect throwback in that sense, not only does Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse make for an incredibly satisfying viewing experience, but it also feels like a film that reaches out to best carry the spirit of what makes its comic book roots so distinctive – and one that even utilizes its own medium to become something far more in the end. It’s only fitting enough to admit that this is the most excited I’ve been for a sequel to a superhero film in a while, if they were ever going to make one at that.

Continue reading →

Ant-Man and the Wasp Review: Superhero Sequel is Delightfully On Brand and On Fire

✯✯✯✯½

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.

mv5bmzuymmewowitmdbkyi00ywq1lwjjnwytntuxndrin2nimje3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntc5otmwotq-_v1_sy1000_cr0014991000_al_

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, KilljoysReady 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.

mv5bmduxytc5otmtmwjhyi00mzi3lwi4mtityme3owi0m2vmndeyxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynzk3nduzntc-_v1_sy1000_cr0015031000_al_

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.

mv5bzdg5zwy0nwutogm4my00yjm5ltkzzmitymi5zwu3ztk0nzrjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynzk3nduzntc-_v1_sy1000_cr0014991000_al_

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