|Scene from Ant-Man and the Wasp|
There's a good chance that for those who saw The Avengers: Infinity War a few months back, the idea of a lighthearted comedy seems like the last thing that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) should be tackling. After all, it's proceeding a film full of death and despair, leaving many to wonder if many of their beloved favorites will even be around for much longer. And yet, it's precisely a chance to reflect what makes director Peyton Reed's Ant-Man and the Wasp such a vital piece of entertainment. Sure, it's expanding the MCU in meaningful ways - specifically in how it explores the quantum realm - but it's a chance to blow off steam, reminding audiences of the infinite charm of Paul Rudd as protagonist Scott Lang, as well as partner Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne, or The Wasp. Together, they not only rip through space with a comic briskness that is tons of fun, but they are a reminder of what makes the MCU so unique in modern pop culture. It's a place for universal destruction, but also for a giant Hello Kitty Pez dispenser to knock over the bad guy. No other franchise could get away with that quite like the MCU, and it's why Ant-Man and the Wasp feels more vital than any more important table setting entry.
For those needing a reminder of Rudd's charisma as Scott Lang, his introduction in the film should be enough. With his daughter at hand, they go on an adventure through a homemade maze, featuring giant fake ants and a slide that rides them to the edge of the property. It's a charming, affectionate scene that is missing in Infinity War, or really any other MCU parent/child relationship. It isn't until Lang's foot gets jammed through a fence at the edge of his property that things become clear. He's a criminal on house arrest, and it's the hurdle that the film will have to work around for the next two hours. Even if the film never escapes the neighborhoods around his house, it does create one of the most delightful puzzles imaginable: how do you escape house arrest to stop villains trying to steal Hank Pym's (Michael Douglas) lab, which can cleverly shrink to the size of a wheeled suitcase? It could just be that the film lacks the production issues of the 2015 Ant-Man, but it does so with a rejuvenation and life that is hard to ignore.
A lot of what worked in the first film is back, such as buddy Luis (Michael Pena) providing his comical retelling of his relationship with Scott. The same goes for Hank's curmudgeon nature and love of science, which has the added bonus of tragedy this time as he tries to find his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the quantum realm: a place so small that technology can't possibly reach it without some risk. Even new additions, such as the police officers who have a love/hate relationship with Scott, come across as breezy and fun. There's no sense that this film owes any deep connection to Infinity War, nor does it feel like Thanos will spoil the fun. Instead, it's a chance to see the film play up its comedic charm better than ever, relying on scenarios that are better suited for buddy cop movies than one with a duo who can shrink to the size of atoms.
Ideally, Ant-Man and the Wasp would be a stellar "knock-off" version of The Avengers franchise, as Scott is a more compelling figure outside of his ties to the larger franchise. He is so charming and has a nice simple life, that to infuse the dynamic with Infinity War elements risks what made the character fun. Sure, it means that he'll get to work alongside the characters that made the airport scene in Captain America: Civil War so much fun, but Reed's necessity for the character to go on, ahem, smaller missions works so much better. To see Hope an Hank break out of a prison interrogation room is a thing of beauty. There's swift comedy without much need for deeper ideology. Yes, the pain of Hank looking for his wife adds levity at times, but the stakes work here because of how they center around Scott's desire for freedom, and how to cleverly beat the system.
What is probably the film's other defining achievement is the slapstick and perception gags that are at times some of the studio's best. With the ability for Ant-Man and the Wasp to shrink and grow, so does the chance to see salt shakers become large barriers, or have miniature cars reenact scenes from Bullit. The film has a dizzying quality to its action mixed with humor that it feels more carefree, as if the threat's sometimes emptiness doesn't matter. What does is that the audience is having fun, and that they don't see the gags coming. Lilly grounds the movie with a sense of professionalism, managing to play Hope with a confidence that counteracts Scott's aloof nature beautifully. Still, there's a sense that these characters care about each other, and it's what makes everything work better. It's a package of sincerity more than an MCU movie, and that is a bigger achievement in a time where every superhero movie has some dourness to go along with their set pieces.
Ant-Man and the Wasp's biggest issue is that it doesn't feel as big as the previous 19 movies in terms of stakes or importance. It's also the biggest asset in a way, managing to pull back everything conventional about superhero cinema in the summer of 2018 and finding a family comedy that is all about being together. With plenty of great slapstick gags, the film is at least a lot of fun and never has a dull exchange, even among its secondary characters. It's a world where fun comes first, and Reed fills it with enough cleverness to make this one of the most fun films in the franchise. It's hard to see Ant-Man ever being something more important, because his house arrest story is far more compelling than him saving the universe. But hey, if it gets more witty moments between Ant-Man and the welcomed new character the Wasp, then it's very much welcomed. This is what superhero cinema could be if it wasn't for the MCU, which is ironic because it's doubtful that it could exist without it either.