Friday, April 12, 2024

‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ Is a Fun Size Marvel Outing

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Ant-Man and the Wasp is a weird little movie. Well, alright, maybe “little” might be a bit too much, but it feels smaller. Not just because Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) can shrink down to the size of an ant either. For once the fate of the universe does not hang in the balance and mercy somehow wins the day.

Scott may well be the single greatest father in the comic book universe. I know of no one else who while under house arrest constructs a maze of cardboard boxes, builds giant paper mache ant puppets, and installs a slide on the side of his house, solely to entertain his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). At the very least he deserves to be in the top five.

I never once cared about the Avengers or where Scott was when the last movie went down. Instead, I got a lovely little movie about a nice guy who’s a good Dad, who sometimes makes the wrong choice but then tries to do the right thing in the end. A novel idea for a superhero movie. No mission, no grand scheme, just people being people and the odd occurring quantum tunnel.

Hank (Michael Douglas) and Hope Pym (Evangeline Lilly) are in hiding. They are also not talking to Scott since Scott took off to fight with Captain America and broke international law, lost Hank’s suit, and put Hank and Hope on the FBI’s most wanted. But while Scott is busy trying his best to be a father to Cassie, Hank and Hope have their own problems.

Years ago Hank’s wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) disappeared into the quantum zone when she shrunk down to the size of a quantum particle. Now he believes he has a way to get her back. Hope is ecstatic to retrieve her long lost Mother. The last thing they need is Scott.

What makes Ant-Man and the Wasp so much fun is the little things. The character that ties this whole rickety thing together is a mid-level fence Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins). A man who knows to seize an opportunity when he sees it. He has the component that Hank needs to finish the quantum tunnel to get Janet back. Scott has a dream about Janet and calls Hope and Hank who bring him along for the rendezvous.

Walton Goggins is a character actor who is rarely used to the best of his abilities. Often found in lazy, shallow fares such as Maze Runner: The Death Cure or Lara Croft. Goggins has the ability, not unlike Eric Estrada, to smile so you see every tooth. A gregarious performer he has a charm and a joyous wild-eyed zeal about him which Reed wisely channels for Sonny.

The deal goes awry and Hope debuts a suit like’s Scott only with wings. But just before Hope can walk away with the vital component, a new player steps into the game. A phantom-like apparition dressed all in white in a mask more at home in Star Wars than a Marvel movie. Ghost, for she seems to disappear and reappear like one, catches Sonny’s eye, and steals the thingamajig vital to running the whirligig.

My friend and co-host Thad, once said that he thought that superhero movies felt as if “..they were trying to come up with a good excuse for why the bad guy had to be killed.” He has a point. For a genre thickly populated with heroes and villains geared towards children and designed to allow for as many recurring characters as you can fit into a contract-the mortality rate of villains in these movies is staggering.

So often the villain’s plan or motivation only vaguely makes sense. More often than not the plan makes sense in that way that comic book motivations make sense, which is to say in of themselves, yes, but once you start applying logic, the plans fall apart. The best villains are the ones that have motivations connected to a reality we recognize. Thanos may be popular, but I’ll take Vulture or Killmonger over that big galoot anytime.

Ghost is in actuality, Ava (Hannah John-Kamen). She is in constant agony. As a child, her father attempted to build a quantum tunnel, and it exploded. She was told to run, but because she didn’t want him to die alone, she ran back to him. Her mother and father died, and she survived, sort of. Due to the explosion, her molecules are constantly being torn apart and put back together again.

A lifetime of never-ending pain has caused her to seek a cure at any cost. Even if that cost is sucking the quantum energy of someone who has been trapped in the quantum zone for decades and possibly killing them. Someone like say, Janet?

Peyton Reed has a lot going on, and to his credit, it never feels as if it’s getting away from him. The script written by five men is oddly coherent and doesn’t feel cobbled together. Five may seem a bit much but look at this way, four more and they have a ball club.

Reed infuses all of this with a sense of fun. He treats the insanity of Hank Pym’s inventions with a straight face. Giant ants, little people, and men growing to the size of the statue of liberty- all of it taken in stride. The comedy comes from the characters.

When Sonny attempts to track down Hank, Hope, Scott, and the Pym’s incredible shrinking lab he goes to Scott’s best friend, roommate, and business partner, Luis (Michael Pena). The two have started a small upstart security business that is on the verge of collapse. Sonny sees an opportunity and marches into their office building with his hired thugs.

What follows is a truly funny tight five minutes, wherein the thugs and Luis co-workers debate the pedantic usage of the word “truth serum,” Luis misunderstanding of the question Sonny has asked him, the realization the business is going under, and the reaction of everybody when Ava shows up.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is just fun. The action with all the Pym like gadgets and the shrinking and enlarging has a playfulness about it. Superhero action scenes usually devolve into two CGI characters punching each other while buildings crumble. Reed makes the action less like a climatic junction of the story and more like he’s a kid playing with his action figure.

All the fun may come at the cost of the drama, but luckily Reed has a cast of professionals. Douglas plays a persnickety know it all grouch without breaking a sweat. Lilly is an action star waiting on a franchise. John-Kamen brings emotional pathos to her tortured Ava. And Pfeifer reminds us that she is a movie star for a reason and that our pop culture is a little poorer for not using her as much as it could.

Pfeiffer and John-Kamen have a small scene together filled with tenderness and mercy. The moment doesn’t land as big of an emotional punch as it should, but that it exists at all is a miracle. The character of Ava, much like Michael Keaton’s Vulture, is refreshing because her motives are taken from real life. The heroes are trying to stop her both to save Janet but also to save Ava.

Reed is not an exceptionally stylistic director. But he and Dante Spinotti, his cameraman, understand how to keep the pace up and while it’s not as emotionally complex or satisfying, it is breezy. Paul Rudd is a likable enough actor, but I don’t normally like him in the starring role. But Reed manages to elevate Rudd to a leading man status. He curbs Rudd’s more comedic sensibilities and grounds it into Scott’s relationship with Cassie.

Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t a masterpiece, and it doesn’t push the genre of superhero movies forward. It doesn’t push it back either. We’ve been slowly conditioned that for a movie to be fun it must be big and dumb.

But that’s not necessarily true. Ant-Man and the Wasp is neither big or dumb, but it is fun and sweet. In its own weird way, it’s the best type of movie a movie like Ant-Man and the Wasp could hope to be. The world is never in danger, heck neither is San Francisco, for that matter. But it has stakes enough for what it wants to do.

Image courtesy of Marvel Studios

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