The stakes in Marvel movies are often unbelievably high, and lately, it’s been even more so. Entire nations, realms, and even the universe are up for grabs. It seems like an appropriate contrast, then, that Ant-Man and the Wasp follows Avengers: Infinity War, and shrinks the stakes of the story down to the size of a bug in comparison. Sitting in between two massive Avengers movies, (and Captain Marvel’s debut), Ant-Man and the Wasp acts as a nice palate cleanser, a sort of feel-good Marvel movie that you can enjoy without worrying too much about the stakes involved.
Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has been under house arrest in his San Francisco home, trying to get a security business up and running with ex-con comrades from the first film. He’s been keeping himself sane by spending time with his daughter, but has gotten desperate enough to start learning close-up magic. His time with the blinking anklet is about to come to an end when the Pym family crawls its way back into his head and his world.
There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about Ant-Man and the Wasp, and I suspect that’s even going to be a complaint some people level against it and against superhero movies in general. But as a fan of Marvel’s interconnected cinematic universe, I’m pretty okay with it. I wouldn’t want more of the same all the time, but right here, with these characters, at this moment in the MCU, it works. What worked about the original Ant-Man is also largely what works about this one: humor, action, and clever use of effects to create unique sights and setpieces.
After a somewhat slow start, the action kicks into high gear as Lang is reunited with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne/The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly). After a quiet couple of years, things have come to a head when Hope and her grumpy dad think they’ve found a way to do what Scott did in the first film – venture into the quantum realm and come back out in one piece. The trio finds themselves dealing with three threats that give them opportunities to run and fight in all the creative ways I’d hoped to see in another Ant-Man movie.
This is where Evangeline Lilly really starts to shine as The Wasp. Right from her first appearance on-screen, she’s the polar opposite of Scott Lang. She’s confident and in charge, and ready for anything. When an early meeting with a shady businessman goes south, she leaps into action just as soon as she can suit up. The action sequences throughout the movie are universally fun, but the way this one focuses on Lilly’s Wasp just whipping ass is really cathartic. The first movie relegated the clearly-capable woman to a support role partly as a way of developing Hank Pym as a reluctant, angry man. Here, though, Hope is unleashed. She has a more advanced suit compared to the one Scott wore in the first movie, complete with wings and hand cannons. She fights like she’s been doing it her whole life, and we get an exciting, compelling fight scene that mixes in the movie’s signature humor when she whips a salt-shaker at a guy and up-sizes it to block the door.
A chase later in the movie shifts the action from exciting to comedic, but without losing the tension the story has built. Since the events of the first movie, Dr. Pym has built his down-sizing Pym Particle tech into a bunch of cars that he keeps stored in a safe place that I don’t want to spoil. San Francisco is the perfect place for a great chase scene (see: Bullitt), and Ant-Man‘s core conceit turns a sequence we’ve seen a million times into something brand new. There are close calls as a car crashes on its back just inches from a Hot Wheels-sized car, and exciting triumphs as a henchman’s bike is made miniature while he’s riding it, leaving the full-sized biker going full speed without a bike below him.
One of the most refreshing aspects of Ant-Man and the Wasp is just how small everything is. Pun completely intended. As I mentioned in the opening of this review, Marvel movies have seen the stakes grow and grow from nations to planets to an entire universe. But with the Pyms, everything is personal. The goal of Hank and Hope is simply to rescue Janet Van Dyne from the quantum realm. The pale-white Ghost’s goal is similarly personal, while that shady businessman, played up perfectly by Walton Goggins, simply wants to make a buck. San Francisco isn’t in danger, let alone reality itself.
This all makes Ant-Man into the antithesis of Infinity War. There is no cross-over here, and that’s for the better. It’s a small cast of characters personally invested in what’s happening at every moment, and that’s all it needs to be. High stakes can be fun, but getting us invested in these smaller stakes is a tough task, too. It feels like the equivalent of going out for a family dinner versus throwing a massive rager. It’s a fun night out, not something you prep for.
At the core of the movie’s strongest through-lines is the concept of family: reuniting family members, strengthening bonds, or grieving lost ones. It makes the stories easy to tap into, but it never flows over into melodrama. It’s organic and rewarding.
Funny to the Bone
Part of what holds all of this up is that almost every character in Ant-Man and the Wasp gets a chance to be funny, with entire chunks of the story designated entirely for that purpose. For example, Scott is still under house arrest as the story begins, and a couple times during the course of the movie, he has to find his way home before his FBI nemesis, Jimmy Woo (the hilarious Randall Park), can get to his house and catch him out of the home. If that sounds like it distracts from the story at hand, that’s because it does. That’s what it’s meant to do, and it’s the best kind of distraction.
The story in Ant-Man and the Wasp moves around like one of Luis’ (Michael Pena) amazing monologues (which do make a triumphant return here). The movie goes on tangents just long enough before jumping back to the urgent story at hand to keep things off-kilter and funny. Another story beat centers around Scott’s new Ant-Man suit, which isn’t quite working. That results in him getting stuck at an abnormal size a few times. At one point he’s running around a school at kindergartner height, trying to avoid being spotted by – gasp – an adult. The way Hank Pym responds when tiny Scott jumps into the getaway van is one of the funniest moments in the movie.
We also see it in the family dynamic established by the first movie. The first movie used that old ‘replaced by a better dad’ chestnut that plays on the dopey dad stereotype and throws in a bit of masculine competition for good measure. That movie ended with Scott saving his daughter from a terrifying villain, though, and this follow-up plays on that. Bobby Cannavale returns as step-dad Paxton, but he’s developed respect for Scott and we see a family dynamic that shows a split family that isn’t broken, something that still feels unusual in 2018. Paxton adores Scott, and the two of them and mother Maggie (Judy Greer) are all unified in their focus on providing the best-possible life for daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). The latter, it’s worth mentioning, steals every scene she’s in. The 10-year-old actress goes toe-to-toe with Rudd easily, and their interactions are a highlight of the movie. I’d pay to watch them riff off each other in a totally separate movie.
Even the villains, with one notable exception, get to goof around to great effect.
The Villain Problem: Solved?
And that’s another place where Ant-Man and the Wasp just works. The first Ant-Man had perhaps the most severe manifestation of Marvel’s ongoing villain problem in the form of Yellowjacket, a villain that comes off as Reverse Ant-Man, a tiny man hell-bent on mustache-twirling destruction for the sake of it. He was as poorly-written as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War is well-written.
And so the movie doesn’t make the mistake of giving us another mustache-twirler to take seriously. Instead, we get two villains that are very different from each other. The two-villain setup gives way for lots of comedy and tone-shifts that work without feeling contrived.
One villain is that cool-looking one from the trailers, Ghost. This character lies on the tragic side of things. Without going into spoilers, I can say that this character has a very good reason to be concerned with the Pyms’ attempts to get into and back out of the quantum realm. Ghost is played by British actress Hannah John-Kamen with an intensity befitting her ailment. She’s equal parts tragic and haunting, and her goal is so personal that her methods make sense sense, even as her mentor Dr. Bill Foster (Lawrence Fishburne) begs her to reconsider how she goes about things.
Meanwhile, Walton Goggins’ Sonny Burch and his crew of henchmen are just capable enough to be believable and annoying, and not so incompetent as to look like the Wet Bandits from Home Alone.
And again, this is all about making the stakes local.
If I had to throw a dart at anything in Ant-Man and the Wasp as being particularly difficult to wade through, it’s the pseudo-scientific jargon the movie is constantly asking us to accept at face value. The movie calls this out at one point when Scott asks “do you guys just put the word ‘Quantum’ in front of everything?” Even though it slows the movie down, though it doesn’t stop it by any means, and it’s a minor complaint.
Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t going to blow you away, but that doesn’t feel like the intention of the movie at any point. It’s a warm, funny movie with strong actors that know how to be serious and funny and make both work. Rudd and Pena stand out as the funniest, but Lilly makes a great case for herself. If I take away anything from Ant-Man and the Wasp, it’s that I want to see Lilly take on a bigger role in the MCU. As the Avengers start to spool down, there’s room for a Black-Widow style badass to step up and take charge. Lilly and her character Hope are up to it.
Go into Ant-Man and the Wasp with the right expectations, and you’ll come out thrilled.