On the modest pleasures and squandered opportunities of Ant-Man and the Wasp
Ant-Man and the Wasp Walt Disney Studios
Director: Peyton Reed
Screenplay: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari, based on characters created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber and Ernie Hart
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Abby Ryder Fortson, Michael Peña, Hannah John-Kamen, Walton Goggins, Randall Park and Michelle Pfeiffer
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 58 minutes / 2.39:1
July 6, 2018
(out of four)
It's no secret that the Ant-Man movies are the second-class citizens of the MCU. No one would admit this in public, of course. We love all our children equally. But between the low (by Marvel standards) budgets and the openly downplayed expectations, it's not hard to read between the lines. Especially when both entries have been positioned on the release calendar right after a gargantuan Avengers sequel. The Ant-Man series is Marvel's after-dinner mint.
Don't get me wrong, after-dinner mints can be refreshing. Like, for example, when we've just had to force down every last bite of the nauseating main course that was Avengers: Infinity War. But at the same time, sometimes an after-dinner mint simply lacks ambition. It's not just that Ant-Man and the Wasp - which, in fairness, is an improvement on its predecessor - is treated as second-tier, but that it acts like it. Leans into it. It doesn't set out with something to prove; instead it's intent on being as harmless as possible. Intent on not being debated or argued about, not inspiring strong emotions, not raising an eyebrow or challenging an assumption. And most damaging of all, it's intent on not doing too much with its own premise.
There's certainly no need for the delusions of gravitas and bloated scale of recent Avengers outings; I'm glad the main goal of Ant-Man and the Wasp is breezy fun. But at the same time, it has this great oddball premise - and built into that premise is a delirious malleability of physical rules, physical space and size and shape - yet it's just so resolutely un-weird, un-eccentric. This movie reminds me of Brad Pitt's instruction to a disguised Matt Damon in Ocean's Eleven: "Be specific but not memorable. Be funny but don't make him laugh. He's got to like you and then forget you the moment you've left his side."
There's something to be said for knowing your limitations, but these movies have the chance to go all-out and they choose, over and over again, to just take it easy. To give us a little taste of their potential but otherwise perfunctorily press on through every unremarkable narrative beat. That they emphasize what is ordinary about themselves rather than what's unique is their fundamental problem. There are moments throughout the Wasp trailer that hint at the possibilities of these characters and the loopy science that has made them who they are. Giant salt shakers and Pez dispensers, miniaturized cars and buildings, a super-sized Ant-Man. The fungibility of size itself being used as a weapon of both force and subterfuge. And yet pretty much all of this movie's ideas are in that trailer. It seems like the trailer is just giving us a taste of what the movie will offer, but nope, that's pretty much it. A couple of decent action scenes with a bit of playful, slapstick-adjacent bending of size and scale, but no leaps of inspiration.
Consider the way action filmmakers like Buster Keaton, Stephen Chow or Brad Bird use every tool they can get their hands on when fleshing out concepts and devising action sequences. They're constantly finding new wrinkles, adding new flourishes, exploiting unexpected details. They never let anything go to waste. One idea is constantly jumpstarting the next and branching off into three more; the creative energy builds and builds upon itself. It's ironic that one of Ant-Man and the Wasp's big action sequences takes place in a kitchen, because it's the kitchen sink that's so conspicuously missing.
Of all Marvel properties, this one seems the most ripe for experimentation and playfulness on a conceptual level, yet these movies are the studio's most timid. Leaving the first entry aside, you'd think a sequel that brought in Walton effing Goggins and Michelle effing Pfeiffer had realized it could afford to think bigger. This movie has the ability to rewrite the rules of any scene, in any moment, yet it does so only when the plot forces its hand. Through two installments, I'm still waiting for the Peyton Reed of Down with Love, who committed so wholeheartedly to an idea.
The limited ingenuity pervades not just the film's approach to its science and its action, but to its entire tone and style. Bouncing between no fewer than five (5) subplots, Wasp revolves around a quantum tunnel, which is contained in a secret lab, which is housed in an anonymous-looking office building, which is often miniaturized and transported like rolling luggage, complete with extendable handle. Everyone wants to get their hands on this tunnel, inside that lab, inside the miniature building. For Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), they built it to get safely to the quantum realm, where Janet van Dyne (Pfeiffer) - his wife, her mother - has been marooned for three decades. For the mysterious figure Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) - whose molecular instability allows her to move through physical mass (walls and bodies, mostly), become invisible, hide in plain sight - she needs it to cure her of this physical state, which causes her constant physical pain. For Sonny Burch (Goggins), he sees an opportunity to sell an unprecedented technology on the black market.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has only been roped into this because he's been to the quantum realm (near the end of the first movie), and thus has quite accidentally developed a line of communication to Janet. But he's got other stuff on his mind, too. He's down to the final three days of his house arrest, he's got his parole officer checking in on him constantly, and his security consulting firm - run in his absence by his former partners in crime - are in the middle of trying to land a major contract.
The top-secret quantum tunnel inside the secret lab inside the tiny, portable building changes hands multiple times among multiple parties; one group is chasing another, is chasing another, is chasing another; and this elaborate chase involves truth serum, mistaken identity, undercover surveillance, and a main character who ranges from atom-sized to 65 feet tall. My point is: How is this not a screwball comedy? Where's the madness? How is this movie just a blandly agreeable minor spectacle and not a madcap frenzy? It's not so much that Wasp doesn't work at all, but that it works in sort of the wrong way. It doesn't take its own concept's lead; instead it squeezes into an oddly straightlaced package.
Still, as misguided efforts go, Ant-Man and the Wasp is charming enough. Where it shines is in its detours and diversions and grace notes - the moments that step out of the mundane play-by-play of the narrative. Michael Peña's storytelling riffs from the first Ant-Man are a prime example. (The device is resurrected just once this time around, but in memorable fashion.) There are a lot of great little moments between characters, or tiny comic addendums and improvisations. The actors consistently elevate material that tries to hamstring them, as Marvel's casts so often do. The big disappointment is that the film finds nothing for Goggins to do - he's his reliable self, but without much of a character to play - which makes one wonder why you would ever hire Walton Goggins if you're not going to give him a role to tear into.
The film mercifully ignores anything else that may be happening elsewhere in the extended universe to which it's attached. A lot of it, I enjoyed; but it frustrated me even more. It's an ordinary superhero movie with a lot of nice touches and it's very hard to actively dislike it. But imagine if it had just tried harder. What it needed was an inferiority complex; something to light a fire under its ass. The movie that Ant-Man and the Wasp is is instantly familiar to us. The movie that Ant-Man and the Wasp could have been does not yet exist.