By Preston Wilder
I didn’t even know who The Wasp was; I thought it was the villain. Only as the minutes ticked by and no nefarious figure called Wasp emerged from the shadows, seeking world domination, did I figure out – more by process of elimination than anything – that it must be the superhero played by Evangeline Lilly, fighting alongside (though by no means a sidekick to) Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man. I only mention this to demonstrate that you don’t have to be an expert in comic-book lore to enjoy Ant-Man and the Wasp, a frenetic joy and further confirmation of the fact – good news, as far as I’m concerned – that Marvel movies are now mostly comedies.
Rudd is a comic actor, of course – and he also co-scripted, so he clearly knows what works for him. He’s best when being startled by new information (“Hold on: you gave her wings?”) or fixating on something small and irrelevant in the midst of general mayhem. Quite a lot of the comedy here is in that vein, characters debating what they had for breakfast, or the size of their respective desks, or whether a truth serum should (or should not) be called a truth serum, even as they obviously have bigger problems. It’s a style of humour borrowed from Guardians of the Galaxy (the apex of Marvel comedies) whose heroes are forever bickering in the middle of space battles – and it’s also a style of humour that appeals to geeky 15-year-olds, if only because compulsively arguing over small and irrelevant stuff is what geeky 15-year-olds do.
Then again, there’s more going on here. Ant-Man and the Wasp may be the first Marvel movie to be structured explicitly as farce. MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) exploits are quite often bitty, especially the Avengers films which juggle multiple characters – but the bits in this case are consciously played against each other. There’s a bunch of different variables, maybe half-a-dozen groups all seeking the same thing, and the various strands are constantly colliding. The film recalls Joe Dante, the more antic version of Steven Spielberg (indeed, it also recalls Steven Spielberg), who made exuberantly offbeat rides like Innerspace and Small Soldiers. It aims to grab you by the scruff of the neck and carry you along, and mostly succeeds.
Everyone’s in a rush here. Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) suffers from “molecular disequilibrium”, and isn’t long for this world unless she can get her hands on the movie’s high-tech McGuffin. Small-time crook Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) is involved with some “very dangerous people” who don’t like to be kept waiting. Ant-Man himself (a.k.a. Scott Lang) is supposed to be under house arrest, and has to go home – where a giant ant is holding the fort – before the Feds arrive. Scott’s business partner Luis (Michael Pena, still hilarious) has to close a super-important deal in the next few hours. Then of course there’s Dr. Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope, also known as The Wasp, who can finally track down Hope’s mum (Michelle Pfeiffer) who disappeared into the “quantum realm” many years before. Trouble is, they only have two hours in which to do it – and, if they fail, it’ll take a century (a century!) for the signals to align again.
You get the idea. All these people scurry through the movie, chasing their respective dreams. But the real secret weapon in Ant-Man and the Wasp (and the reason why the film is goofily likeable instead of just exhausting) is the way it extends its mini-sized gimmick – a superhero the size of an ant! – to the whole world. Dr. Pym can shrink and magnify everything, not just superheroes but cars and buildings, at the touch of a button – so the visuals keep changing cartoonishly, a car is now a toy car, a Pez dispenser turns into a missile, our hero buzzes through the air like an insect where a second ago he was punching baddies. It creates a surreal sense of anything-goes, giving the film an airy quality that sets it apart from the usual, rather stolid Marvel movies.
Indeed, despite the obligatory Stan Lee cameo and post-credits teasers, Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t much of an MCU entry. Ant-Man stands apart from the Avengers – he wasn’t in the recent Infinity War – and the only mention of that superhero team comes when Pym yells at Scott for having fought with them; even as the group’s token insect, he obviously comes a distant second behind Spider-Man. There’s a lot of fine, funny stuff in this lively movie (even some groovy Doctor Strange psychedelia), but perhaps it works so well because it feels like its own thing, not just part of the current comic-book onslaught. You don’t even have to know in advance who the Wasp is – though I’m still looking forward to ‘Ant-Man and the WASP’, in which a microscopic hero teams up with a wealthy, horse-faced blonde girl with a New England accent. A man can dream.
DIRECTED BY Peyton Reed
STARRING Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas
US 2018 118 mins