REVIEW: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’, where progress starts small

 Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd star in  Ant-Man and the Wasp , directed by Peyton Reed.

Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd star in Ant-Man and the Wasp, directed by Peyton Reed.

The latest Marvel entry arrives at an odd time. Since the film series’ similarity to a giant TV show is an obvious one, it’s not a stretch to say Ant-Man and the Wasp resembles a classic “bottle episode” from a big serialized program. Bottle episodes try to close off a handful of characters in a location or scenario that sets them apart from the thrust of the broader plot, and that’s exactly what’s happening in Peyton Reed’s new film. Hot on the heels of the (apparently) crushing ending of Avengers: Infinity War, we jump into a Marvel story with only tangential connections to the bigger narrative. And you know what? That’s just fine by me.

I may be imagining it, but I’ve never sensed a lot of love from moviegoers for the first Ant-Man, which I still hold up as one of my favourites from the entire series (gasp!). Its boring villain be damned, there was something about the use of visuals, the wackiness of the action, and the wry humour contributed by Edgar Wright’s tenure as director that I loved.

While we don’t get quite the same mix in the sequel, we still get an equally fun ride, with a few notable additions swapped in, namely two new female heroes and a female villain. Details like that aside, Ant-Man and the Wasp is also about something more than its plot: it’s a tangibly heartfelt movie about the bonds of family. That may sound like a groaner, but it’s realized here with a kind of authenticity that makes the Ant-Man films some of the most grounded installments in an otherwise grandiose universe.

The opening of Ant-Man and the Wasp cranks us back to some of the stateside ramifications of the events of Captain America: Civil War. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is serving the final days of a house arrest sentence for helping out Captain America (Chris Evans) in his dust-up with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Scott’s confinement has allowed him to bond with his daughter – kudos to his ex-wife and her new husband (Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale) for being legitimately decent people – but he’s keen to get back out into the world. He wants to officially join the security company run by his friend Luis (Michael Peña). And he’s had no contact with his former collaborators Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) or her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the people who first helped him become Ant-Man.

 Sight gags with Scott's suit make up many of Ant-Man's appearances.

Sight gags with Scott's suit make up many of Ant-Man's appearances.

But of course Scott will need to suit up once again, and that opportunity comes courtesy of a strange dream linking him to Hank’s long-lost wife Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer). Decades previously, Janet disappeared into the so-called Quantum Realm, using Hank’s shrinking technology to go subatomic in an effort to stop a missile attack. After Scott reports the dream in a voicemail to Hank, he’s soon drawn back into a life on the run, teaming up with Hope (who has a super-suit of her own now) to track down the technology necessary to bring Janet back. Along the way, they also find themselves facing off with competitors for the tech: a rogue agent known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) and a black-market dealer (Walton Goggins), each with their own ideas on what to do with the gadgets.

Compared to the gargantuan stakes in many other movies in the franchise, it’s refreshing to go back to a world where the worst thing that can happen to the characters is that they won’t get to spend time with their families. If Scott is caught breaking his house arrest, he’ll get real jail time. And Hope and Hank’s worst nightmare is that their tremendous intellects won’t be enough to reunite them with Janet, who’s been alone in the phantasmagoric world of quarks and photons for thirty years. People may make fun of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) for skipping some of the past few fights to hang out at home, but there’s something to be said for heroes with some work-life balance.

This time around, the unique Ant-Man sense of humour doesn’t have quite the same sparkle or surrealism as it did before. Whether that’s due to Wright not being involved is hard to say, but the script and the direction definitely feel more in line with the recognizable Marvel formula. We also get far fewer instances of “ant magic”, my term for the very convenient ants – always right where you need them – these movies rely on. Instead, a lot more attention is paid to sight gags of Scott’s suit malfunctioning (the highlight being his child-sized stature in a scene at an elementary school) and complex fight scenes featuring our newest hero, The Wasp.

 A troubled woman named Ava (Hannah John-Kamen) is searching for some dangerous tech.

A troubled woman named Ava (Hannah John-Kamen) is searching for some dangerous tech.

For her part, The Wasp is a sensible new addition to the Avengers roster. At a time (10 years, 20 movies) when Marvel has yet to deliver a female-centric solo film, The Wasp gets halfway to the milestone by sharing the marquee with Ant-Man. Timid progress aside, it’s no white knight move: Hope Van Dyne has long been one of the most competent characters in the Ant-Man films, and she drives most of the action in the story. After all, it’s Hope’s mother that the heroes are trying to save, and Scott’s just along for the ride.

The dynamics between parents and children, and their effects on the adults those children become, is also a driving force for the villain. Ghost (also known as Ava) was orphaned as a child when her father’s experiments with the Quantum Realm backfired, leaving Ava alone and afflicted with a power that lets her phase through objects, though it’s slowly killing her. Ava wants to use Hank’s technology to heal herself, even if doing so kills Janet.

The net result is a potentially fascinating nature/nurture debate in the form of a superhero film, though the movie doesn’t really pursue it. The paths Hope and Ava take through life both stem from the loss of a parent (in Ava’s case, two parents), but they go different directions: Hope becomes a costumed hero, and Ava becomes a villain. And then consider Scott’s daughter: she stands to repeat the cycle anew if Scott is caught by the authorities. Tellingly, she even daydreams about becoming his superhero partner someday.

Maybe if the Ant-Man movies didn’t have to pay their dues and remain part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they would be able to examine this in more detail. But we must have our signature action-comedy set pieces and push the thematic stuff to the side, and so the chance for any lasting commentary is slight. All the more reason to cheer for a Wasp standalone movie post-Avengers 4; there’s lots of ground to cover, and what better way than to take to the skies?

Ant-Man and the Wasp gets three stars out of four.

 
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Stray thoughts:

  • I was happy to see the return of Luis’ lip-synced flashback stories – they're a highlight of the first Ant-Man, and they’re not overused here.
  • As much as I like Walton Goggins’ scenes with Michael Peña, Goggins character did split the focus more than I’d like.
  • It’s obviously a rather silly detail to worry about, but how does everything in the lab not get destroyed when they shrink it and toss it around like a suitcase?