Scalding Hot Takes: Ant-Man and the Wasp
Conventional wisdom holds that sequels are almost never better than the films they follow. The rare sequel that does match, or even exceeds its predecessor, like The Godfather Part II or Empire Strikes Back, are generally held up as the exceptions that prove the rule.
Back when I was a film critic, I tried never to use words like “perfunctory”, “arbitrary’ or “mercenary” in conjunction with sequels not because they were inaccurate but rather because they were redundant: of course the typical sequel is perfunctory, arbitrary and motivated more by a desire to keep the money train rolling than an organic desire to, for example, tell more stories within the Weekend at Bernie’s or Teen Wolf universes.
That was until the current superhero movie boom. In sharp contrast to the rest of the film world, superhero movies are filled with sequels widely, if not universally considered superior to the films they followed.
Richard Donner’s 1978 blockbuster Superman was a massive critical and commercial success followed by a sequel many critics and fans consider equal, if not superior to Donner’s original. I know I’m not alone in considering Tim Burton’s gloriously Goth follow up to Batman, Batman Returns, infinitely preferable to its more commercially successful and kid-friendly predecessor. Thanks in no small part to Heath Ledger’s rightly revered, Oscar-winning turn as The Joker, The Dark Knight similarly outstripped its predecessor in terms of audacity and achievement.
Marvel has mastered the art of the superior sequel. Spiderman 2 soared over Spiderman, just as Guillermo Del Toro’s Blade II was a fuck-ton better than Stephen Norrington’s Blade. X2, meanwhile, similarly marked a distinct improvement over the first film.
James Mangold’s grim and gritty existentialist drama Logan wasn’t just a masterpiece compared to what came before (Mangold’s intriguing, if flawed 2013 follow up The Wolverine): it was a masterpiece, period. I found Deadpool 2 to be a big step up from Deadpool and I was certainly not alone in finding Taika Waititi’s trippy stoner comedy Thor: Ragnarok, the third film in the Thor series, to be everything I wanted the previous Thor movies, and also film in general, to be, and more.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Ant-Man and the Wasp, Peyton Reed’s follow-up to 2015’s Ant-Man is yet another superior sequel. Though it sure seemed to have received an indifferent shrug of a reception both critically and commercially, Ant-Man grossed over a half billion dollars worldwide, which, perversely enough, is only enough for it to qualify as a modest success.
Paul Rudd’s wry take on Marvel’s tiniest superhero had a much better, if much more shorter showcase in Captain America: Civil War, another proud member of the improved sequel club, and fully realizes his enormous potential in the delightful superhero team up movie Ant-Man and the Wasp.
The typical sequel faces a series of innate creative disadvantages. Almost by definition, a sequel cannot be as fresh or as novel as an original film. The typical sequel similarly struggles with the necessity of dragging out a story beyond its natural limits. I mean, we as a society needed to see a young, hungry, hairy Michael J. Fox help tell the story of a lycanthrope who rockets to popularity as a basketball-playing stud in Teen Wolf. But when Jason Bateman played a werewolf whose strange affliction led to unexpected pugilistic gifts in Teen Wolf Too it was a little, well, silly. Teen Wolf Too is a good example of a story that perhaps did not need to be told.
A much different dynamic is at play in superhero sequels. Since they’re adapted from a pre-existing property in the form of the comic books that inspired them, freshness and novelty aren’t of the utmost importance. Furthermore, since superhero movies adapted from comic books often have years, even decades, of mythology and comic book stories to draw upon and be inspired by, the question becomes which story, or stories, to adapt, since superhero movie based on comic books inherently occupy a world much bigger than any one movie, no matter how big or iconic.
No, when it comes to superhero movies it’s tentpole blockbusters like Ant-Man that face formidable artistic drawbacks. In many respects, a movie like, say, Iron Man (which, incidentally, is nowhere near as much fun as Iron Man 3) is like a television pilot. Cinematic superhero origin stories have so much heavy lifting to do in terms of introducing characters, building a world, establishing conflicts between heroes and villains and unpacking reams and reams of exposition that they don’t always have a lot of time or energy left to be entertaining or distinctive, just as sitcom pilots have so much work to do in terms of introducing characters and dynamics and worlds that they sometimes neglect to bring the funny.
In that respect, Reed’s ferociously adequate Ant-Man is a little like the famously underwhelming pilots for The Office, 30 Rock and Seinfeld in that it did what needed to be done in terms of introducing audiences to its very specific world, and the kooky characters that inhabit it, albeit in a way that only hinted at what the characters, and world, were capable of.
Ant-Man finds Scott Lang, AKA Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) on house arrest under the watchful, if amusingly incompetent eye of Jimmy Woo (Randall Park, a standout in a cast full of ringers). Scott whiles away the hours weeping at the prose of my arch-nemesis John Green, constructing an elaborate adventure course for his adorable daughter and, because he’s deeply, deeply bored, learning close-up magic.
Scott Lang spends pretty much the entire film under house arrest. Obviously he finds ways to wriggle around his confinement, in part by spending quality time in the quantum realm but there’s nevertheless a sort of warped conceptual genius in making a big-budget action movie about a guy whose capacity for heroism, or super heroism, is ever so slightly inhibited by the fact that, as far as the law is concerned, he cannot leave his home without breaking the law.
Michael Douglas returns from the previous film as Hank Pym, a brilliant scientist and businessman convinced that his beloved wife Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer, classing up the joint) may still be alive in the quantum realm after disappearing at the end of the Reagan era on a heroic mission.
Hank works alongside daughter Hank Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), the Wasp of the title, a no nonsense badass who serves as Scott’s partner and also as his love interest. They’re a complementary pair of opposites: The Wasp who’s all business, ferociously focussed on finding her mother and bringing her back to the world of the living and an accidental hero whose riffs and rhythms are rooted in the freewheeling improvisation of the Apatow school as much as they are in the comic book that inspired the film.
There’s a great moment early in the film where Scott refers to Captain America as “Cap” and wryly tries to reconcile his everyday life as a guy with a daughter and an ex-wife and a quasi-straight job with his ex-con buddies with his surreal super-existence as a superhero who counts people like The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America and Spider-Man among his friends, coworkers and colleagues.
Of course there’s nothing new about a smart ass Marvel hero taking the piss out of his own mythology, or the interlocking mythology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The irreverent, fourth wall-breaking smartass anti-hero is a Marvel speciality. Think Tony Stark. Or Guardians of the Galaxy’s Star-Lord. Or Spider-Man. Or that irascible, irreverent Deadpool, whose powers of sass are so strong that he regularly escapes the bounds of comic books and movies and infects the outside world by, for example, taking over the cover of Revenge of the Nerds at Wal-Mart. Or Wolverine! Or even that irreverent water fowl Howard the Duck. Incidentally, I just mistyped that as “Howard the Fuck”, which is obviously the screamingly obvious title for the porn parody.
Rudd’s Scott Lang is different from Marvel’s other super-powered wisenheimers. He’s slyer, more deadpan and more relatable even if he’s ridiculously cut (when Rudd takes off his shirt I was all “Damn!!!) and preposterously handsome, charming and smart because he’s played by Rudd. He is, for example, the only superhero I can think of who would probably refrain from punching people altogether if it wasn’t an unfortunate component of every hero’s job description.
Thanks to an inspired running joke about close-up magic and oddball riffs like one about macho Mexicans’ famous love of Morrissey, Ant-Man and the Wasp is funnier and looser than its predecessor but like other superior Marvel sequels Deadpool 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy 2, it’s also deeper and more emotionally satisfying.
Like the best Marvel movies, underneath the goofy, playful surface lies a lot of deep, deep pain and tragedy. Newcomer Hannah John-Kamen is heartbreaking and magnetic as Ghost/Ava Starr, a spectral antagonist who can pass through solid objects and whose melancholy existence is filled with agonizing, perpetual pain both physical and psychological. She’s a tragic figure forever trapped between worlds, an orphan hoping against hope for the technological miracle that will make her whole again.
Hank and Hope are on a parallel quest to discover the technological miracle that will fill the aching hole in their own lives, and in their family’s lives, left by the dramatic disappearance and possible death of Janet, the original Wasp.
Hank, Hope and Ava’s feverish quest to become whole again through the magic and the mystery of the Quantum Realm gives the movie genuine emotional stakes and the Quantum Realm, a world within atoms, where the rules of time and space are vastly different, lends the film a trippy quality that can be traced back to the psychedelic late sixties and seventies, when the counterculture’s yen for sensory derangement and spiritual experimentation infected the offices of Marvel and its Distinguished Competition, creating a boom in comics interested in venturing deep into both inner space and outer space, to realms within the human mind and the farthest reaches of the cosmos.
Ant-Man and the Wasp is a huge step up from the mild disappointment of its predecessor. Many Marvel movies are burdened by the need to move the entire cinematic universe forward, bit by bit, player by player. Ant-Man and the Wasp, thankfully, is not weighed down by those obligations and responsibility. It doesn’t need to, I dunno, establish that Bruce Banner and Falcon have an emotionally fraught relationship because Falcon never RSVPd to Bruce Banner’s cousin’s wedding. On the contrary, the filmmakers here feel liberated to just tell a funny, entertaining and occasionally moving story that just so happens to take place in the midst of an elaborate, sprawling mythology that has just about swallowed up the whole entertainment universe, not just the increasingly vast portion of show business dedicated to Marvel’s seemingly endless roster of heroes and villains.
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