Ant-Man and the Wasp
(SPOILERS) The belated arrival of the Ant-Man sequel on UK shores may have been legitimately down to World Cup programming, but it nevertheless adds to the sense that this is the inessential little sibling of the MCU, not really expected to challenge the grosses of a Doctor Strange, let alone the gargantuan takes of its two predecessors this year. Empire magazine ran with this diminution, expressing disappointment that it was "comparatively minor and light-hitting" and "lacks the scale and ambition of recent Marvel entries". Far from deficits, for my money these should be regard as accolades bestowed upon Ant-Man and the Wasp; it understands exactly the zone its operating in, yielding greater dividends than the three most recent prior Marvel entries the review cites in its efforts at point scoring.
My expectations weren't that high; I liked the original, but I was very aware that Peyton Reed was no Edgar Wright, and his lack of flair outside the prevized sequences lent the picture a rather lax feeling at times; "We arent a big Marvel movie, so we may as well strike the pose of a sitcom". As such, I was less than jubilant to learn he’d been retained for the sequel. The surprise is, I've few complaints regarding his work here. I suspect part of that's Ant-Man and the Wasp being much, much better paced, so there's little time to reflect on all the opportunities Reed misses that a more creative eye, with all the inherent possibilities of adjusting perspectives, would take advantage of. It's true that he doesn’t imbue anything approach white-knuckle pacing into the action, but neither does he edit the life out of it; it's easy to see what's going on, and more essentially, Reed's mostly attempting action-comedy rather than pure thrills, at which he succeeds admirably.
Certainly, while Thor: Ragnarok will doubtless continue to garner all the applause for going where James Gunn went first with Guardians of the Galaxy, only with significantly less quality control on Taika Waititi's part, I found Reed's effort (from a screenplay credited to – count 'em – Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari) more satisfying overall. As such, it's closer to the rarefied level of a worthy sequel to Innerspace the first Ant-man didn’t quite reach; there's even a half-sized sequence that succeeds where Joe Dante failed (admittedly, that’s Innerspace's solitary bum note).
Much of that is probably down to McKenna and Sommers, who made Spider-man: Homecoming such an agreeably breezy delight while not stinting on the heart and plot. There's a lot of potentially unwieldy exposition here, both covering the loss of Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the plan by Hank (Michael Douglas) to retrieve her from the quantum realm ("Do you guys just put the word 'quantum' in front of everything?" asks a pained Scott at one point), and stitching in the post-Civil War continuity, but Reed rarely makes heavy weather of these onuses; indeed, with Scott's house arrest, this becomes a gag-fuelled boon, particularly in the case of FBI parole officer Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) – also a youth pastor – and his somewhat bromantic fixation on Scott.
Ant-Man and the Wasp's structure also carries an agreeable internal tension, such that we're immediately set up for Hank's quest to find Janet, only for it to be entirely derailed by the double-crossing of Walter Goggins' black marketeer and, separately, molecularly unstable Ava Starr/Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen). Once Hank is back on track and plunged into the quantum for his own ant-ics, Reed reliably juggles the competing elements of pursuing parties and the against-the-clock macro mission.
That aforementioned Empire review complained about repeated riffs, such as the irrepressible Michael Peña's Luis treating us to another all-parts-performed-vocally "flashback" sequence (this one where he's on "truth serum") and the unfortunate casualties among Scott's ant-buddies (this time at the beak of an opportunistic seagull), but you’ll get no complaints from me as they're both very funny (again). Peña can't help but steal the show whenever he's in frame, from relating how he'd love to have a limited special power and a suit ("Or even just a suit") and a baffling partiality to Morrissey (any partiality to Morrissey is baffling).
I'm a big fan of the way Reed et al have felt free to go broader and more cartoonish than the first movie, not least the pet giant ant playing the drums or having a bath (standing in for Scott with his ankle monitor). The re-sizing gimmick for comic effect has also been honed, best utilised in the chase sequences (the iconic San Francisco hills setting more than references the city's pursuit sequence heritage, not least The Dead Pool), but the emotional beats also land, mostly centring on retrieving Janet and the situation besetting Ava, the latter revealed as subjected to MKUltra/SHIELD super soldier training from infancy.
Ava's skillset is inventively rendered, easily besting the combined assaults of Scott and Hope. I'm not entirely persuaded by Jane's magic hands as a solution to her suffering (doubtless Ava will return, now able to turn her phasing off and on at will), but both John-Kamen and Pfeiffer are welcome additions to the ensemble (and this really does feel like an ensemble, rather than a logjam of stars struggling for a show-off moment of as can happen with Avengers; Bobby Carnavale seems to be back just to hug Scott, but he does it so well, you don’t doubt he simply enjoyed being on set).
De-aging effects have been applied fairly seamlessly to Douglas once again, and Pfeiffer too (although she still looks radiant anyway), but young Laurence Fishburne has been played by his son Langston. Fishburne's part’s rather thin, leading to earnest and rather rushed speeches establishing his moral compass in the third act, while Goggins' hairpiece makes more of an impression than his character (although, "I've committed numerous health code violations at my restaurant. Some of them will shock you" is one of the funniest lines in a movie packed to the rafters with them).
Hope meanwhile is way cooler than Scott when suited up, although it helps that she knows what she's doing while Scott is hampered by an amusingly on-the-fritz outfit causing him sudden fluctuations in size (I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but I'm sure his "Come here, you little weasel" while pursuing Goggins is a reference to Martin Short's "Where are you, you little weasel?" In Innerspace). Evangeline Lilly's generally required to be the straight man to Rudd's mugging, but she clearly relishes any chance she gets to play for laughs.
I'm certain I’m in the minority then, but I found this easily the most satisfying MCU entry of the year. I can't escape the feeling that a more versatile director would have doubled-down on the chance to go really out there with some of the visuals, but Reed pulls off the comedy with aplomb and more than sustains the necessary tension. As for Rudd, he's appealingly self-effacing, having etched out a niche as Marvel's butt-of-all-jokes, not-so-superhero; it'll be interesting to see how this filters into a surely more grim-faced outlook on his part in the Avengers 4. On that score, the mid-credits sting is a marvellous piece of cliffhanger inventiveness, wiping out Hank, Janet and Hope and leaving Scott stranded in the quantum realm (we don’t learn whether the same fate befalls his daughter). After that, doubtless we'll want a return to Scott levity for Ant-Man 3/ Ant-Man and the Wasp 2.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.