“Like Baba Yaga …”
While a lot of fans were instantly and irrationally mad upon learning that Avengers: Infinity War wouldn’t include Hawkeye or Ant-Man, I rejoiced knowing that Ant-Man and the Wasp‘s release date fell between both it and its as yet untitled Avengers follow-up. This meant that Scott Lang’s (Paul Rudd) latest adventure to the Quantum Realm would have no bearing on the crazy cliffhanger, seemingly sealing the fates of so many other superheroes. Marvel was positioning its cinematic universe’s “lighter side” as a vehicle to help distract audiences from the inevitable mourning period the drastic results of Thanos’ plan had surely cemented. It was about going back to a simpler time for one more romp among giant PEZ dispensers and tiny Hot Wheels cars. Finally we were given a reprieve.
And after nineteen intricately woven together films spread over a ten-year-old expansive canvas building towards an intergalactic fight no one could have anticipated, we deserved one. The two Guardians of the Galaxy entries were more or less self-contained too, but they had a specific track forward to join in the collision. Even the first Ant-Man wasn’t able to escape the over-arching orbit of its Avengers overlords since long-retired S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) technology was introduced for the sole purpose of assisting future fights with grander ambitions than its own power-hungry, corruptible antagonist readying to arm a dwindling Hydra force. It brought in a cameo by Falcon for familiarity while new seeds of possibility were sown. Director Peyton Reed‘s sequel, however, found itself beholden to nothing.
It’s not surprising that fatigue would set in, especially after what Infinity War delivered. So there is no more perfect time to simply let us enjoy the comic action that the books these films have been adapted from always provided. We don’t need an arch villain to combat or any ham-fisted in-roads to somehow show that Lang and Hope Van Dyne’s (Evangeline Lilly‘s) maneuvers fit the larger puzzle. Marvel hit pause on that puzzle, rewound a few months, and let its characters embark on a rescue mission rather than unwittingly find themselves embroiled in another apocalyptic scenario ignited by external forces. The focus here is solely on discovering a way to retrieve Hope’s mother from the clutches of an unknown reality that swallowed her whole three decades earlier.
That’s not to say getting Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) back will be easy or without myriad snags, just that the script-by-committee (Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari) could retain a relatively straightforward through-line for a healthy dose of memorable excitement surrounding it. After all: the last time we saw Lang was behind the glass of an underground government prison. So we need to learn what’s happened since his release (two years of house arrest) and where Hank and Hope are now that his actions have made them wanted criminals (unleashing a healthy dose of the Pym particle on whatever they can to create miniature cars and laboratories forever on-the-go). How will they reunite and who else is going to want the tech they’re covertly inventing?
To answer the first part: Lang’s brief stay in the Quantum Realm entangled his mind with Janet’s in such a way that he might be able to locate her needle in an infinite haystack. The second part: a black market businessman perpetually seeking more money (Walton Goggins‘ Sonny Burch) and a mysterious “Ghost” assassin (Hannah John-Kamen) who constantly phases through reality and thus adds an intriguing visual choreographic complement to Scott and Hope’s trademarked shrinking/enlarging. They each need Hank’s portable lab on wheels to save their matriarch, sell to criminals, and heal unbearable pain respectively. Add the looming albatross of FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) ready to throw Lang in prison just three days before removing his ankle bracelet and the margin for error is extremely slim.
Reed must therefore keep the pedal on the floor from start to finish so these disparate antagonistic groupings can stay on the move as threats to one another. Add Scott’s family (Abby Ryder Fortson‘s daughter Cassie, Judy Greer‘s ex-wife Maggie, and her new husband in Bobby Cannavale‘s Paxton), Hank’s former partner/rival (Laurence Fishburne‘s Dr. Bill Foster), and the ex-convict three stooges that are Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), and Dave (Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris) and you would be forgiven for thinking it’s all too much. So give credit to comedy director Reed and the screenwriters for somehow getting these numerous pieces in-sync without sacrificing their individual personalities—whether they’re ultimately one-dimensional or not. It’s okay to let Burch be unremarkably obvious because Goggins can make him remarkable.
Not a lot of room to maneuver is necessary either. One line here or there brings them into the fabric of the story to either bask in their single moment of glory or stand waiting for a hilarious callback when the mood dictates a desire. Peña is still a scene-stealer whenever his loquacious Luis goes full manic and Park gives him a run for his money with a brilliantly endearing, not-quite-adversarial rapport with Rudd’s Lang. Fishburne delivers just enough to hope we see more of him in the future and John-Kamen provides a complex “villain” earning authentic empathy despite a rushed and trope-y backstory. And just like the original film, reaction shots of characters experiencing Pym’s tech and “Ghost’s” abilities for the first time are consistently fantastic.
That leaves the action. Lilly’s Wasp is the standout in this respect with the beautifully orchestrated, kitchen-set sparring session seen in the trailer as well as a few other physically enduring battles throughout (along with her driving skills behind the wheel of multiple shrinking cars). She and “Ghost” have a couple run-ins and she and Scott get to team-up for some entertaining tag-team moves too. Rudd is more or less the sidekick and butt of jokes here (either due to an unpredictably faulty suit or his role as medium to the unknown)—a fact that works since the conflict born from his desire to not be caught outside his home pales in comparison to Hope and Hank’s quest to save Janet and “Ghost’s” mission to save herself.
Letting the Avenger take a backseat is another positive in my mind. We can only watch trained heroes save the world while wringing their hands so often. So it’s nice to watch a costumed super be reliant on his friends—super or not. It lends a human dynamic that’s regularly missing from this massive behemoth of serial storytelling and one I would love to see highlighted more in the future. Good acting and emotional investment isn’t solely the product of heavy melodrama and martyrdom. We get just as much from “Ghost’s” pain, Hope and Hank’s desperation, and Scott’s conscience. It’s comforting to know these chapters can still resonate while embracing their role as throwaways. Filler never feels like filler if it’s self-aware enough to unapologetically do its thing.
Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 118 minutes | Release Date: July 6th, 2018 (USA)
Studio: Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): Peyton Reed
Writer(s): Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers and Paul Rudd & Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Ferrari