When the first Ant-Man was released three summers ago, it was a refreshing breeze that aired out an increasingly stuffy and stultifying superhero atmosphere. After the previous four MCU entries all ended with a large population barely escaping decimation from some magic stone or tech-turned-terror — and especially after the heady philosophy, jumbled plotting, and visual mayhem of Age of Ultron — it was a relief and a delight to watch a game cast and a novel superpower excel in the service of a simple yet emotionally resonant story. After original director Edgar Wright was replaced by Peyton Reed, apocalyptic predictions ensued, and Ant-Man dropped from being the most anticipated Marvel film to the least. Those lowered expectations, and its own modest aims, actually worked in the film’s favor. While in hindsight I would argue that Age of Ultron was the better Marvel film that summer, there is something praise-worthy about any film that recognizes what it is, accepts what it is not, and then proceeds with quiet confidence to be itself.
I can say much the same about Ant-Man and the Wasp in the context of this year’s own over-abundant crop of superhero films. February’s Black Panther was admirable in its timely intentions, but it stumbled into the same old bog of third-act tropes and tired short-cuts that we had seen so many times before. May’s Avengers: Infinity War was overwhelmed by gargantuan expectations, yielded underwhelming results, and already feels like it opened… I don’t know, an infinity ago. June’s Incredibles 2 was very enjoyable and easily the best-directed superhero film this year, but even it could not stick the landing or tie up all its loose threads — let alone approximate the success of its predecessor, one of the undisputed champions of the genre. This was the year of three superhero films with purportedly historic significance — the first African superhero film, the first massive-ensemble superhero film, the first Brad Bird animated film in a decade—and I looked forward to seeing all of them. But the more I think about them afterward, the more I realize how little they satisfied.
Ant-Man and the Wasp — or as one of my friends likes to call it, Ant-Woman — is the only superhero film this year that met my expectations. To be sure, it did not exceed my expectations, but after seeing a string of similar films falling well below expectations, I can’t complain. All I really wanted was two more hours of Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, and Michael Douglas running around, making big things small, and bickering, then running around some more, making small things big, and reconciling, and so on and so forth — and some more long-winded Michael Peña monologues thrown in for good measure. And that’s exactly what Peyton Reed and Co. ably delivered. Again, there’s something to be said for films that are given a little and are faithful with a little.
Is it better or lesser than the first Ant-Man? That all depends on what you’re looking for. On the one hand, I prefer the first film for its relatable characters and their interpersonal dynamics. In contrast, the second film relies on these established characters and relationships without really developing them further, and it lacks almost any discernible character arcs. Ant-Man is actually about two Ant-Men, the original and his successor. Similarly, Ant-Man and the Wasp is about two Ant-Men and one Wasp searching for the original Wasp. But who is the main character really? Who carries the story emotionally? It’s hard to say. There are simply too many characters to keep up with to really invest in any one of them. Of course, the ensemble is fantastic and everyone has a lot of fun. I particularly enjoyed the additions of Walton Goggins and Randall Park to the cast, even as I was disappointed that Bobby Cannavale and Judy Greer were sidelined. But while the film has tons of personality — or personalities — it doesn’t feel nearly as personal as its predecessor.
On the other hand, one thing I don’t like about the first film is how conventional it is. Ant-Man predictably adheres to all the beats you would expect that a cross between a superhero origin story and a heist caper would follow. In contrast, Ant-Man and the Wasp roams free and seems random in its many twists and turns — even to a fault. If Ant-Man hewed too closely to a well-worn three-act structure, Ant-Man and the Wasp has little to no structure. The only apparent organizational principle is that all the disparate elements funnel down and barrel towards the climactic moment when Janet van Dyne is rescued from the Quantum Realm. In the meantime, we jump restlessly from one location or set-piece to the next, and watch as Pym’s portable lab — the most ingenious MacGuffin I’ve seen in a long time — switches hands again and again in a filmic version of hot potato. Admittedly, as scattershot and paper-thin as this plot may be, it sure is a hoot to watch, reminiscent of the suitcase-swapping antics of What’s Up Doc?, another film with a comedic car chase in downtown San Francisco. (Ant-Man and the Wasp must be an homage to Innerspace as well. The affinity between the two films extends all the way from shrinking tech to the San Francisco setting, even down to the design of Pym’s quantum submarine.)
In short, if pressed to choose between the two, I would say that the first Ant-Man is better, but both films are such big-hearted, fun-loving, and easy-going entertainments that the differences between them are negligible. Outside of the Captain America films, Ant-Man is proving to be the MCU’s most reliable and consistent series. After a lackluster run of films in the past two years, that is good news for anyone who, like me, still hasn’t given up on these silly things.
I respect Ant-Man and the Wasp for its modest aspirations and its ability to fulfill them, but I do wish it had been just a tad more ambitious. At the least, I wish that it had done more with the possibilities so immediately within reach. This is the second superhero film in the past few weeks that gives a superheroine a more substantial role, and on paper that is a perfectly good and justifiable idea. In the original Incredibles and the original Ant-Man respectively, Helen Parr and Hope van Dyne are compelling characters who command the attention of the audience. In theory, they are more than able to carry a sequel. But while both characters are given action sequences that do justice to their characters as heroes, they are not given arcs that do justice to them as people. Similarly, both Incredibles 2 and Ant-Man and the Wasp have interesting villains that are potential foils to the protagonists. (Curiously, both villains feel resentment toward our heroes because of the death of their parents.) Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost is one of the most sympathetic villains in the MCU — so much so that she hardly counts as a villain — and she does fare better than her Incredibles 2 counterpart. Nevertheless, it’s a pity that such a unique and tragic character isn’t fully fleshed out and is barely present.
The diminishing of Ghost’s importance to the story leads me to another one of the film’s missed opportunities. As I have written at length elsewhere, Marvel films keep returning to the theme of the sins of the father. The first Ant-Man was especially focused on this idea and, based on hints dropped in the first half of this new film, I anticipated that Hank Pym was on a collision course with a crisis of conscience. In the first film we learned that his secretive detachment alienated both his daughter and his son-like protégé. Now we learn that his toxic ego alienated not one but two former co-workers. The exposition is a little hazy and ambiguous on this point, but it seems that Pym may have been somehow responsible for the death of Ghost’s parents and for Ghost’s fading health. Once again, the consequences of past failings have returned to haunt him and his loved ones. But strangely, this story thread is left practically untouched. We watch Pym violently reject the opportunity to help heal Ghost, and this makes him look all the more guilty. But while he does eventually come around to a more compassionate stance, we never see him honestly respond to any of the other charges made against him. Even just one moment of recognition and confession would have added some weight to a film that, as is, has only the faintest thematic outline. (How many ghost puns have I made in the last two paragraphs?)
Given how slight the film is, there isn’t much else to say. It’s a fun piece of escapism, nothing more, and I’m fine with that. But in closing, it’s worth noting how the film might be contributing to another one of Marvel’s thematic preoccupations: empathy. In my last two MCU-related articles for FilmFisher, I’ve considered the problems that arise if empathy is the cardinal virtue of Marvel’s moral vision. I’d like to tentatively suggest that Ant-Man and the Wasp shows the importance of empathy without blowing it out of proportion. On multiple occasions, the protagonists make matters worse when they fail to consider the suffering of others or the harmful effects their rash, self-centered actions will have on others. But one of the central conflicts of the film is resolved when one character, who has herself been through years of suffering in isolation, sees a fellow lonely sufferer and instinctively recognizes her pain. Their wordless exchange is literally a moment of healing. I know it’s not much to go on, but it’s worth a thought.
(P.S.: A few words about the end credits: Plastic miniatures are used to create one of the best-designed credits sequences I’ve seen in awhile. But the mid-credits scene is annoying, even if it did answer one of my questions about the next Avengers film. The infamous ending of Infinity War became an internet meme within days and has already lost most of its visceral power. The mid-credits scene is not only dissonant and anti-climactic in the context of Ant Man and the Wasp, but it cheapens the ending of Infinity War even further. As for the post-credits scene, it exists only to remind us that Marvel has captured way too much of our attention. The joke’s on us.)