Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Director: Peyton Reed

Writer: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Fortson, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas

Genre: Superhero

Rating: PG-13

It’s alright, dear reader. Infinity War (Our Review!) left us all wounded and scarred. The rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) both past and present is now a lot more difficult to enjoy–the past for what it leads to and the present for what has been left unresolved. Fear not. March of 2019 may seem like a while away, but for the time being, there’s some other fun to be had. Sure, it may not seem like much (like fixing a third degree burn with scotch tape), but at least it was fun the first time around, right? And that’s what we could use now–just some fun.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Frequent sci-fi/action violence, with lots of chases and pursuits that put major characters in peril. Large-scale crashes and destruction, as well as one-on-one/group fights with injuries. Weapons used (by both bad guys and good guys/law enforcers) include blasters, guns, knives, pots and pans, flames, and more. A couple races against time to stop a missile from exploding. A woman is used as a human weapon. Giant ants attack people; sympathetic ants are eaten by seagulls. Flashbacks show young girls upset/in peril–one who’s sad when her mother leaves and, later, dies (off-screen), and another who ends up in constant pain/mortal danger after trying to save her doomed father (both of her parents are briefly shown dead). Threats.

Language/Crude Humor: Language includes “s–t,” “bad*ss,” “*ss,” “g*d*mmit,” “bulls-**t,” “for Christ’s sake,” “Jeez,” “Jesus,” “oh my God,” “for God’s sake,” and “hell”.

Sexual Content: Two kissing scenes between established couples. Flirting/loaded looks. Scott is shirtless in the bath.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Adults drink wine with a meal. Hope drugs Scott to take him away with her.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Some bouts with depression and regret. A villainous character is driven by vengeance.

Positive Content:  Like the original, the sequel promotes forgiveness, redemption, and teamwork. Flawed characters are given an opportunity to redeem themselves for past mistakes. And as with most superhero movies, courage, trust, and working toward a common goal are also valued.

Scott/Ant-Man, Dr. Pym, and Dr. Foster–not to mention the whole X-Con security team–are flawed men with uneven pasts, but each seeks redemption by doing what’s right to help people (and one another). Hope is a strong, capable, successful woman who isn’t easily impressed by charm or wealth (her Wasp is the first female Marvel hero to earn title billing). Paxton is a good cop and a loving stepfather/husband. Scott adores his daughter, Cassie, who’s a clever, curious, and brave girl. Janet Van Dyne is a brilliant scientist and devoted mother/wife. Ava is a complex villain whose situation will inspire sympathy, if not full support.

Review

Recently, I’ve found myself fascinated by superhero characters who “stumble upon the transcendent” as it were. Among many other things, superheroes are meant to be embodiments of ideals, which is a major reason for their typically idealized physiques and appearances that oftentimes come under critical fire. Ideals by their very nature shame us all and much like the transcendent are largely unattainable. With that established, it is when these heroes happen to cross paths with concepts, archetypes, and crises of a transcendent nature that my interest peaks.

When I speak of heroes who “stumble upon the transcendent”, I’m not necessarily referring to heroes of the “cosmic” sort. Yes, Doctor Strange has had more than his fair share of conflicts with entities that can cross and circumvent the barriers of time, space, matter, and energy by the mere power of thought, but all of this is presented as concrete and mundane magical derring-do that really doesn’t do much in upsetting our fundamental understanding of the world around us. Many of these cosmic feats are really just done for the sake of mythic hyperbole (such as when DC Comics’ Doctor Fate’s helmet flew all the way to the edge of the universe) to make the story bigger without it usually becoming any thematically deeper as a result.

No, what I’m thinking of primarily are those heroes who through tangential happenstance cross paths with an epiphany regarding facets of the natural experiences that we or the characters all take for granted that disturbs their grasp of such experiences to its core. I first came across such a display with the DC Comics character Animal Man, who, under the pen of famed writer Grant Morrison, gradually came to the point of realizing his own identity as a fictional character and all that implies. This wasn’t done as a Deadpool-style fourth-wall-breaking comedic gag, but as an unironically harrowing existential nightmare that would turn H.P. Lovecraft green with envy.

I bring this up because I found something akin to such a chilling manifestation in 2015’s Ant-Man (Our Review!), the twelfth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie franchise. The moment when Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang opted to make the life-threatening decision to undo a regulating device in his shrinking suit that caused him to constantly shrink to a subatomic level. At such a point, “Time and space itself become irrelevant” to quote Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man. I found myself fascinated by this turning point in the story in which questions about the fundamental nature of matter itself arise.

At such an infinitesimally small size, how does he even recognize or interact with the physical world anymore, even though he is still technically occupying it? How does he breathe, given that he is smaller than an oxygen atom? How does he see, since even light photons miss him entirely? How can sound waves resonate at such a precision? What exactly exists in the space between the fundamental building blocks of matter? Can that even be considered space? Is it just void? How does this relate to the axiom that “nature abhors a vacuum”?

Other elements in Ant-Man’s escapades that are clearly done for comical effect resonate in this transcendent way. This is a world in which a 12-story building can be carryon luggage and an encounter with a salt shaker or a novelty Pez dispenser can be a life-or-death situation. Ant-Man and the Wasp is far from the first movie to dabble with size relationships, but none have explored its ramifications as deeply from what I can tell. It’s a bit disheartening that by the end, such a discovery becomes little more than another mundane plot device. Sorry, am I getting too reflective? Very well.

After getting chin-checked and gut-punched by Infinity War, it’s become rather difficult to enjoy the MCU movies the way most used to. How can we even take pleasure in the irreverent shenanigans of Guardians of the Galaxy knowing what it all leads to?  How can we revel in any new releases in this cycle knowing what devastation remains? The next installment promising to actually begin to resolve all this is next year’s Captain Marvel, and March is still a while away. In the meantime, we might as well explore what was going on with some of the missing players while Thanos was doing his dirty work.

For the most part, it really doesn’t seem that this is what director Peyton Reed and the writing team are going for with Ant-Man and the Wasp. Refreshingly, there is no mention of infinity stones to be found here. I half expected Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye to show up at some point, and he doesn’t, thank God. Plenty of lip service is given to the events of Captain America: Civil War (Our Review!), but this is largely a self-contained entry this time around to be accepted on its own terms.

Scott Lang has been put on two years of house arrest as a result of his actions in aiding Cap, and his tenuous relationship with his estranged daughter Cassie (an effervescent Abby Ryder Fortson) has remarkably become more rewarding. Even his bond with his ex, Maggie (Judy Greer) and Cassie’s step-dad Jim (Bobby Cannavale) is more warm and genuine. Under certain slants, they could even pass as a happy family.

As things go, it’s not really Scott’s story this time around as much as it is that of Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). Turns out that Scott’s unplanned encounter with the most indivisible plane of the material cosmos provided an invaluable opportunity to rescue Hope’s mother Janet, the first Wasp (Michelle Pfeiffer), and so he and whatever is in his head becomes something of a MacGuffin for Hope and Dr. Pym to put to use.

There are a number of obstacles to this endeavor. With Scott being on house arrest, the idea of leaving his home and going on another heroic escapade is one being heavily discouraged by FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park). Woo’s perfectly reasonable and even responsible meddling is certainly a nuisance, but he never becomes genuinely malicious at any point. He’s even eager to overlook some obvious slights at times.

Another more perfunctory difficulty is the black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and his band of cohorts who seek to profit off of Hank and Hope’s work. These folks don’t really seem to contribute much to the film except to be an occasional pain and a source of comical relief–more so the latter rather than the former. In fact, it’s when they play-off of Scott’s ex-convict pals that they get their best moments and their position in the story is earned to at least some degree.

Did I mention that Michael Peña’s loquacious rapscallion Luis is back? Thankfully a little of Edgar Wright’s vision continues to live on in this character and the other members of Scott’s motley crew of disenfranchised entrepreneurs (Tip “T.I.” Harris and David Dastmalchian) who are making ends meet (as well as personal restitution) with a shaky business venture in selling security services and devices. Peña has another bout of longwinded theatrical monologue with actors playing their parts in tune to his exaggerated cadence, and it’s just as raucously fun as we remember in the first film.

You might have surmised that there’s really not much of a villain this time around based on what I’ve written thus far, dear reader. That’s partially true. The final significant player in this tale is a quantum-phasing specter of an assassin named Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen as a female version of the comic villain Ghost). She is largely driven by a personal grudge against Hank Pym for a fatal error he made in the past that cost her the lives of her parents and her cellular integrity. She’s partnered with Dr. Pym’s former scientific partner Bill Foster (Lawrence Fishburne) to seek a cure for her quantum disequilibrium, which while blessing her with impressive superhuman abilities causes her constant pain. I found her arc (and John-Kamen’s performance) to be among the most intriguing with a refreshingly redemptive payoff.

It may seem with Scott dodging his FBI overseers, Hank and Hope avoiding an emotionally and physically troubled spectral adversary, and both of them being harassed by a black market operation ring and all of these threads having various substrata of arcs, tensions, and resolutions, the film overall is a bit overwritten. That could be argued, but it never seems to implode in on itself in any recognizable way. I always appreciated the smaller and more humble scope of the first Ant-Man movie, and I’m glad that we were able to once again tell a successful superhero story without the universe or the planet or even a building being threatened or blown up.

Well, okay, a building technically does “blow up” (multiple times no less), but not in a conventional way. In fact, a lot of things here are done unconventionally. When the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-style set pieces are allowed to have their day on screen, the movie shines brightest. Gags and ploys with the size alteration technology are used to a number of usually unexpected effects, and the action and physical comedy pay off from it all. It was also quite impressive that so many devices and MacGuffins are carried and tossed about from place to place throughout the runtime without any of the infinity stones being one of them.  There’s a very technical reason for that, but you’ll have to wait until the mid-credits scene to know what it is.

From the credits, it seems that Paul Rudd has a fairly large hand creatively in these productions, being part of the writing team.  As such, he seems to give himself and his fellow actors plenty of space to have the time of their lives with these characters.  Michael Douglas continues to wear the role of Dr. Hank Pym like a glove, effortlessly displaying old school class and intelligence as well as modern swagger and grit in the same strokes. Evangeline Lilly takes winsome command of her character, embellishing the Wasp with equal parts feminine charm and roguish tenacity. Paul Rudd brought out an incredibly memorable turn in one key scene of character substitution that relied on his own raw acting talent and Douglas and Lilly being able to keep a straight face throughout his display without any special effects to accentuate the performance (you’ll know it when you see it).

It’s really nice when we can enjoy a Marvel movie without it repeatedly beating us over the head about its place in the larger scheme of the mountainous MCU project. Just seeing these characters that we’ve come to know and admire over the last 10 years within their individual constructs without it being pulled and prodded by the other projects around them. At least, it’s enjoyable so long as it lasts…

Darn you, Thanos.

Positives

+ Largely humble and self-contained narrative + Excellent gags + Innovative action set pieces + Michael Peña

Negatives

- Some unnecessary characters - Can seem like an overcrowded story - Thanos is still a thing

The Bottom Line

If you’re looking for a refreshment from standard MCU fare, this will do very nicely. If you’re looking for a tourniquet to stem the massive blood loss from Infinity War…well…

 

8.2

Tyrone Barnes

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