Way back in 2015, the first Ant-Man film came as a kind of an ancillary project to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Prior to it, films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy were making some serious moves in the canon, challenging what superhero movies could be and how they could still surprise audiences. Next, Avengers: Age of Ultron, though often regarded as underwhelming in relation to the first Avengers, began to sow the seeds for what the Marvel landscape looks like today. Two months later, Ant-Man was tasked with kickstarting a franchise that already felt somewhat late to the party that is the MCU. It had an uphill battle from the get-go, losing director Edgar Wright months before filming and introducing audiences to a character that, let’s face it, is smaller than his larger-than-life counterparts. Not to mention, it had to sell Paul Rudd as an action star. Expectations were lowered significantly, and though when released it had the second-lowest domestic opening weekend in the MCU – ahead of only 2008’s The Incredible Hulk – critical and audience reception was fairly positive, not to mention delightfully surprised. It didn’t make any waves, but it was a fun superhero romp that didn’t rely on the association of its sister films.
Such is the case with this year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, a follow-up to the aforementioned film and the twentieth film in the MCU; yes, you read that right. It’s coming out on the heels of the record-shattering success of Black Panther in February and the universe-shattering Avengers: Infinity War that is just now ending its theatrical run. And most fans have been looking for a Marvel-shaped palette cleanser, something Marvel Studios head-honcho Kevin Feige certainly anticipated when stamping the early July release for the film. In that regard, it mostly does its job. It presents a light, entertaining superhero outing in which the events of previous Marvel films do not weigh heavily on the proceedings. The sequel does precisely what it was designed to do: get in, and get out. And though not the breath of fresh air its predecessor was, Ant-Man and the Wasp still has plenty of creative juices flowing to take audiences on an adventure that is essentially a live-action Saturday-morning cartoon that clocks in at under two hours – something Marvel hasn’t pulled off since Doctor Strange in 2016.
After the events of Captain America: Civil War, in which Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) used the Ant-Man suit to aid fugitive Steve Rogers / Captain America, resulting in his capture, Scott has been serving the house arrest sentence handed down to him for the last two years. Unsatisfied with just him, the FBI has doggedly been searching for Hope van Dyne / Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) and her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), whose technology Scott used to abet Cap, but with no luck. Not even Scott has had any communication with them, despite establishing a romantic relationship with Hope after the events of Ant-Man. Meanwhile, Hope and Hank are able to open a portal to the Quantum Realm, a place where Scott visited in the previous film by shrinking subatomic, and where Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was also the original Wasp, disappeared to over thirty years ago and has until recently been presumed dead. With the portal opened, Scott begins receiving messages of sorts apparently from Janet, with whom he has become quatumly entangled since his last visit. Realizing the connection between Scott and Janet proves the latter is still alive, Hope and Hank are covertly able to abscond with Scott from his residence in order to find the key to rescuing her. However, watching in the shadows has been Ava Starr / Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), whose own contact with the Quantum Realm has given her invisibility and intangibility powers. Believing Janet to be the key to her own ends, Ghost will stop at nothing to thwart their plans and harness the Quantum energy that has been stored up in Janet for decades. In a race against the clock, Scott, Hope and Hank must counter Ghost’s advances, all while evading suspicion and capture from the FBI and black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) looking to get his hands on Pym’s tech himself.
Now, the first thing one would notice, is that the film isn’t simply “Ant-Man 2.” It’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. Implied is equal emphasis placed on its second titular hero. Ever since Hope gazed at the Wasp suit at the end of the first film, in a Terrence Howard-Iron Man moment, we’ve known that the classic comics character, and founding Avenger, was coming sooner or later. And for the most part, the wait was worth it. Hope already established herself as the more worthy heroine in the previous film, and now she’s earned her wings, literally. The suit is dynamic and flashy, and offers a strong counterbalance to Rudd’s Ant-Man, who easily works best when part of a team. Now, that’s not really to say Lilly outshines or even measures up to Rudd in terms of importance to the story. After all, it’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. Not “The Wasp and Ant-Man.” Though Hope along with Hank bears much of the emotional crux of the film, it’s ultimately Scott’s place in the construct of the story that holds the most weight. The film begins with catching viewers up with what he’s been up to since we’ve seen him last, and only until the inciting incident occurs and he enters the fray does Hope’s character arc begin. Once again, Scott has furrowed his way into Hope and Hank’s story rather than really contribute to it. However, the film does plenty to be forgiven of this flaw, as Rudd’s easy, root-able, everyman charm makes him a difficult character to dislike, and his chemistry with Lilly really sells them as a team when things get real. And by the end of the story, viewers should be sold better on their relationship (which thankfully doesn’t push the romantic angle as much as other films would) than that of its state at the end of the first film. All this is despite the fact that a certain scene during the credits confirms which character Marvel will be partial to relying on going into the future (hint: it’s Ant-Man).
Nevertheless, the first Ant-Man film was one that relied on the comedic timing of a supporting cast more than anything, and Ant-Man and the Wasp is no different. It brings back veteran actor Michael Douglas, who though looking somewhat bored does get more to do than simply exposit scientific jargon. A standout character from the previous film in Luis (Michael Peña) also returns to liven up the proceedings, with his rambling storytelling technique again being one of the comedic highlights. Now, where the film goes slightly wrong unfortunately, is its treatment of new characters, in so much as they’re used as a means to an end for the story and are hardly given a chance to shine whatsoever. Joining the cast is Lawrence Fishburne – playing Bill Foster, a former partner of Pym’s – whom most will recognize from The Matrix trilogy but also has quite the impressive résumé outside of blockbusters. Here, he’s hardly given anything to do, other than establish himself as a moral compass and watch in awe while the supers do their thing. Given slightly more to do is Walton Goggins, a recognizable face but hardly a household name – and therefore a cheap get – who serves as a third-party antagonist in the film’s final act. Of course, he’s involved in the action set-pieces and his comedic sensibilities really get to have their moment, but I can’t help but shake my head at Hollywood’s incessant undervaluing of his talents, after relegating him to a glorified cameo in Maze Runner: The Death Cure and an unsatisfactory villain archetype in Tomb Raider, both released earlier this year. Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time before someone decides to give him a meaty role in a higher caliber film, but until then, a boy can only dream. Lastly, there’s Michelle Pfeiffer, whose career has spanned decades and has already graced superhero films with one of its finest performances as Catwoman in Batman Returns. Now, if you’ve followed the marketing for this film, you’ll know that where she does appear is in printed promotional material like posters and what not, as of yet not making an appearance in any of the trailers or television promos. That about says it all, as any fans of Pfeiffer who were looking forward to seeing her embrace the Marvel machine are likely to be disappointed, as though she’s the essential main focus of the plot, is largely absent from the greater portion of the film. And when she finally does make her appearance, it’s fairly underwhelming when considering how much her character was built up over the last two movies.
While Marvel has had an incredible track record with producing hits over the last decade, one critique many fans have had with its solo films are the villains. Often, it’s the heroes that are given narrative emphasis, especially in origin stories, and thus the villains that arise merely fall by the waist-side or are carbon copies of the heroes if only in a negative light. One need only to look back at the villain Yellowjacket in Ant-Man to find evidence of this. Ghost, however, is something we haven’t entirely seen before in the MCU. Her skillset is more grounded than her villainous counterparts, yet still unique enough to feel fresh, and her motivations and backstory – though condensed – allow audiences to empathize or at least understand where she’s coming from. And it really does matter for a time, until it doesn’t, however. In the midst of Ant-Man and the Wasp trying to juggle Ghost along with the FBI subplot, the Sonny Burch subplot, the Luis subplot, and not to mention the Janet main plot, her importance to the story seems to hit a dull note in the finale when the movie finally decides it doesn’t want to fully commit to that arc, and suddenly all gravitas is dropped like a pin. Nevertheless, John-Kamen does well with the little material she was given, and she had some neat powers to marvel at during all the chaos.
In summation, I believe Marvel and audiences know exactly what the Ant-Man movies are supposed to be, in that they’re whimsical and undemanding popcorn flicks that are perhaps more friendly to families and anyone burned out by superhero fatigue. That said, if you’re a Marvel fan who just can’t get enough, I suppose you hardly need much convincing, but if you’re looking for a break after Infinity War, this is probably the one you could afford to miss. Still, it’s a fun ride and easily accessible for audiences looking for little more than some witty, size-manipulated set-pieces and a slew of jokes in between. Ant-Man and the Wasp is a slight step down from the first film just in terms of plot mechanics and character development, but is otherwise familiar enough in its triumphs to be a worthy successor.
Final score: 7/10