Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas
Paul Rudd returns as The Incredible Shrinking Ex-Convict returns for his second film in the franchise alongside Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas, and while this new installment in Marvel’s most light-hearted series contains a few strange mood shifts and rushes a bit too quickly to develop its tragic villain, it sprouts with the right balance of action and laughs to keep audiences from shrinking back in horror.
Over two years ago, I reviewed Captain America: Civil War, and amidst all the praise I doled out to the stellar cast and smart writing laid a short bit of eulogizing for actor-comedian Paul Rudd. With crack comedic timing and a spark of fun, Rudd's Ant-Man sparkled in the film along with newbie web-head Tom Holland, and I had promised myself that I would catch up with the first Ant-Man flick to see him in his native environment. Unfortunately, I keep promises the same way Ridley Scott makes quality films: inconsistently, despite my best efforts. Thankfully the newly released sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, is big enough to stand on its own, and strong character dynamics and a tight, streamlined story ensure an entertaining movie experience despite hitting a few snags along the way.
We start off with an exposition of the past, as brilliant scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) reminiscence on how they lost Janet Pym (Michelle Pfeifer) to a quasi-mythical subatomic nexus known as the “Quantum Realm” during a mission gone wrong. However, knowledge that Scott Lang (Rudd), master thief-turn-new Ant-Man, had come back alive and well from that supposed point of no return fills Pym with hope that they can bring his wife home after 30 years. We then cut to Lang, our bumbling, lovable rogue as he entertains his daughter while under house arrest for his part in the scuffle back in Germany. His daily routine is dull, safe, and unspectacular, until Janet, whom he unknowingly encountered in the Quantum Realm, drops a line from the otherside in the form of vision. Perturbed, he makes a spur-of-the-moment phone call to the Pyms, who since Germany don’t exactly have him high on their Christmas wish list. This innocuous little action ends up kicking the whole plot off, as multiple parties hunt him and the Pyms down to gain access to the secrets locked inside his brain — with both his freedom and even his life on the line.
|Not exactly the Wonder Twins here|
Rudd is still an absolute joy, and seeing him in his home series drew out even more of his magic. He somehow always finds the right balance in his scenes: between a generous giver and a selfish cad; or between a dashing and competent hero, and a bumbling yet well-meaning oaf. This is nowhere near as easy as I make it sound, and yet he accomplishes it with a natural flair and humor. Lilly pays Hope Pym with quiet strength and brilliance, being the main draw for the flick’s frenetic fight scenes, her graceful yet precise skills as a fighter forming a perfect contrast to Scott’s improvised power brawling heavily reliant on the element of surprise. It’s nice that she avoids falling into the dreaded “girlfriend syndrome” as in the old-school Marvel films, though based on what I understand, the previous movie was one of the MCU's worst offenders. Rounding out the power trio is Hank Pym, the surly yet brilliant scientist played by the legendary Michael Douglas. A good veteran actor can turn even a polished turd of a flick into a chance to shine; an actor of Douglas’s caliber, supported by a well-stitched plot and an equally competent cast, goes beyond that, bringing the complex character of Pym, with all of his complications and insecurities, his drive and arrogance, to life.
Though the MCU as a whole tends to veer away from grimdark and peppers its films with a
dash of humor, Ant-Man
and the Wasp stand out in just how light-hearted it is, even compared to other
relatively “fluffy” movies in the franchise like Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Lang, of course, is a signature driver in this, always lightening the
mood with a bumble or a short quip that, through smart writing and perfect
timing, usually avoids poisoning the atmosphere. Still, the film occasionally suffers from the tragically overused trope of “We don’t have time for this!” - typically
uttered by Hank Pym when Scott and Hope spend longer than
necessary getting doe-eyed with each other.
|Expect to see scenes like this. A lot.|
But it’s Michael Peña, reprising his role as Lang’s partner in crime Luis, who gives the film its real comedic kick, being a fulcrum of its infectious and good-natured humor in rare moments when the focus isn’t on our main cast. What could have been an obnoxious or even offensive caricature of an ex-con morphs into one of the most endearing and enjoyable parts of the film. Peña plays off everyone around him so naturally as equal parts nervous motor mouth, dutiful sidekick, and sarcastic devotee. He brings a quiet charisma, and pulls out some truly Abbott and Costello level of comedic artistry that at times threatens to steal the whole show. Standing out in such a talented cast can be tough, but Peña manages to snag scenes right from under the noses of cast-mates - even in the middle of an action scene supposedly out of his element.
If I could finger once area where the movie lacks, besides the rare points when bathos interrupts pathos, it’s in the construction of its principle tragic villains: the quantum phaser and assassin Ghost, played by Hannah John-Kamen, and the incomparable Laurence Fishburne as her handler Dr. Bill Foster, an old "friend" and rival of Hank Pym. I have nothing against how the actors played their roles; John-Hannah steps up admirably as a troubled yet dangerous loose cannon on the brink of desperation, while Fishburne is as much an old movie hand as Douglas or Pfeiffer, so a strong performance from him is almost a given. But how Marvel handled their motives rubs me a bit wrong. Ever since Homecoming, the MCU has apparently heeded the criticisms of their infamous shallow villain problem, and have worked hard to reverse the trend. In most cases, like the brilliant rendition of Erik Killmonger a la Black Panther, it flows near flawlessly from an organic development over the course of the film. But here, it feels like the creators tried a little too hard to stress Ghost’s tragic backstory; it feels rushed, and comes off as played up in order to make her seem sympathetic. Even the private talks she has with Foster feel ham-fisted, as if plugged in solely to make our antagonists, particularly Foster, look more noble by repeatedly drumming ad nauseum how there are certain line he will not cross.
Besides the above critiques, though, there’s not much to complain about. The heavy tilt towards the silly and optimistic may be an acquired taste for some, but I find it refreshing, similar to Homecoming’s more down-to-earth approach to the superhero paradigm. Janet’s actions in the end (no spoiler) can come off as a deus ex machina if you squint hard enough, but only rank pedants would comb the plot that closely to find something to criticize. Ant-Man and the Wasp is far from perfect, but this smart, funny, action fantasy flick proves just the right size to pack a serious cinema wallop.