Sunday, July 8, 2018

"Ant-Man and the Wasp" Stands Just Tall Enough

When the original Ant-Man debuted three years ago, many believed Marvel Studios must have been running out of worthy material if this character was the best they could come up with after the dead-seriousness of Avengers: Age of Ultron.  It turned out the hokey-jokey, techno-babble, pseudo-heist film was just the palate cleanser the audience of Marvel’s films needed, getting us all more grounded in our expectations so things could build back up over the course of several more films to the awesomeness and heartbreak of Avengers: Infinity War.  Not to mention it was just dang fun, too. Well, here they go again. Ant-Man and the Wasp takes the same place in a Marvel release schedule its predecessor did, serves much the same purpose as its predecessor did, and delivers results just as impressively.

Paul Rudd’s style and personality are used so perfectly in this role that it’s become one of those instances where you can’t imagine anyone else doing it.  His Scott Lang may be a superhero, but everything he does right is so heavily qualified — mostly because he never manages to save the day without alienating his friends and loved ones — that his sense of self-worth is constantly reduced to human scale.  His character-defining shortcomings are on display throughout the new film every time he tries to puff out his chest. You know, he helped Captain America that one time, but only after he stole a super-suit from his mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, who is still the master of convincing an audience that he’s suppressing an angry outburst).  Yeah, he saved the world in Captain America: Civil War… or helped to, anyway, but without consulting his training (and romantic) partner Hope van Dyne (played with an air of self-confidence by Evangeline Lilly that in itself almost seems like a superpower). Sure, he's behaving now and starting his own security business in San Francisco, but he’s still under heavily-monitored house arrest.  Lang is such a loveable loser because he’s the relatable, well-meaning small fry who tries, and often fails, to live up to expectations.

Director Peyton Reed did such a wonderful job with the first film that it was a no-brainer for him to helm the sequel, and among the many things he did right with both movies is how we see the consequences of our hero’s actions on his everyday life.  Reed and his (FIVE) screenwriters craft a story of how all of these characters overcome their ego-driven tendencies long enough to work together as a raggedy team. Supporting characters — like smug weapons dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), mysterious super-villain Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), clueless FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), and Pym's estranged former colleague Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) — frequently throw Lang and Pym off their best-laid plans, particularly their shared goal of securing the equipment that Pym needs to rescue his long-missing wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the trippy, sub-atomic (and very dangerous) Quantum Realm.

But the tangent-filled nature of Lang's story is the most charming aspect of both Ant-Man films.  Lang's narrative is a revolving door of well-meaning outsiders — his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her amiable wet blanket husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), along with Lang’s eager-to-please daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) — and neurotic colleagues, like Lang’s "X-Con" security crew team of Kurt (David Dastmalchian), Dave (T.I.), and Luis (Michael Peña, again stealing every scene he's in).  Many of these characters are also struggling to suppress their own habitual catastrophizing: if Ghost doesn’t steal and fire up Pym’s equipment now, she will die; if Pym doesn’t get Lang’s help in recovering his equipment, his wife will vanish; and if Lang doesn’t get back to his house before the FBI returns to check up on him, his new post-“Ant-Man” life is over.

Thankfully, Reed capably (though not always gracefully) juggles these various plot points.  Speaking of personality: the first half of Ant-Man and the Wasp — the part that’s most reliant on plot-pushing expository dialogue — definitely feels like it was cobbled together by a creative committee that includes the five credited writers and Heaven-only-knows how many uncredited ones.  This minor shortcoming is why I spent much of this review praising the film’s characters and ideas, but not its brick-and-mortar storytelling. Like many films produced by Marvel Studios, this one sometimes feels “Paint-Superhero-Movie-by-Numbers,” marred by uninspired cinematography (by no less than Dante Spinotti, who has done stunning work on Michael Mann’s films over the years), and over-edited set pieces… but only sometimes.

Ant-Man and the Wasp really takes off once it stops setting up the plot and starts showing how the better story ideas lead into dynamic car chases, fight scenes, and comedic routines (I especially love the bit where Lang, after being knocked out and tied up, asks his kidnapper to help him video-chat with Cassie).  For most of two hours, Peyton Reed and his colleagues take super-fans on a long, strange trip with some of the most sympathetic cinematic crime-fighters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taken in its entirety, Ant-Man and the Wasp may not be the best of anything, but like it’s perpetually challenged hero, it’s plenty good enough at what we want it to be.

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