Imagine this: You’re Marvel Studios. In 2018 alone you’ve introduced the people and heroes of Wakanda to the MCU, simultaneously making a strong socio-political statement by proving that not only can an almost entirely black cast and crew make a successful movie but that people of all races will in fact attend that movie to the point of the highest domestic box office of the year. Then, just a couple of months ago, you paid off ten years and multiple franchises worth of build-up by figuratively splitting your universe in half in one of boldest narrative moves imaginable, one whose emotional ripples will continue to be felt until the next film comes out a full year later. What do you do now? Well, you follow these up with a relatively simple superhero comedy that focuses more on pleasing the crowd than on political statements or galaxy-wide storytelling. You’re Marvel Studios, at this point, where even your inessential films are highly enjoyable, you have that kind of luxury.
In many ways, both Ant-Man films do in fact feel like luxuries. They are pleasurable but – as of now – inessential side activities which kill time between the more important ones (insomuch as any superhero film can be deemed “important”). The first Ant-Man did more to further the MCU’s approach of mixing superheroes into other genres, in that case a jaunty heist film, than in pushing the overall narrative established by just about every other movie the studio had ever produced. Sure, that was the film which introduced the idea of the Quantum Realm to the MCU, which is highly speculated to play a significant role in the studio’s larger tale, but mostly Ant-Man was a chance for Paul Rudd to banter with Michael Pena and order around hoards of CGI ants. Sandwiched between Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War (in which Scott Lang cemented his place in the MCU by having a delightful but non-essential cameo), the first Ant-Man movie was a detour from the longer journey; a luxury. And the exact same thing can be said about Ant-Man and the Wasp only this time that detour, that distraction, that luxury, is in itself essential.
Picking up after the events of Civil War but before those of Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp finds Scott Lang dealing with the consequences of his choice to assist Cap (as in Captain America, but his friends call him Cap) in the most elaborate and whimsical way imaginable. Not only does this opening sequence allow for a nice awww moment between Lang and his daughter Cassie, it also serves as a recap of the events of the first film and establishes the stakes and motivations for this film when several FBI agents, lead by Randall Park, remind Scott that he’s only a few days away from ending his house arrest. If nothing else, Park’s parting inquiry about a magic trick Scott learned for his daughter thoroughly places the FBI agents of Ant-Man and the Wasp on the less intense side of movie law enforcement, and the exchanges between Rudd’s Scott and Park’s Agent Woo are some of the most enjoyable in the entire film, second only to those shared between Scott and Michael Pena’s returning Luis. This set-up obviously leads into Scott not only violating his house arrest (that’s not a spoiler, it’s the only way you have any kind of story) but into once again donning the Ant-Man suit alongside Evangelina Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne and Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym. As with the first film, most of Ant-Man and the Wasp’s many delights are found in the various interactions of these characters, joined by Lawrence Fishburne and Walton Goggins, and with excellent cameos by Judy Greer and Bobby Carnvale. Rudd may be one of the most likeable actors around, but the entire cast is just so charming. While there are times when individual jokes and beats don’t entirely land, for the most part, the film speeds along quickly, with only a few notable bumps on the road. Sadly, those bumps are also the main thrust of the movie.
As with Black Panther, there are times when the superhero aspects of Ant-Man and the Wasp get in the way of the film’s highlights. Action sequences are still well made yet the thick metal helmets worn by the characters as they toss themselves about on screen distances the viewers from the action. As well as Evangeline Lilly comports herself as a highly competent action star, there’s little which is innovative in Ant-Man and the Wasp‘s action scenes, and as much as Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost serves as an intriguing antagonist she simply isn’t as compelling as either Killmonger or Thanos. Further, all the snappy dialog Rudd delivers is seldom reflected by body language on screen, echoing the problem the Ironman films have had of actors providing disembodied narration rather than engaging with the scene. The action sequences of Ant-Man and the Wasp typically take a backseat to those times when the audience gets to watch the actual characters and their personal interactions. After all, by its very nature, Ant-Man and the Wasp can’t have the same scope, intensity, or even awe inherent to Marvel’s larger productions. What’s more, the larger implications of Ant-Man and the Wasp may prove more of a hindrance to the larger MCU than a boon by adding yet another dues ex machina to a universe already rife with all-too-convenient technology, magic, and now the promise of time travel.
Instead, it’s through character that both Ant-Man movies find their voice. The superhero elements are well made but not entirely unique, especially in this second film when the novelty of children’s toys the size of cars and cars the size of children’s toys has worn off. Those things are still fun, and the Pym particle is used in creative ways, but the central plot of locating Janet Van Dyne – while providing a solid enough motivation for the leads of Scott, Hank and Hope – can’t help but make this story feel really small, so to speak, compared to the prospect of wiping out of half of all life in the universe. Thus it’s the off-beat humor of Paul Rudd bouncing around like a kid, Michael Pena speak-talking his way through Lang’s entire backstory, and seagulls becoming deadly predators that keeps the movie brisk when the low-stakes story and low-rent secondary villains aren’t enough to propel it forward. There are only so many times when the entire universe can be threatened before it becomes rote and uninteresting. Rather, Ant-Man and the Wasp gives its characters the luxury of commenting on how cool their various suits are, debating the finer points of carwash procedure, or enjoying unnecessary group hugs. Nothing can be bleak all the time. Sure, it’s small… again, so to speak… it’s safe and it’s not particularly inspired, but small is exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its audience needs right now.
But then… when the vacation ends…