To be honest, the new film, directed by the returning Peyton Reed, isn’t as bothered with establishing links with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as you’d think. Ant-Man’s preoccupations, after all, have always been (often literally) far smaller in scale than the interstellar-level threats his other caped compatriots are used to dealing with. And it’s actually refreshing to be around a superhero who’s not worrying about the fate of the universe (not yet anyway) for once, and who’s just happy to hang out in his own little corner, crack a few jokes, fight off a few baddies. That had been the appeal of the first Ant-Man installment, and happily, the second one is in much the same humble, low-key mould: these films know what they are and what they aren’t—no delusions of grandeur here.
Scott Lang/Ant-Man has been going through a rough time since we last met him. Put under house arrest for his involvement in the skirmish at the German airport in Civil War (don’t worry, I had to work plenty hard to recall the whole thing too), Scott has basically been slumming it at home, ankle bracelet ever attached, reading sappy young adult novels and trying to come up with ways to entertain daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) without stepping outside the premises—not an easy feat. He’s also lost touch with Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and her father Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), quantum physicists and one-time allies of his—and in the case of Hope, one-time ally with benefits—who had first introduced Scott to the wonders of his Ant-Man suit, and who are very, very annoyed at him for running off to Germany and subsequently latching the Feds on their backs. So, not a good few years, really.
But with his sentence soon drawing to a close, Scott is looking forward to resuming a normal life as a normal dad. To which, I say a resounding Ha! Because of course something will come up to wreck those plans: and lo behold, a strange dream featuring Hank’s wife Janet, who was lost many years ago to the Quantum Realm, a microscopic universe that Scott had made a visit to in the first film, brings him back into contact with Hank and Hope. Father and daughter believe the dream is a message from a still-alive Janet, and enlist Scott’s help in bringing her back to the normal-sized world. This is, of course, easier said than done; not only does our hero have the cops to think about Southern-fried thug (Walton Goggins) has been sniffing around too, desperate to get his hands on Hank and Hope’s technology. And as if that weren’t enough, a certain ghostly white figure—who it is or what it wants unclear—has also been tailing the trio.
After the sheer enormity of Infinity War, where the stakes were so incredibly, unthinkably, ridiculously high you couldn’t even process them properly, and they consequently lost all meaning, a little diversion was very much warranted in the superhero world. In Ant-Man and the Wasp, much like in its predecessor, the story and the stakes therein are rather more personal, more grounded. The tone here is distinctly goofier and more flippant in comparison to other such films—embodied by lead actor Rudd, also one of the co-writers, who infuses the proceedings with that likeable deadpan energy he’s honed down to a fine art over the years.
And I can’t tell you what a relief it is to not be expected to take a superhero production too seriously. Take the scene where Scott, in response to a particularly long pseudo-scientific diatribe from Hank and Hope, asks, “Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?”—a terrific little touch of self-parody. One of my main struggles with the genre has always been in trying to reconcile the inherent cartoonishness in the concept of a crazy-costumed vigilante with the grim solemnity these films frequently made to affect. Of course, I’m not discounting the numerous exceptions, scripts that have managed to tie those two aspects together seamlessly, but for the most part, the superhero movies that I’ve come to enjoy the most are those that have ditched the dour moral philosophising and shifted towards the lighter, looser end of the spectrum. The Ant-Man films might not be as snarky and self-aware as the Deadpool series, or possess the playful, bantery effervescence of the first Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, but they have a little bit of everything.
Something this new film offers over the first one is a meatier role for Lilly as the Wasp—the Lost actress has always been terrific at communicating strength and loyalty, and she certainly gets more opportunity to flex her action chops than before. But, despite it being clear that she’s the more skilled of the two, the Wasp is still essentially Ant-Man’s sidekick—she’s simply not rounded enough of a character to go beyond that. And I wish there had just been more sparks between the two; their chemistry here is even more lackluster than in the previous installment, making the supposed romance a little difficult to believe. Also falling a notch below expectation is Michael Peña as Scott’s motormouth friend and business partner—he just hasn’t been given as much screen time or much material to work with as one would’ve hoped, a shame considering the kind of punch he’d packed in the last outing.
What remains undiminished, however, is the comedic impact of the series’ whimsical experimentations with scale, and the abrupt shifts in perception these give rise to. Whether it’s tall building shrunk down to the size of a wheeled suitcase in the blink of an eye, a box packed with tiny Hot Wheels models to choose from to blow up into full-sized rides upon request, and a suddenly impossible-to-ignore Hello Kitty candy dispenser, the film has a lot of fun with these effects.
While it does maintain some perfunctory connections to the rest of the MCU’s inhabitants and storylines, the references are mostly in passing; the Ant-Man series has so far been happy to do its own thing. And that’s been very much key to its charm, that ability to exist in a bubble of its own, to remain if not entirely oblivious, at least somewhat detached from the larger game. Much of it also has to do with timing: This new film comes at a point where we’re close to reaching superhero fatigue, and seems intended as a bit of an antidote. It is, of course, impossible to say how long Ant-Man can afford to keep this up, especially given the rate at which the MCU is expanding, but for now, it makes for a nice little breather in the midst of increasingly escalating chaos.
Ant Man and the Wasp
Director: Peyton Reed
Actors: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly,
Genre: Superhero adventure