“Nothing can prepare you for what’s coming.” ~ Ava
“Hiya, champ, how was school today?” ~ Hank Pym
“Thanks to you, we had to run. We’re still running.” ~ Hope Van Dyne
“I do some dumb things, and the people I love the most- they pay the price.” ~ Scott Lang
In 2015, Ant-Man gave the Marvel cinematic universe a different perspective, bringing in characters established in the comics and creating new ones in what was a light hearted sort of heist film. Now director Peyton Reed returns with the lead actors and a formidable new antagonist to another chapter in the small sized hero element of the Marvel world in Ant-Man & The Wasp, set in between Captain America: Civil War and the more recent Avengers Infinity War.
The film picks up threads from the previous film, with the disappearance of Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) into the microscopic quantum realm while on a mission. Former criminal Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), as Ant-Man had entered and returned from that realm, giving hope to Janet’s husband Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) that it might be possible to find and save Janet. Scott’s participation in the superhuman dust-up that was part of Civil War leads to a parting of the ways, as Scott ends up on house arrest and Hank and Hope go into hiding. Two years later, Scott’s nearly finished his parole term after receiving a cryptic message from the quantum realm, and fate draws him back into the orbit of Hank and Hope, all while other players play into unfolding events.
With the success of the original film, of course there was going to be a sequel. Leading man Rudd is credited as one of the writers, along with four others, usually a sign of trouble when it’s writing by committee, though that’s not the case here. Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari are also credited, and the script that results builds on what’s come before and takes things in new directions. That includes the light hearted humour and earnest charm of Rudd, the family dynamics moving into new directions for the Pym-Van Dyne clan (from estrangement in the first film to a common purpose), and the fantastic elements of microscopic worlds that the premise opens up.
Where the first film was more of a heist and caper film, this blends in part action, part romantic comedy, and for good measure throws in a complex villain who turns out to be a real treat in the way she’s treated. The writing for the characters is what grounds the film, playing to the strengths of the actors and to where they’ve already come from, giving depth and nuance in each case. Most of those are already established characters, while introducing new ones who are familiar to comic readers. The film's stakes aren't as big, perhaps, as that of Infinite War, with its despotic antagonist, but more personal, a rescue mission to save a life, and perhaps more than one life.
Reed’s return to the director’s chair for this second installment brings back the same techniques of the first film. He proved in the first case that he could balance the work of actors on the one hand and the CGI and action on the other, and that continues here. Where the characters are the bedrock of the film, Reed’s work continues to succeed in making use of CGI where it’s needed, and pacing action sequences in a way you can follow. Concepts like rapid shrinking or growth, as well as a character who phases in and out of physical touch, are made use of in the right way.
The cast, both returning and new players, are welcome in their roles. Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian, and Tip “T.I.” Harris return from the first film as Luis, Kurt, and Dave, each of them Scott’s old criminal associates who have gone legitimate, and the characters are part comic relief, part indispensable and unlikely backup in a crunch. Pena’s Luis is a particular motor-mouth who never seems to know when to shut up, which is part of the fun of the character, but Luis is also a strongly loyal sort. Randall Park debuts in the role of FBI agent Jimmy Woo, a fixture in the comics for some time now; he’s given a different role as a fed overseeing Scott’s house arrest, and gives the character a suspicious wariness.
Walton Goggins has made a career of playing dirtbags, most recently in Tomb Raider, and the same applies here as he plays Sonny Burch, also a character drawn out of the comics, where he was a minor villain in the Iron Man books. The character certainly fills the sleazebag role, a dirty dealing black market criminal with more ambition than brains, sniffing around at an opportunity and not considering that he might be in over his head. The character isn’t remotely likable or sympathetic, but the actor certainly plays to that and seems to be having a ball, chewing the scenery as he goes along.
Laurence Fishburne debuts in the Marvel universe (having had played Daily Planet chief Perry White in two of the recent Superman films for DC) as Bill Foster, another figure from the comics. Here Foster is an old associate of Hank Pym, though the two have had a parting of the ways some years earlier and aren’t on the best of terms. Fishburne has the acting chops to go toe to toe with Douglas on a matter of ethical concerns, and that comes across in the film, but he also plays Foster as a man of great intelligence and fortitude, doing something that he feels is the right cause.
Hannah John-Kamen plays the primary antagonist of the film, a young woman with a distinct problem. Ava is her real name, and she has ties to other players in the story as the Ghost. She is a mystery when we first meet her, phasing in and out of reality, her condition unstable at the quantum level. For her, Pym’s technology may be the key to saving her life, so her actions are entirely understandable, and it also makes her sympathetic. Ghost is a longstanding character in the Marvel universe, something of a mix between villain and anti-hero, and the character has been gender-switched here from a man into a woman, but it’s not jarring at all- if anyone could be switched like that, it’s Ghost, whose real name in the comics has never been divulged. The look of the character fits with the comics generally, and the presence- the line between villain and anti-hero- the actress gives her makes her a compelling one, and I’d like to see more of her down the line.
Michelle Pfeiffer also debuts as Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp from the comics, and from movie continuity, taking over the role that was seen briefly in the first film. She’s not around for a whole lot of the film, generally confined to the second half, but she brings the right touch to Janet- the strong survivor who’s somehow made it through decades of being shrunk down in the microverse (where’s the food down there?), the wife and mother who’s missed her family, and the hero who’s willing to help someone who might not deserve that help. Her take on the character is sympathetic and a welcome addition to the Marvel cinematic universe.
Michael Douglas returns as Hank Pym again, the original Ant-Man who’s spent years trying to make things right. In the first film he reconciled his differences with his daughter, and this time out it’s about finding a way to determine what’s become of his wife. Pym starts out in one place- justifiably irritated with Scott because of Scott’s involvement in the superhuman dispute that’s put his own work in jeopardy. As the film unfolds, the character has to set aside those differences for a greater good, and Douglas gives the character the right tone of exasperated and wary scientist on the one hand and a paternal quality on the other. With the latter, it’s pride in his daughter and a more reluctant pride where Scott’s concerned. Pym might be cranky (and even a bit of a jerk), but there’s a sort of father-son dynamic with Scott, and Douglas plays to that.
Having had teased the notion of Hope Van Dyne as the Wasp in the previous film, this time out the story puts her right in that role, and Hope’s look fits the character. Evangeline Lilly reprises her role as Hope, a new creation for the cinematic universe the first time out (though the comics do now feature a teenaged daughter for Pym named Nadia, created mostly because of the previous film). Where the first film had Hope estranged from her father and reluctant to work with a scoundrel ex-con like Scott, this film finds her at a better place with Hank, and trying to sort out differences with Scott over his decisions (she starts out justifiably angry with him). There’s a playful, romantic spark between Hope and Scott that the actors play off of, but the actress invests her character with strength, resolve, and a fearlessness that makes her come into her own.
Paul Rudd brings back his laconic charm as Scott Lang, the former convict who’s been hard at work trying to better his life. The first film brought him full circle in that respect (with a rather impulsive decision during Captain America Civil War leading to him messing up his life, even if it was with good intentions). We find him still making the effort to do right, even if it’s under house arrest and the only thing he can do right is to be a good father to his daughter Cassie. The film takes him beyond that, requiring him to put his legal status in peril for a greater good; his concern about being a responsible parent happens to also be the same personal quality that makes him want to do right by Pym and Hope. Scott is something of a regular person (which is how Rudd plays him), but he’s the sort who can rise to the occasion when needed, and proves to be resourceful and capable in and of himself.
Ant-Man & The Wasp continues the Marvel cinematic universe in the right way, investing itself in its characters, playing off a lighter tone but still with some dramatic weight. It’s self-contained and yet linked to the greater Marvel universe (as the credits sequences will show), and it’s fun and well-paced. The leading actors have the right degree of chemistry, and their antagonist is a welcome new addition to the Marvel universe, one who manages to elicit our sympathy just enough.