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Non-Review Review: Ant Man and the Wasp

Marvel doesn’t get quite enough credit for its skill at scheduling.

Ant Man and the Wasp is an incredibly light film. Befitting its size-changing central characters, it might even be described as a very small film. In some ways, a distractingly small film. It doesn’t really have a central story so much as a collection of events and complications that occur as a variety of characters attempt to accomplish a number of varying small-scale objectives. It doesn’t really have a central villain so much as a collection of forces working in opposition to one another, locked in a handful of small-scale skirmishes over a variety of macguffins.

Ant Man’s reach exceeds his grasp…

None of this is a problem. Indeed, the relatively intimate stakes of Ant Man and the Wasp feel very welcome in this era of apocalyptic scale and epic urban devastation. At no point in Ant Man and the Wasp does a villain threaten an entire city, let alone the country or the planet or reality itself. That said, the disjointed and low-key nature of the film could easily be a problem under other circumstances; the central conflicts in Ant Man and the Wasp are never defined in any real detail, its characters never really grow, its outcome is never in any real doubt.

However, much like the original Ant Man worked very well as a contrasting counterpoint to the bombastic and bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant Man and the Wasp benefits as a refreshing change of pace from Avengers: Infinity War. The film seems almost tailor-made to serve as light relief following the epic stakes and universal devastation of the summer’s other Marvel Studios release. It’s debatable whether this serves to make Ant Man and the Wasp a better film on its own terms, but it does make it seem much stronger in contrast.

“We need some theme music!”
“Nah, just a nice sting.”

There is something very appropriate about the small scale of Ant Man and Ant Man and the Wasp, as both are films that exist largely in the shadows of other factors. Most immediately, they exist in the shadow of the larger films in the Marvel Studios canon, particularly the bombastic big releases scheduled to release directly before them; Age of Ultron and Infinity War. In a more esoteric sense, they exist in the shadow of the complicated and controversial legacy of their central character and their source material. In cinematic terms, they exist in the shadow of the films that Edgar Wright might have made.

All of these outside factors combine to add a meta-textual sheen to the central characters and their superpowers. Scott Lang and Hope Van Dyne, and the films built around them, are by their very nature smaller. Neither Ant Man nor Ant Man and the Wasp are liable to appear near the top of many rankings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the exception of Doctor Strange and Black Panther, the two Ant Man films are the only Marvel Cinematic Universe films not to have made the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time since the release of Thor: The Dark World.

A chamber piece.

The pop cultural landscape seems to tower over and around them. If Scott and Hope weren’t able to shrink, they might feel crowded out. This is perhaps the key strength of the franchise. In a pop cultural landscape where Marvel Studios is a blockbuster behemoth, Ant Man and Ant Man and the Wasp are allowed to feel relatively modest and light on their feet. Ant Man and the Wasp is unlikely to populate too many “best of” end of year lists, or to merit much conversation outside of comparisons to the massive success of both Infinity War and Black Panther, but no reasonable person would expect them to.

As a result, there’s an endearing freedom that comes with both Ant Man and Ant Man and the Wasp, free from the burden of expectations and the demands heaped upon their Marvel Studios stablemates. They are allowed to be merely “enjoyable”, and do not have to be “transformative.” There is something very comforting in this. At its most charming and energetic, Ant Man and the Wasp is diverting escapism, an opportunity to hang around with a charming cast and to play around a little bit with the trappings of superhero stories, without having to either deconstruct them or use them to say something “important.”

Ghost Protocol.

The stakes are relatively low key. One of the stock criticisms of Marvel Studios is that the company has had a great deal of trouble creating compelling or engaging antagonists, outside of Loki and Killmonger. Ant Man and the Wasp is perhaps the first movie in the twenty-movie franchise where that problem simply does not matter. Ant Man and the Wasp does not have a compelling antagonist. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that the film does not have a primary antagonist at all. It has competing agendas, and minor irritants.

The movie is well aware of this fact. When gangster Sonny Birch shows up at climax to menace Hope and Scott, his arrival is not met with trepidation but with exasperation. “Really?” Hope sighs. “This guy again?” Similarly, while the mysterious Ghost poses more a serious threat to the heroes, her villainy is rigidly defined. “He has a daughter,” she observes of trying to leverage Scott into helping her, or at least getting out of her way. Her companion very quickly establishes that it is not that kind of superhero movie. “I will not be party to that,” he simply states. And that is the end of the discussion. Stakes grounded.

Lighten the mood a bit.

While the other Marvel Studios films often feel hobbled by their lack of a strong antagonistic force, Ant Man and the Wasp practically revels in that narrative vacuum. No real villains mean no real stakes. The audience doesn’t have to worry about shocking deaths or brutal twists, about getting caught off-guard by a sharp left turn or blindsided by a harrowing farewell. Given the heightened emotional climax of Infinity War, this sense of comfort and security is a welcome relief. Ant Man and the Wasp is free to just enjoy being a superhero movie, free from even the modest stakes of companion pieces like Thor: Ragnarok.

This freedom, along with the varying competing pressures from outside the film franchise outlined earlier in the review, affords Ant Man and the Wasp the opportunity to become something of a catch-all property for Marvel Studios, the most archetypally “comic-book-y” of their comic book movies. Because the source material has been rendered radioactive due to some very poor creative decisions made during the seventies and continuing to the present day, Ant Man and the Wasp cannot be as straight or as faithful an adaptation of its four-colour heroes as the Captain America or Iron Man franchises.

Drumming up some tension.

To be fair, Ant Man and the Wasp carries over certain elements from the comics bearing the same name. All the characters can trace their roots back to the comic pages, as can their powers and the rough contours of their relationships to one another. Some of the details are lifted directly from more modern runs; the idea of Janet Van Dyne lost in the quantum realm comes from Brian Michael Bendis, while Scott’s second career as a security consultant was an innovation by writer Nick Spencer.

However, Ant Man and the Wasp makes a point to skip over the many, many horrible things that Hank Pym has done. While Ant Man and the Wasp does add some shading to the character of it curmudgeony mentor figure, he is presented as the latest in the long line of troubled geniuses, like Howard and Tony Stark. His sin is pride and vanity, what might be described as arrogance if he wasn’t so damned good at what he had chosen to do. When Ant Man and the Wasp repeated reveals that Hank Pym marginalised co-workers that he felt were a burden to him, it is suggested that he was a jerk rather than that he was incorrect.

Checking the Pym-rimetre.

This is the sort of character flaw that feels like it might be offered in a job interview where the applicant is asked to list their worst quality. Hank’s worst quality is that he knows that he is the best he is at what he does, and that he won’t keep other people around to assure them that they are good enough. To be fair, the climax of Ant Man and the Wasp suggests that Hank’s journey is to learn some humility, to accept that genius carries with it the burden of behaving like a decent person. Still, it’s a relatively simple and uncomplicated arc when compared to the storylines for his his comic book character is best known.

Both Ant Man and Ant Man and the Wasp were smart enough to know that they had to get as far away as possible from the comic book character who inspired them. However, this creates a gap in the mythos. After all, Marvel Studios is a company that prides itself on continuity and fidelity. Images are often copied directly from panel-to-screen, and comic book storylines are either adapted or referenced as part of the creative process. With the comic book character of Hank Pym rendered toxic by his own continuity, this creates an interesting vacuum.

Adam Ant that he get there on time.

Ant Man and the Wasp does a number of interesting things to fill this vacuum. The most obvious way in which the film tries to get around the issues with the source material is to cobble together various elements from other comic book characters’ mythology to paper over the gaps. In Ant Man, Darren Cross was presented as a surrogate Iron Man villain, an arch-capitalist seeking to build weapons of mass destruction who inevitably ended up battling the hero inside a super-suit. Ant Man and the Wasp decides to stop playing coy and just ports over “the Ghost”, a d-list Iron Man villain.

Similarly, a desire to separate Janet Van Dyne from the character’s worst on-panel moments results in the decision to port over the tragic back story of the comic book version of Bucky Barnes. The opening scenes of Ant Man and the Wasp replay a sequence presented in Ant Man, albeit this time with the luxury of having cast Michelle Pfeiffer in the role rather than using a computer-generated stand-in. Borrowing from Stan Lee’s famous reworking of Captain America’s origin story, Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne are separated while trying to stop a missile act on the United States.

The realm of imagination.

However, Ant Man and the Wasp is more fun when it plays with broader and goofier superhero ideas. The bulk of the movie focuses on an attempt to rescue Janet Van Dyne from “the quantum realm”, using a variety of technobabble. (“Do you guys just put ‘quantum’ in front of stuff?” Scott asks at one point, in mild frustration.) The realm itself recalls the alternate dimension glimpsed in Doctor Strange, a trippy and endearing nod to these characters’ shared sixties psychedelic roots.

As part of this larger rescue mission, Hank Pym’s research becomes something of a macguffin. Cleverly, the research is stored in his laboratory, which is in a converted derelict building that he can shrink. Some of the best visuals in the film employ this twenty-first century portable office. Sometimes, surprises wait behind it. At other points, it is literally dropped down in the middle of a parking lot or in another incongruous location. Characters wheel it around like a suitcase, and clutch it their chest like some carry-on luggage.

A whole ghost of issues.

This is all gleefully ridiculous. This is a concept that does not hold up to any practical scrutiny. Surely a building like that needs to have foundations in order to remain upright, unless Pym built it from scratch? Has Pym properly insulated it in terms of electrical wiring, gas and water? One might as well ask why Pym hasn’t used those giant Pex dispensers to cure world hunger. The capacity to shrink buildings and carry them around becomes a recurring motif within the film, a joyous piece of comic book silliness that stands in contrast to some of the more po-faced seriousness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, like Thanos’ nonsense monologuing in Infinity War.

Ant Man and the Wasp also benefits from perhaps the most over-qualified cast in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Ant Man franchise is really the only franchise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe where it would be entertaining to watch any two members of its cast interacting or carrying their own mini-adventure. Ant Man and the Wasp features returning players including Michael Peña, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian and Michael Douglas. On top of that, the film adds Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer, Walton Groggins and Randall Park.

Quantum leap.

That supporting cast is stacked. One of the biggest problems with Ant Man was that it felt over-stuffed with great actors, who rarely got a chance to shine. Ant Man and the Wasp has the same problem, which is slightly frustrating given the sheer talent within its cast. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Ant Man and the Wasp has an ensemble that is at least as interesting to watch as the cast assembled in Infinity War, but without the same careful allocation of time. In particular, Cannavale and Greer feel under-utilised, given their established comedic chops.

The most valuable supporting player in the ensemble is Michael Peña as Luis, Scott’s former cellmate and business partner. Peña has a natural charm and energy that radiates from him every time that he is in front of the camera. In fact, Ant Man and the Wasp seems to keep the various characters circling back to Luis in order to keep him active within the plot. At the same time, there movie doesn’t know quite what to do with him. The character’s key set piece is a very funny flashback gag, but it leans on a gag that already played in Ant Man.

Working out some bugs in the system.

The most valuable new addition to the ensemble is Randall Park as the FBI agent assigned to oversee Scott’s house arrest. Like Peña, Park is inherently charming, even if his character often feels like a dangling loose end rather than an active participant in the story being told. Park has a charming and improvisational style that helps to group his character, feeling very much like a return to the archetype established with the introduction of Agent Coulsen in Iron Man, a guy who is just doing his job in a world that has gone completely off the rails.

Ant Man and the Wasp also benefits from a shade more self-awareness than the original Ant Man film, particularly when it comes to the characterisation of Hope Van Dyne. In Ant Man, Hope was cast as a potential love interest and side-kick to Scott, playing into the familiar cliché of the hyper-competent female supporting character playing second fiddle to a well-meaning dolt. (The archetypal example here might be Wildstyle from The LEGO Movie.)

Pez in our time.

Ant Man and the Wasp cannily decides that Hope can be a superhero in her own right, shrewdly deciding to give Hope the film’s first big action set piece. Ant Man and the Wasp candidly and repeatedly acknowledges that Hope is a far more competent superhero than Scott. When Scott wonders whether all the advanced technology in her suit just wasn’t available when Hank designed his suit, Hank responds honestly that he just didn’t trust the former thief. When Scott wonders if Hope would have come with him in Captain America: Civil War, Hope responds that he never would have been caught if she had.

If there is a serious problem with Ant Man and the Wasp, it is perhaps its position caught in the gravity of all of these other films. In the context of Civil War, it never made sense that Scott would risk access to his daughter as an ex-convict in order to fly to Germany to help a random stranger break the law in a very public way, but the blockbuster set piece demanded his presence. Ant Man and the Wasp is stuck writing around that inexplicable character decision, which it does with as much grace as possible. Similarly, the film inevitably gets drawn into Infinity War.

No flies on him.

Ant Man and the Wasp is far from perfect. It is an incomplete film, often feeling like a charming group of people hanging around with one another and goofing off together. It works primarily as a counterpoint to the other major blockbuster releases around it, particularly those released by Marvel Studios. Ant Man and the Wasp is charming and diverting, and that it is enough. Just about.

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