*Minor spoiler alert*
Sometimes, I’m not sure whether I have writer’s block or the film I’m focusing my adulation and/or criticisms on provides so little to write about outside of baseline technical praise. Perhaps the fact that Marvel’s latest picture, Ant-Man and the Wasp, surprisingly the last MCU film until Captain Marvel premieres early next March, is the lightest – certainly a popular word from critics and filmgoers in reference to it – and least significant film in the MCU timeline provides its own frustrations and hindrances to deeper criticism. Then again, said diminutive stature has always been coded into this standalone franchise’s DNA, similarly to the comics in terms of relative popularity.
How appropriate it is that just as Edgar Wright’s Peyton Reed’s first Ant-Man was the light, zany palate cleanser to Age of Ultron’s beginning the MCU’s foray into darker thematic territory with metastasizing inter-Avengers conflict, Marvel delivers Ant-Man and the Wasp to achieve the same ends after this first Infinity War’s effectively downbeat cliffhanger. In a sense, it’s Marvel’s admission that there’s comparatively little substance to the Ant-Man series – true to the comics aside from Scott Lang’s relationship to his daughter, Cassie, and Hank Pym being Ultron’s original creator – when standing next to the rest of the Avengers. If the big team-up Avengers films are the heavy roast dinners, then these two Ant-Man features are the digestif cocktails that follow.
So, while it’s tempting to review Ant-Man and the Wasp on the standards of most preceding Marvel films, one almost can’t. Sure, there’s ample, if admittedly tired criticism to be made of how it is yet another representative of the pervasive MCU storytelling algorithm – forget the producers’ committee – finding its way into proceedings and lending the impression of passive cookie-cutter filmmaking, but the emotional hooks are, to a degree, respectably kept at a smaller scale and urgency befitting a product that’s supposed to help us unwind rather than pile onto the buildup in our stomachs. Ant-Man will never have the emotional or socio/geopolitical resonance of the Captain America, Black Panther and Avengers movies, and it doesn’t need to – mostly.
Though such may raise legitimate questions as to why we would need Ant-Man movies at all – which we understand Kevin Feige and the films themselves will never answer for us – the goliath Marvel Studios can still very easily knock mid-range blockbuster fare like them out of the park and all but quash the overriding notion that their pop culture stranglehold has become anything less than cynical. This sequel, in which Hope van Dyne’s (Evangeline Lilly) iteration of The Wasp finally makes her grand entry alongside Lang’s Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), is a charmingly self-contained pre-Infinity War adventure where Hope and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) reluctantly bring Lang back for a long-shot mission to save Pym’s wife, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), from the Quantum Realm.
Making that achievement becomes more difficult and when a strange specter-like figure who phases in and out of reality keeps stealing their tech for her own existential purposes, and she’s a character who presence and motivation is at once refreshing and a relative letdown. As far as Marvel is concerned, 2018 has been the year of not just strong, well thought-out villains, but also villains with whom we can normally or perversely empathize – strange, considering one of them is a genocidal madman. Hannah John-Kamen’s fittingly named Ghost falls into the former alongside Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, as her character is beset by traumatic physical affliction the narrative tells us will soon kill her and so needs the technology Pym, van Dyne and Lang require to save Janet.
While the narrative after the first act gets caught into repetitive and ultimately predictable patterns embracing this kind of back and forth, with Lang’s old burglary crew and a new minor antagonist named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) thrown in to mitigate these feelings, it does a decent job of establishing the competing, if basic emotional imperatives driving this conflict satisfactorily devoid of a formulaic good-evil binary. With that said, having to juggle between two different plotlines, particularly after the initial 25 minutes to half hour has passed, means John-Kamen’s Ghost’s backstory and impetus doesn’t feel fully fleshed out and not as engaging as it could have been, and so the five screenwriters resign it to a shoehorned expository sequence slowing momentum and merely pay lip service to the sort of character she is.
The same unfortunately goes for Laurence Fishburne’s Bill Foster, a former colleague of Pym’s turned bitter rival, whose surrogate fatherhood to Ghost creates its own underexplored dynamic, though hopefully to be further developed in successive films. These two pieces, however, may be integral ingredients, but they are merely a garnish. Having covered their respective emotional backdrops in the previous film, all we need from Rudd, Lilly and Douglas for their respective reprised roles is solid interplay, and not only are all three visibly game for the low-stakes drama and goofy humor not supplied by their supporter co-stars, but also the film perhaps suitably allows more time for their own arcs, as inconsequential as some of them may seem.
Just about every other aspect that makes these movies thrive – the action, pacing, humor, thematic underpinnings, technical aesthetic etc. – is good and competent enough, if also only to a point, as proceedings wear especially thin heading towards and through the final act. Though in this somewhat special case, it’s nearly admirable, if also the much easier choice, that Ant-Man and the Wasp not aim for much higher than it does. After all, as alluded to earlier, most of these MCU flicks are essentially the same flavor of cookie defined by their particular cutter, which can only stamp but so much personality differentiated from the others. If you don’t mind, then perhaps it’s suggested you eat this batch hot out of the oven without much thought for how Feige and Co. are fattening you up.