Ant-Man And The Wasp
Like many others in the summer of 2015, I described Ant-Man as “a breath of fresh air” for the MCU, a back-to-basics tale that stripped away the bombast and over-the-top action of other entries in the series, in favour of a humorous and at times heart-warming story of fathers trying to connect with their children, while also shrinking to microscopic size and controlling ants through telepathy. It had some strong central performances making up for a very lame villain, and left things headed in a promising direction.
Since then, the MCU has gone through seven other films, including one where Paul Rudd showed up again, and the bombast and the over-the-top action reached apocalyptic levels with Infinity War. An excellent time then for Scott Lang to have his second adventure, and it will never be a bad time for a female superhero to share the billing, the first time the MCU has deigned to put one in a title (it won’t be until next year’s Captain Marvel, the 21st instalment, that we’ll get one on her own). Is Peyton Reed’s second go at miniature daring-do as enjoyable as the first, or is Ant-Man already running on empty?
Two years after the battle at Leipzig Airport, Scott Lang (Rudd) awaits the end of his house arrest and the chance to resume a normal life, even if he is still barred from contacting on-the-run Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope van Diem (Evangeline Lilly). But when their experiments to try and track down their mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), lost for 30 years in the quantum realm, reach a critical point, Scott is drawn back into their lives, along with the mysterious phase shifting thief/assassin Ghost (Hannah John-Karmen).
While it lacks some of the same punch and visual delight of the first one, Ant-Man And The Wasp does what it sets out to do, which is to deliver a low-stakes sci-fi action-adventure/comedy, that never takes itself too seriously, and really doesn’t expect you to do so either. In a way that’s an issue, and I’ll get into that, but it suffices to say that it’s hard not to enjoy Ant-Man And The Wasp, even as a disposable side-adventure among the much bigger universe-altering affairs it is sandwiched between.
With Ant-Man working very well as a heist movie, Reed sticks to the non-traditional (for the genre) route, by making Ant-Man And The Wasp a sort-of quasi rescue movie, with Hank and Hope trying to save Janet, who has been lost in the quantum realm for 30 years. No intergalactic threats, no alien invasions, no superweapons that could destroy the world, just a father and daughter trying to save mom, and roping in the new guy for help. There are some nice emotional stakes here to play with: Pym’s guilt over Janet’s disappearance; the absence of a mother from Hope’s life; Scott’s regrets over the Leipzig incident and attempts to make amends; Scott’s relationship with his own daughter, and his own locked-in man-child state; Scott and Hope’s stalled romantic relationship; Hank’s quasi-father role for Scott; and so on and so forth. One of the things that works well about this particular franchise is how down-to-earth and real the characters and their problems are, before you inject the fantastical. The key theme of Ant-Man And The Wasp would appear to be “Nothing is more important than family” and only then can you add on “especially when some of it is lost in the quantum realm”.
But an asterix must be applied, as Ant-Man And The Wasp errs in a Doctor Who-ish sort of way, in that it is hard to get too engaged with the plot, thanks to heapings of magic science and the MCU’s traditional Achilles heel, ill-placed comedy. There is no problem that Hank and Hope can’t technobabble away, there is no life-threatening situation that can’t be dismissed with a nod, wink and one-liner. At any moment a random jumble of science-sounding terminology can blow away whatever threat the trio are facing, and if Ghost or Walter Goggins’ supplementary bad guy are waving superpowers or guns around, well, just say something sarcastic or get into a discussion on the proper definition of “truth serem” or have a wacky flashback with Michael Pena narrating, and everything is going to be all OK. It’s a sci-fi film so there will be technobabble, and the jokes are funny. But you can’t take any part of Ant-Man And The Wasp too seriously because of thes, even when the film actually wants you too.
It’s anchored by the fine performances of its principals, that help to alleviate any other shortcomings that may crop up. Rudd, blending action and comedy in a way he seems remarkably confident in, seems very at ease in the skin of ex-con with a heart of gold Scott Lang (even if he is almost a supporting player to the other two in this adventure), Evangeline Lilly steps it up as Hope and Michael Douglas, who could really have sleepwalked through this kind of late-in-career offering, actually improves on his more subdued performance from the first one. There is a nice balance between the three, with Rudd’s excellent comedic timing, Lilly’s emotional connection to the central crux and Douglas’ occasional flashes of anger (a Marvel hero that is actually just an asshole is positively refreshing).
It is with the other cast members that things start to blip. Fishburne has a large enough presence and interesting backstory with Hank Pym that I really wanted to see more of him, and Walter Goggins seems to exist just to serve as a sort of additional complication when he could arguably have been the main antagonist. A host of others, mostly from comedic backgrounds, come and go quickly: Michael Pena, Bobby Cannavale, Tip “T.I” Harris, Randall Park and David Dastmalchian all pop up for what amount to extended cameos, though at least the slightly racist humour from some of them that populated Ant-Man has been scaled back.
The biggest disappointment in acting terms is probably John-Karmen, though it isn’t entirely her fault. Having improved upon its biggest weakness in recent instalments, the MCU goes right back to having difficulties with its main antagonists in Ant-Man And The Wasp. Ghost has a cheap look, a standard tragic backstory, an ill-guided reason for seeking revenge and so on and so on. Ant-Man’s Yellowjacket was one of the most underwhelming parts of that film, and Ghost is actually worse, with John-Karmen lost in a generic angry/frustrated bad guy performance, that has to give way to the central trio in terms of screen time.
The script, which like Ant-Man appears to have been by committee (which includes Rudd), mostly pops, maintaining a decent flow of drama and humour, but errs rather seriously in a succession of exposition dump scenes, that are among the most awkward I have seen from any MCU property. One, featuring FBI agent Jimmy Woo explaining why Lang is under house arrest to his daughter is remarkably painful to watch, and might as well have had flashing text underneath that would read “If you haven’t seen Civil War, pay attention to this part!”. The afore-mentioned issue with magic science is lanterned with Lang’s increasingly hilarious nodding along and later claims that people are using the word “quantum” too much, but “owning” the issue doesn’t make it go away.
In visual terms, Ant-Man And The Wasp maintains the fascination from the first, with the possibility for unique action scenes, given the premise, played out really well. Some of them have very traditional baselines – car chases, a shady deal gone wrong etc – but introduce that element of things shrinking or growing in size, and you have something special on hand, with Reed delighting in how he can play with scale. It never quite reaches the delightfully unique levels of Ant-Man’s finale, which took place among a child’s train set, but is still something to see nonetheless. There are other things to marvel at too: the office building that becomes a piece of luggage, Rudd’s malfunctioning suit leaving him a dwarf, and a truck used as a scooter, all wrapped in a warm and fuzzy colour palette. Less welcome is the garish and repeating product placement in these scenes, most notably various brands of automobile, whose logos are kept dead centre of frame where ever possible. The score, from Christophe Beck, is also under-whelming, making little advancement on the 2015 instalment, which had some of the best MCU music in a while.
It is only in its mid and post-credits moments that Ant-Man And The Wasp suddenly remembers the universal catastrophe ushered in by the conclusion of Infinity War, and therein it lays the groundwork for a potential solution to Thanos’ genocidal scheme (indeed, the last one, otherwise comedic, is genuinely unnerving with the sight of a “Please stand by” static message on a TV). But it’s good that it managed to maintain distance up to that point. This film works better as a low-scale adventure where the main crux of the plot is a matter only for the central characters. There is more than enough room for stuff of this scale in the MCU, and it speaks to the possibilities of a well-rounded universe, where not every hero is out to save the world every single time.
And it largely works otherwise with a decent cast, script and emotional power. The problems are familiar ones for MCU aficionados: a weak villain, ill-placed comedy and a sense that back-and-forth between protagonists takes too much of the stage over the actual plot and supporting players. But they don’t blot the experience enough that it can be considered a failure. Like any franchise that has made it to two films (and a bit if we’re being honest), this one will need to find a way to evolve a bit now, if it doesn’t want to be caught in a repetitive cycle leading to irrelevancy, but it can claim to have entered two decent entries into the larger canon. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).