Every time a new Marvel movie comes out, there seems to be a compulsion to rank it among the previous superhero blockbusters. That sets an awfully high bar for Ant-Man and The Wasp, which doesn’t seem quite fair. Should it really be compared to a massive crossover epic like Avengers: Infinity War?
None of the Marvel movies are “small,” but the smaller scale here is an ideal follow-up to Infinity War‘s galaxy-spanning scope and grave stakes. Much of the speculation leading up to Ant-Man and The Wasp — from sites that needed content — focused on where the story fit in relation to the Avengers’ battle with Thanos. Does it take place before Thanos and his cronies attack Earth? Does it deal with what happened after Infinity War?
While this is obviously a sequel to 2015’s Ant-Man and sort of a sequel to Captain America: Civil War — at least with the repercussions of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) deciding to help Cap out in his philosophical conflict with Iron Man — it’s also a fairly standalone story that isn’t largely constructed as a setup for bigger films to come. Yes, it takes place before Infinity War, but those events are eventually addressed. (You know better than to leave before the credits are finished with a Marvel movie.)
The one big plotline left dangling from Ant-Man was the fate of the original Wasp, Janet Van Dyne (played in this sequel by Michelle Pfeiffer). During a mission with the OG Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), Janet sacrificed herself — shrinking to sub-atomic size and getting lost in the Quantum Realm — in order to disable a nuclear missile. But Lang showed that it was possible to return from the Quantum Realm, inspiring Pym to find the wife whom he believed was forever lost.
Do our heroes find Ms. Van Dyne? Well, Michelle Pfeiffer was cast in the role, so you have to figure she’s not there for nothing. Seeing Michael Douglas as Hank Pym and Pfeiffer as Janet Van Dyne felt like a bit of 90s dream-casting for an Avengers movie, which adds to the fun.
The quest to find Janet Van Dyne is also fueled by daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) wanting to find the mother she lost as a child. As a result, the two characters who were supporting players in the first Ant-Man become the main protagonists this time around. Much has been made about The Wasp being the first female Marvel hero to get title billing (even if she has to share it), so it’s nice to see that she’s not a supporting player here.
The previous film established that Hope was better superhero material than Lang with extensive combat training, full knowledge of Pym’s shrinking technology and ability to communicate with ants. Once Pym stopped trying to protect his daughter and let Hope utilize her talents, she was bound to be fulfill her potential. As a result, Lilly gets the best action scenes in the movie, taking down a half-dozen thugs early in a hotel lobby and wiping out another four in a SUV.
Hope also gets a thrilling car-chase scene, which almost seems like a requirement for any movie taking place in San Francisco. However, director Peyton Reed puts a distinct spin on the chase with The Wasp’s ability to shrink herself and any object she chooses. Tiny cars have never been so cool. (Did Marvel partner up with Mattel for an Ant-Man Hot Wheels line? That seems like a missed opportunity. The movie even references Hot Wheels!)
Lang’s storyline is no less urgent to his character. Placed under house arrest after helping out Captain America, he’s just days away from serving his full sentence, getting his freedom and being able to see his daughter Cassie outside of his home again. Lang’s devotion to Cassie sets him apart from his superhero contemporaries, and director Peyton Reed (along with a script authored by five writers, including Rudd) doesn’t forget that.
Helping steal the equipment needed to make Pym’s Quantum Shuttle operational (it’s not called a “Quantum Shuttle,” but as Lang jokes, everything they do sounds more important with the word “quantum” attached to it) is obviously a violation of his house arrest, which leads to some entertaining methods of fooling the FBI agents (led by Randall Park) monitoring his situation. It’s a compelling juxtaposition to pair someone who has everything to lose by playing hero with another who could suffer the loss of her mother all over again by failing to act.
One big mistake that sequels often make — at least outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe — is to repeat what worked so well the first time around and just include more of it. That had me worried that we’d get way too much of Lang’s buddy Luis (Michael Pena) and his long-winded, fast-talking storytelling again. Perhaps the biggest relief is that Reed doesn’t go there (working within a cinematic universe might help with that). Luis does get his moment — why would you bring him back if he didn’t — but it fits within the story perfectly and provides some of the movie’s biggest laughs.
Reed may also have avoided typical sequel mistakes because he got to make his film this time around, not salvage what was left from a previous effort. Though Reed took over as director of Ant-Man after Edgar Wright left the project, Wright’s fingerprints were still on the movie. (Though not with Luis’s stories, as I would’ve guessed.) But Ant-Man and The Wasp feels more like Reed’s film, and that confidence results in a more consistent tone probably best demonstrated in the action scenes, special effects and creative uses of shrinking, in addition to the better character moments for everyone besides Lang.
It’s taken this long to mention the villain of the story, and unfortunately that’s because this movie doesn’t have a very good one. (That’s a typical knock against Marvel movies, but they were on a pretty good roll with Thor: Ragnarok‘s Hela, Black Panther‘s Killmonger and Thanos.)
Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) has some intriguing elements to her, namely a relationship to a classic Ant-Man villain whom longtime Marvel Comics fan will recognize and abilities derived from Pym’s technology and a connection to his past. Her costume also looks really cool and John-Kamen has an effective menacing glare. But her storyline is incidental, almost literally riding the coattails of the main narrative.
The other bad guy, Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), is really just a plot device used to introduce the technology that sets the plot in motion and call in the feds when the story needs some more urgency. Ultimately, Burch is just a nuisance and is treated as such. It’s too bad Goggins didn’t get to do more.
No, Ant-Man and The Wasp isn’t a perfect movie and won’t be ranked among the best Marvel films (unless it fits the sensibilities of viewers who don’t like the cosmic blockbusters). But it knows exactly what kind of film it’s supposed to be and executes that well with a cast that has really fun, easy chemistry with each other. After the rote spectacle of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and the macho grimdark of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, something more upbeat feels refreshing.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars