With these reviews of various superhero films, I’ve talked in the past about how the level of quality between many of these has often been a game of inches. This seems to be especially true in the case of Marvel Studios, which has often produced variations on the same formula to mostly great success. It’s telling when you head over to Rotten Tomatoes and you can’t find one film in their output that’s been labeled with dreaded “rotten” rating. It’s arguable if one deserves it or not (I’d make an argument for a few, for sure), but there’s no doubt that Kevin Feige and company have really cracked the code where blockbuster entertainment goes. This current phase has been especially strong, allowing them to stretch out a bit, and even produce their finest 1-2-3 punch in Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War.
Three movies I could watch over and over again, all representing the best in superhero-drenched cinema. After the latter especially, Marvel has a peculiar challenge: just what do you do in order to follow up on the gut punch of Thanos’ snap and its aftermath? While Captain Marvel will provide a key point of prequel to the actual follow-up, Ant-Man and The Wasp goes a wholly different direction – as it asks: what was Scott Lang doing while everyone else was off Avenging?
As it turns out, we probably shouldn’t have asked.
Scott (once again played by a Paul Rudd who seems to be bored of this already) has been under house arrest after his actions in Civil War. He’s been trying to be a good dad to Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), and is even getting along pretty well with his ex-wife (Judy Greer, who deserves so much better than this) and her cop husband (Bobby Cannavale, ditto). Three days away from finally getting off of house arrest and out from under the all-seeing eye of FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), he’s struck by a vision of the original Wasp, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), which prompts him to immediately call his old superheroing pals Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, sans horrible hair) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). After some prerequisite hurt feelings, cause you gotta have that, this trio sets off on a journey to find Janet, but runs into some opposition in Walton Goggins playing basically Walton Goggins, and a woman referred to as Ghost with the power to phase out of a physical state (Hannah John-Kamen) who also wants to track down Janet.
I know we often tag Marvel, and fairly I might add, regarding the quality of the villains in their films. But let me just say that the antagonists here are some of the blandest, most paper cut-out versions of opposition that they’ve yet produced. They’re near Malekith-quality. Ghost, for her part, has a cool costume and is visually striking…but so was Boba Fett. It seems like her real power is to vanish from the viewer’s memory almost as soon as she appears. The funniest part is that it seems as if the filmmakers realized almost half-way through that they needed to produce a reason for audiences to give a shit about this character, so they gracelessly dumped a huge flashback to her past in the middle of a scene where she’s trying to interrogate the heroes. It’s the sloppiest execution of exposition seen from the Marvel crew in some time. And Goggins…well, he’s just happy to be there, I guess. He plays a mook that wants Pym’s tech for some shady employers that seemingly was priming us for a big reveal…that never ends up coming. Like I said, sloppy.
The biggest annoyance is that everything that involves Ghost or Goggins is just an obstacle to pull us from the most interesting part of the movie: the return to the Quantum Realm and the attempted rescue of Janet. This is where the tried and true formula really errs – while an effort like Thor: Ragnarok presented constant obstacles from its protagonist being able to reach a fairly clear end goal, said roadblocks were at least extremely interesting and engaging. While here, it’s all so tired and routine. To be frank, Ghost actually has a lot in common with Whiplash in Iron Man 2. Not exactly the comparison you want to strike.
So, if the villains are just total wipe-outs, at least there’s gotta be some good focus on the protagonists to see us through, right? On that note, Lilly is pretty game throughout. The Hope character is still painfully underwritten, but she at least gets a chance to display a ton of the hyper-competence that was her stock and trade in the last film. She’s the action star of the entire film, and anytime she suits up, there’s a number of entertaining uses of the shrinking elements inherent in these characters. I’m especially fond of how Reed and company employ her during a third act car chase that finds zipping between vehicles to throw some well-placed punches, and shrinking cars underneath others in order to knock their pursuers off the road. There’s an argument to be made that had this just been a Wasp movie, maybe at least there would be a reason for all of this to exist.
Because, to be honest, it’s not because of Ant-Man himself. There’s actually very little for Scott to do in this film other than to react to everything that happening around him. Which leads one to ask why he’s the lead of the film in the first place? There’s no arc for him here, and all of what he needed to learn, he already did so in the previous feature. He just kind of exists to run around alongside everyone else, yet he’s the center of attention for some reason. It’s a strange kind of character inertia that could verge on fascinating in a better movie. But here it just makes the side-kicking of Hope all that much more grating.
The humor is also just nowhere near as sharp as it was in the previous installment. Some of that comes from Rudd’s own flat, uninterested delivery – but the clearer issue is that Adam McKay, who re-wrote Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish’s script along with Paul Rudd, was no longer involved, having moved onto Oscar fare and has instead been replaced with a litany of Marvel Studios house writers, though Rudd is at least still credited. Once that wittier edge is lost, something that the general premise of Ant-Man requires, it becomes a much more labored experience. More groans than guffaws.
There’s a point in the final third when Pym finally traverses into the Quantum Realm, an admittedly arresting looking environment of colors and unusual organisms. I was put immediately put into mind of something like Innerspace, even down to the retro-looking jumpsuit he has to employ. Finally, I thought, things are really clicking into place. And then just as quickly as I held that thought…the script rushed to its underwhelming conclusion. Bummer. Some of these Marvel heroes are just better suited to team-up material, and Ant-Man, one of the big highlights of Civil War, is definitely one of them.