Monday, July 16, 2018

Zaki's Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Arriving just two short months after the sturm un drang of Avengers: Infinity War and its appropriately apocalyptic climax (there's a special kind magic in looking around after a movie ends and seeing a screening room full of shellshocked little kids that look like all hope has been drained from their lives), Peyton Reed's Ant-Man and the Wasp offers a much needed respite from that movie's world-ending pyrotechnics in favor of something a little more spritely and frolicsome, but no less engaging. You might recall that I was quite enamored of the first Ant-Man when it hit theaters three years ago. That affection only grew on subsequent viewings, and I even included it in my top ten movies for 2015.

As such, I already had a great deal of enthusiasm heading into this follow-up, which arrives as the third volley in what has been, by any measure, a barnburner of a year for Marvel Studios, having begun 2018 by demolishing all critical and box office expectations with Black Panther, and then repeating the trick a few months later with Infinity War. Given that, it's even more admirable what Ant-Man and the Wasp accomplishes. Rather than risk losing the thread by needlessly trying to match those other movies for spectacle or social commentary, the sequel for Marvel's smallest (and biggest) hero instead doubles down on what worked previously: Fun!

As the story picks up, titular hero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is whiling away his days getting some reading done, learning close-up magic, and otherwise biding his time as the house arrest he incurred following his European escapades (see: Captain America: Civil War) winds down. Just three more days, and he can hang out with daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) all he wants. Of course, the movie isn't called Ant-Man: Hanging in Front of the Tube, and circumstances soon intervene that make Scott's attempt to stay out of trouble a lot harder. Specifically, original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and daughter Hope (a.k.a the Wasp, a.k.a. Evangeline Lilly) have contrived a way to rescue Pym's wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), long presumed dead, from the mysterious, microscopic Quantum Realm within which she's been stranded for decades.

Enter into this mix the Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a saboteur with the ability to phase through matter, who has eyes on absconding with Pym's technology for her own devious ends and, separately, small-time gangster Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) who has his own designs on taking advantage of the scientific cornucopia awaiting in Pym's laboratory (an entire building that the scientist lugs around in miniaturized form). And so begins a multi-pronged effort by Scott to aid his scientist friends in their rescue plan while helping his ex-con friends (Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian, "T.I." Harris) with their new business plan, all while staying one step ahead of the government agents (led by Randall Park's Jimmy Woo) trying to catch Lang violating his house arrest.

So yeah, just another day in the life of the Ant-Man.

At this point, I really don't think I can say enough about how much I love Paul Rudd in this part. Thank entirely to Rudd's continued comfort in the role, Scott Lang is the superhero buddy you wish you had. To some extent that's what sets him apart from his MCU brethren like Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, who are usually preoccupied with battling the latest world-ending threat (or each other, natch). But Scott? He's equally comfortable with costume-clad derring-do as he is singing karaoke while no one is around. It's also worth mentioning here how wonderful it is to see Lilly finally suited up and kicking butt as one of Marvel's original heroes, the Wasp ("It's about damn time," she said a the end of the first film, echoing the thoughts of many of us in the audience).

Rudd and Lilly have such an easy chemistry that they feel like the most natural pairing in the world, making Scott and Hope sort of the Nick and Nora Charles of the big screen superhero set. And while I won't reveal here whether the elder Pym succeeds in his quest to rescue his lost love (and again, I have to give kudos to the magnificent effects crew at Marvel who've surpassed themselves once again with their digital makeovers for both Douglas and Pfeiffer, de-aging them to their 1980s selves), I was happy with the material he was given. Not only does Hank's journey feel essential to the story being told, it also takes full advantage of having a living legend like Michael Douglas in the cast.

(Douglas also has some nice moments with Lawrence Fishburne as his scientist ex-colleague Bill Foster -- another beneficiary of Marvel's patented CGI de-aging magic -- that had me longing for a full-on period piece set in the '80s that would let us see Pym in his superhero prime, battling baddies for defunct spy org S.H.I.E.L.D. -- maybe in part three!)

What I've loved about both Ant-Man flicks is the way they embrace and glory in the inherent ridiculousness of the premise. As superhero gimmicks go, shrinking (and growing, given Scott's "Giant-Man" powers unveiled in Civil War) are visually interesting but also have the danger of feeling played out pretty quickly. But what makes these films work is the ways in which the returning Reed (who famously took over the franchise in the eleventh hour after Edgar Wright bailed) and his writers (including Rudd himself) contrive ways to keep that gimmick fresh and interesting, taking advantage of the many possibilities afforded by the environment (and mad props for finding so many fun way to incorporate the sights and sounds of my hometown, San Francisco!) to give us new and interesting action sequences.

Three years ago, I proclaimed the first Ant-Man, "the perfect chaser to cleanse the palette from the last superhero jam while getting us queued for the next one." That description is applicable in its entirety to this sequel as well. We're now twenty entries deep into the massive mega-franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we can see the reason for its continued vitality in the fact that it includes something like Ant-Man and the Wasp, serious and silly in equal measure. Now, this being a part of the MCU, we all know to stick around for mid and end credit scenes, and this one offers up a pair of doozies that give a tantalizingly ominous tease of where things stand post-Infinity War. And with next year's Captain Marvel set entirely in the 1990s, that means this is where we have to leave things until the second leg of the Thanos dyad arrives next May.

This is going to be a long wait. B+

For more thoughts on Ant-Man and the Wasp, check out our special episode of the MovieFilm Podcast for a spoiler-filled chat about the movie, via this link or through the embed below:

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