Expectations are running high for Marvel Studios right now. Even after ten years in the game, they have remarkably hit a new level of success just this year, with Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War both breaking every conceivable record in the books at the box office. And with that box office success comes the added pressure to follow up each film with something even bigger than the last. This hasn’t always panned out completely, with many of the Phase 2 films in the MCU struggling to match expectations, but in Phase 3, it has certainly been the case. And this has been partly due to a different strategy on Marvel’s part, which is to try out different flavors with each new film they make. The result has been a wonderful mix of movies that take place within the same universe, but feel uniquely characterized by the stories they tell and the heroes they focus on. They also have helped Marvel branch out into different genres that are perfectly matched for each character, and help to add to the different flavors that characterize the MCU. Captain America’s movies have taken on the flavor of political conspiracy thrillers; Thor’s have fully embraced their campiness and are now fully in tune with 80’s era fantasy epics; Doctor Strange has brought in a Matrix –like cerebral flavor to the universe; and Spider-Man even managed to fit in a bright high school comedy in the style of John Hughes into the mix. Overall, every character gets their own distinct style of movie to tell their story, and it helps their own separate franchises breathe on their own, un-tethered to each other. Even the big crossovers like the Avengers movies feel like their own series apart from the rest, taking on a colossal epic feel on their own. But in this particular year, after Black Panther delivered some sobering political messages to it’s audience and Infinity War left us with a bleak cliffhanger that shook our senses, the one thing Marvel needs to give us now is a light, silly comedy. Enter Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Ant-Man as a movie perhaps has had the most interesting backstory of all the films Marvel has made. It was in development for years under the direction of Edgar Wright, who was an avowed fan of the comic book character. But, Wright’s distinctive style clashed too heavily with the very stringent standards that Marvel Studios was imposing on their filmmakers as they were building up their universe, and Marvel’s Creative Director Kevin Feige had to make the difficult choice to take Edgar off his dream project. Ironically, Edgar Wright’s style might have gone through better in Phase 3, where Marvel has been more welcoming to unique voices. So, after Wright’s departure, the remainder of the film had to be completed with Peyton Reed in the director’s chair, with Ant-Man himself, Paul Rudd, and his writing partner Adam McKay making further adjustments to Wright’s script. With all this compromising and sudden shift in vision behind the movie, it was thought at the time that this was going to be Marvel’s first stumbling block as well as their first flop. But surprisingly, that not what happened at all. Though the movie did feel disjointed due to it’s troubled production, it nevertheless managed to stick the landing and work as a passable entry in the MCU. It also found an audience and continued Marvel’s winning streak. The main reason the film succeeded was largely due to the ideal casting of Paul Rudd as the titular character. His charming performance captured the humor and charisma needed for the part, and it made him an instant favorite in the MCU, which was a blessing for Marvel since needed him to be a worthy addition to their world before he made another appearance in Captain America: Civil War (2016). The other positive of the movie’s success was that it granted Ant-Man a sequel, one that this time could be unburdened by production woes. The only question is, did fewer problems translate into a better movie overall?
Ant-Man and the Wasp takes place in the months after the events of Civil War, where Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is confined to house arrest due to his illegal partnership with Team Captain America in violation of the Sakovia Accords. Because of their affiliation with Scott, both Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are on the lamb, conducting their experiments in secrecy. But, during one of Scott’s uneventful days at home, he receives a strange vision, where he imagines himself in the body of Hope’s long lost mother, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was known herself as another size-changing superhero known as the Wasp. Scott reaches out to his estranged colleagues, who manage to sneak him out of his house arrest in order to learn more about his vision. They believe that Janet is sending a message to them through Scott because he managed to escape from the sub-atomic quantum realm, where Janet has been stuck for the last 30 years. They have been attempting to build a bridge into the quantum realm within their secret lab, but still lack the necessary parts needed to complete the project, so they enlist Scott’s help to get what they need. They encounter a local mob boss named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who has the equipment they need, and Hope manages to subdue his henchmen thanks to her new abilities as the new Wasp. However, their success is short-lived as the equipment is stolen by a mysterious assailant with molecular-phasing powers known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen). To get back what she stole from them, the team must seek help from another estranged former colleague of Hank’s, Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). But even with all the help they can get, including from Scott’s loyal friend and associate Luis (Michael Pena), Ghost proves to be a tougher adversary than they thought. Is it possible for them to finish their bridge, or is the original Wasp forever left to be a prisoner within the Quantum Realm.
The one thing that will be apparent when watching this film is that it is far more tightly scripted this time around. After the production woes of the original Ant-Man, Marvel this time had the benefit of being able to know where they are going with this franchise and commit to one style of story-telling. You definitely don’t get the feeling that it’s two movies smashed together into one this time around. But, the question remains is it a better movie than the original? Sort of. I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the original Ant-Man, but I didn’t hate it either. It was a perfectly competent film on it’s own. But, because this is Marvel, the bar has been set pretty high and Ant-Man just clearing that bar sadly makes it one of the lesser movies in the MCU overall. With the help of a better focused production, Ant-Man and the Wasp does work a bit better, but it’s not without it’s faults too. The unfortunate thing is that it follows in the footsteps of Infinity War, which makes this lighter comedic film feel, for lack a better term, small by comparison. It’s not a huge step backward, but I feel that Ant-Man just pales in comparison coming so soon after Infinity War has shaken the world. Even when put up against Black Panther, it kind of lacks something, because it feels like a retreat back to the safe and predictable that characterized much of Marvel’s Phase 2, and not the game-changer that Panther proved to be. That being said, I was not left unfulfilled watching this movie either. Set apart from it’s place in the MCU, this would easily be one of the most entertaining super hero movies we’ve seen in recent years. It’s consistently funny and never boring, and even has some genuine touching moments as well. From a pure experience point, it’s a mixed bag, but one that doesn’t spoil the entire universe that it an essential part of.
The greatest asset that the movie has is the strength of it’s humor, which is carried a long way by it’s charming cast. Paul Rudd especially continues to carry much of the weight of this franchise and remains the main reason to watch the film. He once again proves why he was the perfect choice for the role, with enviable comedic timing and endless charm. You get a sense that he has fun as this character while playing him on screen, and the movie uses this as a benefit. His performance is also balanced well with a fine supporting cast. Michael Douglas continues to be a lovable curmudgeon as Hank Pym, whose sternness is wonderfully balanced off of Rudd’s quirks. Evangeline Lilly especially benefits from her expanded role in this movie, taking on the Wasp persona effectively and giving her a deserved place among the ever growing roster of Marvel’s big screen superheroes. What I also enjoy is the wonderful chemistry that each of them have together, helping us to believe that they really are a family unit in addition to being a crime fighting team. Also, despite a very minor role in the movie as a whole, Michelle Pfeiffer makes the most of her time, imbuing Janet Van Dyne with a fine sense of grace that makes her a welcome addition to this series. I also love the fact that a year after Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) managed to bring a former Batman into the MCU, this time as the villainous Vulture, we now have a Catwoman crossing over as well. The one weak point in the movie’s cast is the lack of a strong antagonist, which I fault more with the lack of a strong rogues gallery for the character of Ant-Man in general than the faults of the cast here. Ghost, while still an interesting character overall, is not enough of a threat to drive the story into epic territory. And though Walton Goggins’ performance as the mob boss fits within the silliness of the overall experience, his character is also sadly one-dimensional. Even still, the cast helps to make the movie an overall enjoyable experience.
One thing that I will say is definitely improved upon from the first film is the staging of the action sequences. The first movie, while still innovative in it’s execution of the size changing gimmick as a part of the action set-pieces, still had an unfortunate lack of overall effectiveness as they usually all felt the same. Here, much more creativity was put into the uses of the size-changing gimmick, as a whole variety of options are put to use this time. We have the neat idea of small everyday objects like a salt shaker and Pez dispensers being turned into weapons once grown to immense size utilized throughout the movie, as well as a fun little wild card of Scott having to deal with a malfunctioning suit, which either makes him grow to the size of a room or shrink to the size of a toddler at random moments. All this helps to make the action sequences feel fresh and unpredictable. The movie especially hits a high point once it introduces the concept of a size-changing car chase to the mix. Thanks to the ability to shrink their vehicle and all the passengers within, Team Ant-Man has an incredible mode of transportation that makes this a car chase like nothing you’ve seen before. I especially love the new spin it puts on flipping a car on it’s side. Also, thanks to the movie’s San Francisco setting, it draws comparisons to other chase sequences from movies like Bullit (1968) and What’s Up Doc? (1972), honoring the legacy of those scenes. Hot Wheels fans will also appreciate how well that brand is incorporated into the movie. This is where the movie really finds it’s character over the first movie and helps to turn it’s unique gimmick into something that can continually surprise and entertain it’s audience. And in addition, it shows more clearly that this franchise has found an angle that makes it feel unlike anything else in the MCU.
One of the things that was a sticking point for Edgar Wright when he was in the middle of producing his version of the original movie was the way that Marvel was trying to force world-building elements into every one of their films. The biggest problem with that was how it would sometimes add unnecessary padding into otherwise tightly scripted stories. This became clear when Wright was forced to add a scene where Ant-Man breaks into the Avengers compound halfway through the movie, leading to an encounter with Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. This is where the friction started that ultimately led to Wright’s departure, and it’s clear in the original movie that Marvel was perhaps trying too hard to connect the universe together in each film, something that was improved upon in latter movies. The sequel, apart from a brief reference to the events of Civil War, doesn’t attempt to force any other connection to the rest of the MCU in this movie, which in turn helps it to breathe a little easier and carve out it’s own identity. At the same time, it does work in concepts from the comics that will play a larger role in the MCU later, but does so in a way where you’re not being made aware that it’s setting future events up and in turn feels solely like a it’s a part of this one story. This is particularly the case with the Quantum Realm which the characters are trying to reach. In the comics, the subatomic Quantum Realm is a source for many powers in the MCU, and is visited by the likes of Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel, who we have yet to meet but is coming soon. The movie could have gone into length detailing the true meaning of this realm for the audience, but it wisely instead focuses on it as a destination where they must go, find the original Wasp, and return home safely from; and that’s it. It’s nice to see that Marvel has learned it’s lesson and focused on what is more essential for the stories rather than what’s essential for their universe. In time, we will learn the finer details, but in the meantime, we can enjoy the journeys that each character takes, which in the end is far more fun. Marvel has a rich universe to draw from, but it’s good to see now that they realize we don’t have to be spoiled all at once by seeing every part of it piled up on top of one another. We have the Avengers movies to do that, and Ant-Man is the fulfilling snack between meals.
Ant-Man and the Wasp, as a sequel to it’s own predecessor, is definitely an improvement, but at the same time, it still falls into the category of the lesser Marvel films. That’s a downside of Marvel’s unparalleled success, that even charming little diversions won’t come anywhere close to the top of what they’ve accomplished up to now. Even still, I am happy that the movie still exists within this universe. This time around, the filmmakers have really figured out what an Ant-Man movie should look and feel like. I’ve heard this movie be described as a much needed palette cleanser after the shocking cliffhanger ending of Infinity War, and that’s a fair take to have. These movies are definitely Marvel at it’s silliest, not afraid to wear the dumb aspects of the genre as a whole with a sense of pride and find clever ways to poke fun at it all. I especially appreciate the fact that we are no longer at a point where Marvel has to keep reminding us that this is a shared universe that these characters exist within. Ant-Man gets his own story to tell, without having to ride the coattails of Captain America, Iron Man, or the other Avengers. It’s also creatively more freeing to filmmakers who want to give their own spin on these different story-lines without having to shoehorn in references to other films. That’s why Marvel’s Phase 3 has been a huge success thanks to unique voices like Taika Watiti and Ryan Coogler being brought into the mix. Sadly, the timing was just not ideal for Edgar Wright, and my hope is that someday he might find a return to the MCU and be able to bring his voice to the mix. Even still, despite not feeling like Marvel firing on all cylinders, Ant-Man and the Wasp is still a fine sequel that improves upon a lot of it’s predecessor’s problems. It still features a charming and funny hero at it’s center and gives a new budding hero her long overdue debut. Despite feeling small in Marvel’s universe, this is still big entertainment in an already stacked summer of blockbuster movies.