It’s probably not surprising that a superhero film about a character who can shrink himself to microscopic size focuses primarily on the small, day-to-day parts of life, but it’s refreshing all the same. There are no cosmic consequences or world-shaking battles in Ant-Man and the Wasp, the 20th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, it’s pretty well detached from the epic narrative of the MCU in general. It’s a welcome change of pace that reminds us that superhero films can be easy, breezy fun instead of heavy-handed spectacle.
As the film opens, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) is nearing the end of two years of house arrest for his actions in the intra-Avengers battle from Captain America: Civil War. His former associates Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) have been on the run from authorities. Hank and Hope end up contacting Scott because they think his experience shrinking into the Quantum Realm in the previous film can help them locate Hank’s wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was lost there decades prior. At the same time, a mysterious figured called Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) is trying to steal Pym’s quantum technology for her own reasons.
If you’re worried about how AMATW fits into the events of Avengers: Infinity War, don’t be. In fact, the only films you need to be worried about connecting to are Civil War and the previous Ant-Man. Director Peyton Reed and the film’s team of writers (which includes Paul Rudd himself) have done their best to keep AMATW’s story contained and focused, largely avoiding the broader scope of the MCU except when it relates specifically to Scott’s actions in Civil War. There are no surprise cameos, no random story hooks, and no Tony Stark anywhere.
All of that leads to a film that is both lightweight and easy to digest, but without sacrificing character depth or the exciting superhero action we’ve come to expect from Marvel. In fact, the action sequences are some of the MCU’s most inventive, with Reed masterfully choreographing battles that involve multiple instances of things quickly and seamlessly growing and shrinking in size. The first big set piece, involving a fight in a kitchen between a suited-up Hope and several criminal thugs, is a dizzying and kinetic thrill ride that’s a refreshing change from the MCU’s epic brawls and smackdowns. The film has weaponized Pez dispensers, buildings that shrink to the size of a carry-on bag, and ants as big as Great Danes, all presented in a fluid, non-breaking, matter-of-fact way.
However, this creativity also sets a very high standard right out of the gate that the film doesn’t always manage to bring itself back up to. The action is so intense and frenetic that the bits in-between sometimes seem sedate and superfluous. This is especially true in the film’s first half, which seems to have trouble finding a consistent tone and voice. To be sure, there’s plenty of genuine comedy and fine character moments, but there’s also a bit of mood whiplash and some of the serious beats feel like they’re stretched out far too long.
It’s mostly ameliorated by the finely-balanced chemistry of the cast, all of whom do well in their roles and work well off of each other. It’s hard not to have a connection with Paul Rudd’s effortlessly charming and down-to-earth Scott, however. Scott is less a superhero than he is just a guy trying to do right by his family who sometimes happens to put on a suit of super-sizing tech. Ant-Man might be one of the “lesser” heroes when compared to the Norse gods and raging green monsters of the MCU, but he’s always been one of the franchise’s most relatable, fully-human characters.
Evangeline Lilly gets far more to do here than she did in Ant-Man, donning her own supersuit to become The Wasp. And boy does she make that work. Beyond the Wasp being a formidable hero on her own, Lilly’s cool, deadpan snark is a perfect counterpoint to both Rudd’s warm geniality and Michael Douglas’ hardened cynicism. She’s the true focal point of the movie, to be honest, and Lilly’s love of the role and confidence in her reading of it shine through in every scene. Her romance with Scott, a carryover from the first film, still seems a bit forced from a narrative perspective, but it’s impossible to deny the rapport that Lilly and Rudd share.
The most interesting part of AMATW is the fact that it doesn’t have a true antagonist. The closest we get is the film’s Not-So-Big Bad, a black market tech dealer played by Walton Goggins. Although Ghost is billed as the villain of the film, she’s really anything but. Ghost wants Pym’s technology for personal reasons, not to take over or end the world, and she’s primarily the antagonist because of her dark past and her willingness to do get her hands very dirty to achieve her goals. Hannah John-Kamen plays the role beautifully, both angry and vulnerable in equal measures, a restrained but affecting desperation in her approach.
The film’s massive supporting cast beyond that gets a bit unwieldy, meaning that the remaining screen time is unevenly divided between the characters. Michelle Pfeiffer, for example, gets about as much screen time as Randall Park, who plays the FBI agent monitoring Scott’s home detention. There’s a bit too much time devoted to Scott’s friend Luis, once again played by Michael Peña, who gets snagged into Pym’s predicament. While he’s almost always genuinely humorous, he often seems shoehorned into an already crowded story.
If it seems like we’re spending a lot of time discussing the players and not the story, that would be because this is a film about people first and foremost. While the narrative isn’t unimportant, it’s also quite slight and thin for a two-hour superhero film. There isn’t a tremendous amount of story here. But the film’s focus is always on how the people in that story react and respond, and how what we do affects who we are. There’s a strong emphasis in exploring how our past affects our present and future, and whether or not we’re able to transcend our own expectations. This is a film about very personal stakes and personal choices more than it is about saving the world.
All of that, however, is buoyed by a light-hearted script and a fair amount of optimistic-yet-sarcastic humor that helps set the film apart. A running joke about Scott’s new Ant-Man suit having a malfunctioning size regulator leads to any number of gags that would seem out of place in any other MCU film. Ant-Man and the Wasp is its own movie, to be sure, and it’s remarkable to see just how much fun a Marvel film can be when it’s focused on just delivering a good time. It may lack the grandeur of Wakanda or the mysteries of Titan, but that’s just fine. Sometimes, the best things come in small packages.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B