Ant-Man and the Wasp is a kind film, maybe Marvel’s most positive.
The first Ant-Man wore its production troubles on its sleeve, unable to quite convey the characters in a unique way. Scott Lang needs forgiveness from his daughter! Hank Pym needs forgiveness from his daughter! HYDRA is back! It was a rush job, but the contours of what director Peyton Reed and company wanted from their story were visible in Lang’s love for his daughter and positive relationship with his ex-wife and her new husband.
It all works here.
Reed and five credited writers take Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, the titular Wasp), her father, Hank (Michael Douglas), and their best friend, Scott (Paul Rudd) on a wild adventure to save their long-lost matron, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer). Implying that Janet (the original Wasp) was still alive somewhere in the “Microverse” was the hook at the end of the first movie and, unlike most franchises, AM&W goes smaller in scale with the sequel, resting the action and emotion entirely on the rescue mission and those who would stand in its way, including Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) and Sonny Birch (Walton Goggins).
No world-ending stakes. Few big explosions. Minimal collateral damage. Just a woman, her father and their friend trying to save a lost loved one.
AM&W is the first Marvel film to really play on the the idea of a secret identity, of a hero having a regular life outside his action-adventure. In the wake of Captain America: Civil War, Scott is under house arrest and his friends are on the run. He’s now two years into his sentence and three days from being released on probation when duty comes knocking. FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), the nicest FBI agent in cinematic history, is keeping tabs on him. If Scott gets caught doing superheroics again, he loses any chance of being free to work a job and be with his daughter.
It’s the kind of personal stakes Marvel hasn’t really latched onto outside of maybe Spider-Man: Homecoming, which only really involved Peter Parker’s love life as the collateral. There’s a reason why secret-identity drama, the hero needing to be two places at once, is such a potent and fun hallmark of the genre.
Rudd was particularly great in Captain America: Civil War, and he continues to be here — in large part, I think, because he’s essentially a supporting character. His name might be first on the poster but he takes second place here to Lilly’s Wasp, who is clearly enjoying her shot at being an ass-kicking hero as much as her alter-ego. The franchise belongs to both of them, and this film makes up for lost time in establishing her as an equal to the rest of Marvel’s stable of characters.
Ghost and Birch are much more minor-key villains for Marvel, after a string of series-best foes. Unlike Hela, Killmonger or Thanos, AM&W‘s villains just want to make a buck or, in Ghost’s case, achieve small aims. What sets them apart from the rest of their universe isn’t their goals but the general morality with which they hope to achieve them. Reed and company have no interest in depicting murderers and monsters.
Their last villain wanted to kill half the universe; it’s hard to top that.
The macro-to-micro (and vice versa) action beats distinguish the film from its sister franchises, and here the film also shines. Ant-Man had some great visual gags but, to some extent, the shrinking powers only really showed their potential in the final sequence. They go crazy here, featuring a new take on the idea of what it means to be able to shrink and grow objects and people on the fly.
AM&W is the Paddington of Marvel’s movies; there isn’t a cruel, angry or cynical bone in its body. Characters make the best choices they can to take care of other characters and moral lines aren’t crossed, even by the villains, for character-based reasons. Family (both found and biological) is depicted as a source of strength, something heroism builds rather than breaks. There is just a sense that nobody involved in making this movie wanted anyone watching it to feel bad but thankfully they also never lose sight of how to earn the emotional payoffs in the climax of the film.
Such a breezy, light story plays well after Avengers: Infinity War presented us with the futility of our heroes’ resistance to a galactic warlord. By design. I think AM&W will scratch an itch for audiences who left that last film feeling cold. There are minimal connections to it. This is standalone — an Ant-Man sequel first, a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie second.
With 20 movies and countless successful sequels, it’s not like Marvel needs to prove itself. We’ve seen characters grow, change, adapt. We’ve seen visual languages developed across multiple directors, series and phases. We’ve even seen universes collapse like paper. Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t have to be anything beyond another in a long line of fun, inventive Marvel Studios releases. It sure is.