Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t suck.
It should be the absolute minimum requirement for movies, but this is Marvel Studios we’re talking about. And while the movie doesn’t suck, it doesn’t inspire either.
Set squarely in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man and the Wasp takes place two years after Captain America: Civil War. After assisting Captain America in the superhero showdown, Scott Lang, alias Ant-Man, is arrested and placed under house arrest, while former associates Hank and Hope Pym cut ties and go underground.
30 years prior to the movie, Hope’s mother, Janet, shrank herself down into the quantum realm during a mission to sabotage a Soviet nuclear missile. While she succeeded, she was lost. During Ant-Man’s previous movie, Scott shrank himself to the quantum realm and came back, in the process entangling himself with Janet. This causes disconcerting dreams where he sees himself experiencing Janet’s memories. Despite the FBI watching his every move, ready to arrest him if he places out foot outside of his house, Lang contacts the Pyms for help.
After rescuing (or, more properly, abducting) Lang, the Pyms cut a a deal with black market tech dealer Sonny Burch to obtain a special MacGuffin they need to complete their quantum tunneller. Burch, however, decides to double-cross the Pyms. Worse, a new supervillain, Ghost, shows up, intent on securing the Pyms’ technology for her own ends. A multi-way struggle ensues as the FBI, Ghost, Burch, and Ant-Man and the Pyms struggle to beat everybody else and/or obtain the Pyms’ technology.
Focus on the Family
Ant-Man and the Wasp is quite unlike other comic book movies in recent times. Where those movies rely on high stakes, cardboard cutout villains and complex action scenes, Ant-Man and the Wasp keeps the story tight and relatively small-scale. At its heart, the movie is about family ties. The Pyms are motivated to bring Janet back. Scott Lang wants to be a good father for his daughter Cassandra despite his circumstances. These family ties motivate the characters to be the best they be.
Radiating outwards, the supporting characters are also motivated by their relationships. Luis, Scott’s former cellmate, went straight and founded X-Con security, and is hustling to keep the company afloat and help his employees (all of them ex-cons) keep their jobs. FBI Special Agent Jimmy Woo is a good guy with the unenviable task of keeping another good guy in check, and despite his antagonism towards Scott it’s clear both men respect each other. Ghost and her mysterious backer are also bonded through ties of compassion and obligation.
With Ant-Man and the Wasp, Marvel has done two truly remarkable things. The first is that every hero gets a moment of heroism without being subverted. Ant-Man saves the day, Janet Pym as the Wasp beats her up her fair share of bad guys, Hank Pym’s tech works as planned, Cassie helps her father, even the ex-cons prove that they have turned over a new leaf. No one steals their thunder, no sacrifices are in vain, no villain renders their work meaningless.
Indeed, unlike so many other films out there, Ant-Man and the Wasp is refreshingly free of overt male-bashing. Sure, there are plenty of jokes at Scott Lang’s expense, but they feel organic to the story, be it his wonky suit breaking down at the worst (or most hilarious) of times or the aftereffects of being entangled with Janet, but the film doesn’t go out of its way to openly denigrate men. Scott is shown to be a loving father who does his best for Cassie despite his limitations, Luis is as hilarious as ever while showing himself as a responsible friend and boss, Hank Pym clearly loves his family, Jimmy Woo is a stand-up guy who also serves as a youth pastor, and Ghost’s partner is motivated by a desire to help her.
The second remarkable thing is a sympathetic villain. At the risk of spoilers, Ghost cuts a tragic figure. Following an accident, she is afflicted with a disease that renders her intangible and insubstantial to the rest of the world. She believes that the only way to cure her affliction is to take the Pyms’ technology to fix her disintegrating body, and she has only days at best to live. Her partner is overcome with compassion at her plight and seeks to cure her, and in one scene actually restrains Ghost from crossing the line into true villainy.
The last time the MCU handled a plausible sympathetic villain in my memory was in Avengers: Civil War, in which both sides of the superhuman conflict had believable views and motivations. Since then most of the villains I have seen tended to be cardboard cut-outs with cliched goals and ideologies. It’s rare to see a sympathetic villain these days, but Ant-Man and the Wasp mostly managed to pull it off.
Violation of Momentum
This is not to say that Ant-Man and the Wasp is an excellent movie. If anything, it is an instantly forgettable movie.
The first fatal flaw, common to every single superhero movie today, is the reliance on lame jokes and dialogue. There were a half-dozen sequences that were apparently supposed to be funny, but failed to elicit a reaction. Among them are childish arguments between characters over trivial things.
For example, in one sequence, Sonny Burch and his minions prepare to interrogate a group of characters by injecting them with a chemical. Everybody spends the next half-minute arguing over whether the chemical is a truth serum or not. This dialogue halts the action for no other purpose than to set up a one-line gag at the end of the movie. Those lines could have been cut without loss to the film.
Dialogue like this is neither funny nor clever. Arguments over trivial things, resolved with little more than ‘yeah, right, whatever’, add no emotional stakes to the story; they just halt the action and the storytelling. The medium of a film demands relentless forward momentum, and any scene that slows down the story without adding to it serves no end and must be cut.
Women are Wonderful
Ant-Man and the Wasp has been hailed as a female empowerment movie, and the signs are clear if you look hard enough.
Marvel, that bastion of progressive thought, continues its trend of altering established canon with Ant-Man and the Wasp. This time, the Ghost, formerly a male terrorist who attacks corporations and economic institutions to destroy capitalism, has been transformed into a woman who was drafted into SHIELD as a spy and assassin. FemGhost isn’t one of the bad guys, just a person forced into working for the good guys and has temporarily lost her way.
How is her conflict resolved? Easy enough: just rescue Janet Pym from the quantum foam, conveniently empower her with mysterious quantum powers, then heal the Ghost with the power of quantum energy. There is no real struggle, no moral dilemma, and no costs to cooperation.
Herein lies the problem: the Ghost has days to live, but Janet only has hours before she is lost again. The Ghost doesn’t need Janet’s presence or absence, only mysterious quantum particles to re-stabilise her body. Had the Ghost simply cooperated with the Pym and Ant-Man to secure the tech, let the Pyms rescue Janet first, and then heal herself, everybody could have gotten what they wanted without having to fight at all.
Half of the film exists simply because the Ghost was too impatient and too stupid to negotiate a deal with the Pyms.
Which, by the way, is the exact opposite of how a real SOF type would act. The Ghost already knows that she will be dealing with the man who invented miniaturisation tech, which means Ant-Man and the Wasp would be nearby. A real assassin trained by SHIELD would know that she should not make enemies out of superheroes if she can avoid it. If she had simply sat down with the Pyms to work out a deal instead of trying to steal their tech from the start, there would have been no need for the violence at all.
Nonetheless, the desire to show women kicking ass on screen the way women have been kicking asses on screen for as long as I’ve been alive, if not longer, overrules authenticity.
Going beyond the Ghost, a careful review of the movie reveals that the men make mistakes — but none of the women do.
The Wasp gets a functioning suit, but Ant-Man does not, because reasons. Instead of learning how to fix his suit in the field, Ant-Man needs the Wasp to save him again and again and again, because reasons. Scott Lang, a former career criminal, violated operational security to solve a problem that he could handled with phone cameras and video conferencing. Hank’s ego comes back to bite him. The (male) criminals are routinely outthought and outfought, and Jimmy Woo keeps failing to get his man throughout the film.
The only notable mistake a woman ever makes is when the Ghost captured Ant-Man and the Wasp. The first thing she should have done is to destroy their suits, or at least the devices that allow them to control their size. This is what a SHIELD-trained assassin would have done. But she didn’t, because plot, and because she is a villain, so she needs to make a mistake the heroes can exploit.
Mistakes happen all the time in real life. But it’s telling that almost all the narrative-critical mistakes are made by the men, and that the women always do the (relatively) right thing and perform almost all of the actions that drive the story. In fact, women are so wonderful in the film, the Ghost is allowed to escape justice. It might simply be the filmmakers trying to save her for another movie, but I’m not going to bet on it.
The male-bashing isn’t forced or overt here, but the way the men keep screwing up, women keep saving the men, and the Ghost getting away, it makes a man think.
The Lowest Bar
Ant-Man and the Wasp takes a radically different approach from other MCU films. Keeping the stakes small, the movie focuses on the relationships between the characters, and goes out of its way to paint a family-friendly image. Indeed, there is no blood or gore on-screen, no one is seen dying, and the swearing is kept to an absolute minimum.
Peel off the facade, though, and you’ll see the same issues plaguing MCU films. Ridiculous plot holes, characters who don’t act in accordance with their backstory, lame jokes and lamer dialogue, and the constant elevation of women over men.
Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t suck. But once you leave the theater, it is instantly forgotten.
If you want high-octane action, sharp dialogue, and believably flawed characters, check out my novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.
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