Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harrison, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Forston, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas
Director: Peyton Reed
Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari
In Avengers: Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe beheld an apocalyptic reckoning. Earth’s mightiest heroes banded together to combat the greatest threat the universe had ever seen and were instead utterly defeated. But, before the world came to an end with a bang and a whimper, before the sun turned black and the moon became as blood and the stars of heaven fell unto the Earth, before the Avengers beheld Shiva the God of Death and Destroyer of Worlds, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) found himself caught up in a sticky situation involving a shrunken quantum laboratory being thrown around, a ghost-like figure phasing through walls and a human-sized ant playing the drums. In truth Ant-Man and the Wasp is probably the respite we needed after the operatic tragedy of Thanos and his cataclysmic crusade. This latest adventure in the MCU is light-hearted, fun and a total breeze to watch.
As a result of his actions in Civil War, in which he commandeered a shrinking suit and made off for Europe to aid Captain America in direct violation of the Sokovia Accords, Scott Lang has spent the last two years under heavy house arrest. He does what he can to support his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston) and to help Luis (Michael Peña) in setting up their new security business, but there’s only so much Scott can do when chained to an ankle monitor that goes off the second he sets a foot outdoors and with parole officer Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) breathing down his neck, just waiting for a chance to catch him with his pants down. Another consequence of joining Cap (and destroying the suit rather than let it be confiscated) is that former mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and former girlfriend Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) want nothing more to do with Scott. They’ve cut all ties and have dedicated themselves towards finding a way into the Quantum Realm where they believe Pym’s wife Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) might still be saved after getting trapped there thirty years ago.
A breakthrough is reached when Scott receives what appears to be a message from the Quantum Realm. Convinced that this must have been sent by Janet, Pym and Hope reluctantly decide that they need his help to find her. They liberate Scott from his confinement and take him to their secret and, thanks to the wonders of shrinking technology, portable laboratory. Before the gateway to the Quantum Realm can be opened there is a particular machine part they need to obtain from black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins). The deal goes south once Burch realises the economic potential of Pym’s research, leading to a clash between his goons and Hope in the new and improved wasp suit. Their skirmish is interrupted by Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a masked figure with the ability to move through solid objects. She seizes the lab in its shrunken suitcase-sized state and absconds with it, leading to an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse where Scott, Hope and Pym must track the intangible thief down, recover the lab and rescue Janet from the Quantum Realm before their window of opportunity closes.
After the galactic catastrophe of Infinity War, the ideological conflict of Black Panther and the cartoonish sci-fi extravaganza of Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and the Wasp is an MCU movie that feels a lot more grounded and down to earth with stakes that feel much more human-sized and personal. Pym’s ultimate goal is to rescue his wife. Scott’s biggest concern is getting through the next couple of days without getting caught breaching his house arrest so that he can start rebuilding his life with his family. Even the villain is revealed not to have any kind of overtly political, economic or moral motivation compelling her but is instead acting out purely from a place of tremendous pain. This allows for the kind of superhero movie that doesn’t need to be an epic or a spectacle; you can just enjoy it for the fun side story that it is. There is no attempt to make this movie feel epic, dark or all that serious because that’s not the movie it wants or needs to be. This is ultimately a B-story in the MCU canon and proud of it; all it wants is to get you to care about these characters and have some thrills and laughs along the way.
One way that this movie improves on the first Ant-Man is the action. The idea of pitting a hero who can shrink and grow at will was already enough to make for a viscerally gratifying experience but this time not only do they increase the scale (literally in one scene), they also add in a few extra factors. One is the titular heroine who not only possesses the same abilities as Ant-Man but is also a better fighter and can fly (I wonder if there’s a veiled reference somewhere in there to Ginger Rogers doing what Fred Astaire did backwards and in heels). Another is the antagonist who can phase through solid objects. Together they combine to create some of the most creative action in any modern Hollywood blockbuster. In the movie’s first proper action scene, Wasp takes out a whole bunch of hired goons using a combination of shrinking/enlarging technology and aerial hand-to-hand combat which is interrupted by the arrival of ghost whose use of phasing adds an entirely different dimension to the fight. Later there’s a car chase scene where the use of a shrinking vehicle leads to some neat surprises. These are accomplished by an inspired use of CGI, choreography and framing and made for an action movie that feels distinct from the rest of the Marvel properties.
Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t just an action movie though, it’s also a comedy and a funny one at that. Part of the credit belongs to the cast, particularly Rudd who is effortlessly charming in his hapless, goofy way, Lilly whose eye-rolling, business-like demeanour gets played more for laughs, and Peña who continues to steal every scene he’s in. The bulk of the credit though goes to Reed and his team of screenwriters and their understanding of cinema’s capacity for visual comedy. The Ant-Man films are essentially high-budget screwball comedies with a sci-fi twist and the humour goes far beyond the use of situation and dialogue that most modern American flicks tend to rely on. The action scenes often give way to uproarious slapstick. There’s the continued use of idiosyncratically staged re-enactments to accompany Luis’ baffling, rambling narrations. There’s a scene where Reed’s use of framing and blocking allows for Ghost to unexpectedly reveal her presence in a hilarious way. There’s also a scene where Paul Rudd has to pretend to be another character, leading to some wonderful physical comedy. The laughs are numerous and they never get tiring because it isn’t all done in just one style.
The film does have two weaknesses. One is that it takes the movie a while to get going. The story is pretty messy as it tries to weave several subplots together into a coherent whole. As well as the main stories concerning Pym’s rescue plan, Scott’s house arrest and Ghost’s arc, we have Luis trying to save his new security business from falling under, the attempts by the weapon dealer and his goons to recover their merchandise, Scott’s ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) checking in every now and then so that Scott’s private life remains in the picture, and the introduction of Pym’s former colleague Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) and their shared history. There’s a lot of ground to cover and the first-half of the film has to get through a lot of plot pushing and exposition dropping before the movie can really take off. Oftentimes the movie’s screenplay feels like it was cobbled together by a sizeable committee of writers (which, well… it was). The other main weakness is that Wasp, despite being one of the titular characters, doesn’t have as prominent a role as Ant-Man or her father. Although she gets plenty to do in the action scenes, she isn’t given enough of an arc or a large enough presence in the movie to justify her role as more than a supporting player in what is clearly the Ant-Men’s story.
All in all, Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t the best at what it does nor is it really the best of what Marvel has to offer, but it is certainly more than enough for what it wants and needs to be. It does take a while to truly get there but, once all the pieces are in place and it can get started with the good stuff, it’s exactly the film you want it to be. The second half of the film is nothing but inventive fight and chase scenes coupled with outlandish comedy routines, all depicted with visual splendour and wit (another highlight is Scott asking for the villain’s help so that he can video-chat with his daughter in what is supposed to be a tense moment). The relief this movie provides from Marvel’s most recent offering is welcome and the film itself is self-contained enough that you won’t be distracted by tangential asides for world-building nor will you need to have seen any other movie but the first Ant-Man to be invested in what’s happening. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it has one or two touching scenes and it’s a blast to watch.