In terms of comic-based superhero franchises, all the belabored exposition is usually handled in the first installment, allowing the sequel to hit the ground running. Ant-Man and the Wasp puts that conventional cadence on a sort-of half-movie delay, spending an inordinate amount of time positioning several additional players on the field before whistling for the game to begin. Once it kicks into high gear, the film is about as zany, inventive, and fun as its surprisingly wonderful 2015 predecessor would lead us to expect. We’re just made to jump through some clunky narrative hoops along the way.
What’s surprising is that said narrative hoops are of the movie’s own design. Ant-Man and the Wasp, befitting its status as a satellite entity within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, isn’t quite as tethered to the master plan of the larger enterprise. Everything must connect, per the MCU powers-that-be, but there is a little more space to roam freely. Odd, then, that director Peyton Reed and the film’s rolodex of screenwriters (maybe we’ve just identified the problem) fill that space with laborious plot machinations of their own creation. The addition of The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) isn’t the issue; to the contrary, the inherent chemistry between Lilly and Paul Rudd as Scott Lang/Ant-Man serves the charming comedic bent of the franchise. It’s the reliable constant that keeps the film afloat while the script entertains less interesting new characters and sub-plots.
Chief among these less interesting elements is the film’s villain – or villains, I guess, depending on how you define the word in the context of empathetic comic-book backstories and screenplays that care more about personality than dire conflict (not that there’s anything wrong with either). The film divides its villainy between a mysterious shape-shifter dubbed Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) who can move freely to and from the verboten “Quantum Realm” and a megalomaniacal tech guru (Walton Goggins, hamming it up and having a ball) who wants to undercut new research by Hope van Dyne and father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Hope’s emergence as The Wasp gives her additional leverage against both adversaries, and to assist they spring Scott from the confines of house arrest (for his role in the Civil War melee – so you know the MCU is still pulling a few strings).
The Ghost storyline is an overwrought plot device and the Goggins character is amusing but entirely inconsequential. Each is crafted as an obstacle that prevents our heroes from their ultimate goal: rescuing the original Wasp, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from eternal dwelling within the Quantum Realm. It all results in occasional narrative chaos, sometimes of the energizing carefully-controlled variety (when the bedlam girds the film’s zany sense of humor), and other times of the less controlled, disorienting sort (when it becomes clear that certain scenes only exist in a vacuum of expository dialogue).
Such unwieldy over-plotting results in a first half that feels uncharacteristically tedious, but it also spring loads the action set pieces, setting up a second half that explodes with exactly the sort of whimsical invention that we would expect from this franchise. The chemistry of the actors goes a long way toward wading through the choppy narrative waters (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Pena as Scott’s partner-in-crime turned business protégé, who is the film’s MVP), and director Reed is a stabilizing force through it all. One of Marvel Studios’ best decisions has been to lock in talented filmmakers with strong points of view to deliver multiple installments of its smaller-scale entities. In a franchise as reliant on levity and humor as this one, a consistent directorial voice matters, especially as the signature charm is encroached upon by the necessities of plotting. Reed bridges that gap.
The audience can feel the filmmakers’ freedom once the wheels are set in motion and, at long last, Ant-Man and the Wasp can live up to its title, a rare superhero two-hander that fuses humor with creativity and ups the ante (pun fully intended) on the quotient of proportional gag-laden action set pieces. So successful is the film’s second half – including a final moment as enthralling as any the MCU has ever delivered – that one is left to ponder a version of the film that generated that kind of energy earlier. Maybe that potential will pay off in the next movie…if the MCU allows it, and if the filmmakers allow themselves.