Mediocre "Ant-Man and The Wasp": Victim of Marvel Cinematic Universe's limits?

The "Ant-Man" sequel aims for pleasant and safe rather than innovative and great

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 6, 2018 7:56AM (EDT)

Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd "Ant-Man and the Wasp" (Disney/Marvel)
Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd "Ant-Man and the Wasp" (Disney/Marvel)

Imagine if "Ant-Man and The Wasp" had been a standalone movie, independent not only of its predecessor but the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. With its premise, cast and special effects budget, it could have been a standout science fiction film, replete with spectacular images, intelligent scientific diversions and even the occasional cerebral meditation on the infinitely intricate nature of our universe.

But, alas, we do not live in a world where that kind of movie can be made, at least not when a franchise character like Ant-Man is involved. The strictures of the superhero movie formula, at least when applied by the execs running the Marvel Cinematic Universe, simply won't allow it.

This isn't to say that "Ant-Man and The Wasp" is a bad movie, just a disappointingly forgettable one; it aims for pleasant and safe rather than innovative and great. The plot picks up after the events of "Captain America: Civil War," where Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) was arrested for fighting the Avengers at an airport hangar in Germany. Now Lang is under house arrest and has been alienated from Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hank's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), both of whom have had their own careers ruined due to their association with the freshly criminalized Lang.

They bring him back into action, however, after he receives an unexpected telepathic message from Pym's wife, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was lost and thought dead after she shrank to subatomic size and became trapped in the quantum realm. Now Ant-Man has been recruited to help rescue van Dyne while simultaneously fending off Ghost, a burgeoning antihero with the requisite tragic back story (Hannah John-Kamen); Sonny Burch, a low-level criminal who wants the Ant-Man technology for his own greedy purposes (Walton Goggins); and Jimmy Woo, a bumbling FBI agent (Randall Park).

All of this isn't as confusing as it sounds, although with so many threads to weave together the movie has some unsurprising plot holes. Mild spoiler alert for "Avengers: Infinity War" fans: The mid-credits scene makes a valiant attempt to explain Ant-Man's absence from that film by having him get trapped in the quantum realm after the scientists monitoring his stay there are disintegrated by Thanos. Fair enough, but while that will explain his absence from the next "Avengers" movie, it doesn't fill in the blanks as to why he wasn't there to help the Avengers when Thanos attacked (he's off house arrest by the time the movie's main plot ends, which is before the events of "Avengers: Infinity War").

Similarly, Ghost's reason for warring with the heroes for most of the film doesn't hold up; this was one of those situations where the characters could have agreed on a plan that served everyone's best interest equally if they had taken five minutes to talk instead of immediately resorting to elaborately choreographed fighting. Action scenes are little more than kinetic activity when the characters' motivations could be effectively critiqued by a five-year-old.

So what makes the movie work? Several things: Paul Rudd is a hoot, as is Michael Peña in the role of Rudd's former henchman and currently aspiring entrepreneur Luis. Evangeline Lilly easily holds her own as an action star, both complimenting Rudd perfectly during the moments that require heroics and making me suspect that she could carry her own superhero film if Marvel ever decided to go in that direction. The action scenes are entertaining as always and include some of the same clever and enjoyable visual touches that made the first film so popular. Moreover, at a time when every superhero movie seems to involve the fate of the world (if not the entire universe), it was refreshing to see a film in which the stakes were comparatively smaller (pun intended). If all one wants is another enjoyable superhero movie, "Ant-Man and The Wasp" will fill the bill, although I doubt anyone will count it among their favorite films, comic book-based or otherwise.

Yet think about how it could have been so much more. The concept of being able to shrink down and enter the subatomic universe — a place with infinite possibilities, where the laws of physics could be radically different and galaxies could exist on a fragment of a speck of dust — is fascinating. Ditto the ways in which being trapped in that universe could change a human being's perception of reality. For that matter, simply being able to shrink and experience the world through that altered perspective could make for some fascinating sci-fi adventures, as stories like "The Incredible Shrinking Man," "Fantastic Voyage" and even "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids" were all able to explore.

This is what makes "Ant-Man and The Wasp" so painful to reflect upon. Aside from a few flourishes of aesthetic inventiveness and a single moment of genuine wonder, "Ant-Man and The Wasp" doesn't do very much with its premise. Indeed, it often seems to rush through the moments that could have really left a mark with its viewers, as if it's afraid that slowing down will bore its audience. Consequently the conceit of having a pair of heroes who can alter their size is, most of the time, used to do little more than advance the plot and stage some crisp action scenes. Perhaps the ponderousness necessary to really mine the premise would have felt off-brand to the managers of the MCU, or maybe they didn't think your average Joe and Jane Moviegoer would be interested in heady sci-fi fare.

This shortcoming wouldn't feel so conspicuous if "Ant-Man and The Wasp" brought something more original to the table than your standard superhero storyline. 2018 alone has produced more memorable superhero movies than this one: "Deadpool 2" was funnier, "Black Panther" more intelligent and epic and even "Avengers: Infinity War," despite its muddled plot, had its poignant moments (I panned that film but still choked up when Spider-Man died in Iron Man's arms, even though I know he won't stay dead). "Ant-Man and The Wasp," on the other hand, is just OK — even worse, seems satisfied with being just OK.

In short, "Ant-Man and The Wasp" is a fast food movie. It tastes good, maybe even hits the spot, but fine cuisine it is not. And the shame of it all is that it really could have been.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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