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Monday, July 23, 2018

Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

* * *

Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly

And so, after the impossibly high stakes of Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel dials things back ever so slightly with the sillier, lower stakes of Ant-Man and the Wasp. In a summer that has been pretty underwhelming so far (with the exception of Ocean's 8, Deadpool 2, and poor, unloved Solo: A Star Wars Story), Ant-Man and the Wasp is perfectly crafted for summer entertainment. It's fun, it's quick on its feet, and it's incredibly engaging. There are a number of things that you have to give Marvel credit for with respect to the success of its shared universe, and while the patience to build it one film at a time may be chief among them, the casting is surely a close second. Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Paul Rudd as Scott Lang - none of these choices would have seemed obvious from the jump (well... maybe Downey as Stark), but all of them now seem inspired. Thank God Rudd never ended up being snapped up to play any of the million other super heroes running around out there.

Since the events of Captain America: Civil War (feel free to pause for a moment and cast your mind back; it was 7 movies ago now and a damn lot has happened since then) Scott has been living under house arrest for breaking the terms of the Sokovia Accords. While his days are partially filled by visits with his daughter and the work he's doing Luis (Michael Pena, delightful as ever) to get their fledgling security company off the ground, his life is mostly marked by boredom as he tries to fill up the lonely hours he has to spend inside the house. Fortunately his term under house arrest is about to come to an end. Unfortunately, before that can happen, he has a vision of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), which results in Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and her father, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), bringing him back into the fold in the hope that he can help them locate Janet in the quantum realm. Before that can happen, however, the three find themselves tangling with a mysterious figure who fades in and out like a ghost.

There's some heavy stuff in Ant-Man and the Wasp that provides it with a strong emotional underpinning. There's Hank and Hope's desperate desire to be reunited with Janet, who disappeared into the quantum realm while on a mission with Hank, which provides the story with its catalyst and gives the narrative shape and a goal to work towards. It's also driven by the emotional punch of Hank's guilt over Janet's fate and Hope's pain at having grown up without her mother. There's also the origin story of the Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) who as a child was exposed to a quantum experiment that killed both her parents, leaving her in an unstable physical state that causes her to phase in and out. The Ghost, real name Ava, is the personification of the notion that the villain is the hero of his or her own story. She's a villain insofar as she comes to stand in the way of Hank, Hope, and Scott's efforts to rescue Janet, and yet you can clearly see her side of it and her motivation. She has lived most of her life in this unstable, painful state and is literally trying to save her own existence. She's become ruthless in her desire to achieve that goal - but who can really blame her?

Ava's motivation sets up her potential for redemption (hopefully we see her again somewhere in the Marvel universe, if not in Ant-Man's next installment) as does the contrast between her and the film's other villain, Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a black market dealer who wants to get hold of Hank and Hope's research so that he can sell it. While Ava's pursuit of that research is contextualized by the sort of tragic backstory that makes the film take her seriously not merely as a villain, but as a human being, Burch's motivation is pure greed, which allows the film to reduce him to a figure of fun. While Ghost is a serious threat, Burch is more of a petty annoyance that keeps popping up and the film never really takes him all that seriously. He only ever has the upper hand momentarily, giving Ant-Man and the Wasp an excuse to jump into action, kick him and his goons around a bit, and get back to their more pressing business.

That action, when it happens, comes fast and furious and, perhaps most importantly, with a gleeful sense of fun. Ant-Man and the Wasp is a good time. It's joyful and funny (between the Ant-Man movies and Drunk History I've become convinced that a person on-screen mouthing along and playing out the voice-over of another person will never not be funny) and it most certainly makes the most of its premise of being able to shrink and enlarge things with the press of a button. Because it takes place before Infinity War's war to end all wars, it can afford to be playful and its lower, more personal stakes are a nice break after the universe altering close of Infinity War (at least until you get to that end credits scene). There hasn't been a ton of competition for it, but Ant-Man and the Wasp is surely one of the best movies of the summer.

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