In some ways Ant-Man and the Wasp is the kind of movie I wanted Ant-Man to be: namely, a refreshing antidote to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It’s not just the light, breezy tone and the witty gags. Humor is nothing new to the MCU; on the contrary, obligatory Guardians-style whimsy has become a jarring and even cynical tonal anomaly in apocalypses like Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War.
But there’s a lightness to Ant-Man and the Wasp that goes beyond the gags. No one even mentions Infinity Stones, and the fate of the universe, the planet, or even Asgard or Wakanda is not at stake.
There are no obligatory cameos by other heroes, like Falcon in the first Ant-Man (or Iron Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming, another relatively small-scale MCU excursion). After their mutual absence in Infinity War, I half expected Hawkeye to show up in Ant-Man’s new adventure, but he doesn’t, thank goodness.
There’s some talk about the epic airport battle in Germany from Captain America: Civil War, and Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang, the neophyte Ant-Man, can’t help name-dropping “Cap.” In general, though, Ant-Man and the Wasp is less shackled to the rest of the MCU than any post-Avengers Marvel sequel — at least until the downbeat midcredits stinger.
There’s an antagonist called Ghost who is not out to exterminate or enslave, and in fact doesn’t particularly want to harm anyone (but is willing to). Laurence Fishburne shows up as an old partner-turned-rival of Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, and turns out to be a more interesting character than you’d expect. A gang of petty thugs led by Walton Goggins supply modest levels of menace. It’s all extremely not extreme.
Even the target audience skews smaller — younger, I mean — than usual. The first Ant-Man had a couple of violent sci-fi deaths, some typical language and Michael Peña’s comic-relief motormouth Luis chattering about an early sexual experience. Ant-Man and the Wasp goes lighter in all these categories. It might be Marvel’s most kid-friendly movie. Imagine that.
I’m not ashamed to say that I most enjoyed Ant-Man when it felt like a sequel in spirit to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Ant-Man and the Wasp doubles down on that vibe and then some, not least because Scott’s defining relationship is not with Evangeline Lilly’s Hope van Dyne, now the Wasp, but with Scott’s adorable young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), who dotes on him as much as he on her.
That’s not to say the Wasp is a mere sidekick. On the contrary, you could say Ant-Man is her sidekick. Her character may be underwritten, but it’s her quest, not Scott’s, that propels the story, and he supports her rather than vice versa — not always willingly.
That the Wasp is a marquee co-star at all is a corrective of sorts, if a modest one. Marvel has knocked out 20 movies over the last 10 years, and until now every one has borne the name of a male solo hero or a male-dominated team.
The DC franchise has stumbled a lot trying to follow in Marvel’s footsteps, but they did beat Marvel to the punch in this respect with Wonder Woman. (Marvel’s first heroine-led film will be next year’s Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson. After years of cold feet, it seems Marvel execs are even allowing a Black Widow solo movie.)
The first Ant-Man movie technically had two Ant-Men, with Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, passing the baton to Scott. Yet it somehow managed to be between Wasps, with the original, Hank’s wife Janet, lost in the quantum realm, and their daughter Hope pointlessly sidelined and forced to watch Scott suit up without her.
Now, Hope is allowed to spread her wings, which she has, along with wrist blasters, which is the kind of tech that Wasps get but Ant-Men don’t. Like many comic-book conceits, the only way to deal with this is to incredulously cross-examine it and then move on, since the real reason (wasps fly and sting and ants generally don’t) would hardly work as a diegetic or in-universe explanation.
Meanwhile, the movie exploits the tactical and comic possibilities of its Alice in Wonderland size-changing to greater effect than previous movies. After Doctor Strange, Ant-Man and the Wasp is the only other recent Marvel movie with action set pieces that are visually unique and organically funny. (Some of the funnier gags involve technical glitches resulting in unpredictable size changes.)
For a movie about a divorced ex-con who is dodging parole-violation charges and whose ex-wife is remarried to a police officer, Ant-Man and the Wasp is remarkably genial. The former Mrs. Lang (Judy Greer) is nothing if not supportive of Scott, and her new husband (Bobby Cannavale) is almost unsettlingly amiable. With Cassie at the center, they’re almost one big happy family.
Scott’s parole officer (Randall Park) isn’t happy about the whole thing, but he’s not a jerk either. Even a sequence with Goggins and his thugs interrogating Luis is almost completely disarmed by Luis’ garrulous enthusiasm.
Marvel movies have often struggled to supply villains that matter. Ant-Man and the Wasp finds an unexpected solution: Perhaps villains that matter don’t matter as much as these movies think. I would say I’d like to see more superhero movies try something like this, but honestly, how likely is that?
Caveat Spectator: Action violence and menace; a bad word or two. Older kids and up.