It feels strange to be at the point in cinematic history where there are so many superhero films being released that we can get past the amazing/terrible dichotomous reaction. Ant-Man and The Wasp is the fifth new superhero film of the year so far. That's not even counting the home video market for animated superhero films or the ever-increasing number of superhero shows on television and streaming services. The genre is being embraced and consistently does well at the box office and in ratings. It's more of a story now when something blatantly fails (like Inhumans or Iron Fist) than if something succeeds.
We're also, mercifully, at the point where superhero films can just be fun. Each of the main Marvel branching series has a pretty clear tone and the Ant-Man universe is just comedy. There's a slapstick element to a series of characters whose abilities are changing size or phasing through matter and it's used to tremendous effect in Ant-Man and the Wasp.
It is almost two years to the day since Ant-Man was flown into Germany by Captain America to fight the renegade Avengers who wouldn't just go along with the total government control of superheroes. We know this because Ant-Man himself, Scott Lang (a never-better Paul Rudd allowed to use all of his comedic skills and charm), has been under house arrest for almost the entirety of his two year sentence for his involvement in the battle in Germany. In three days, he'll be able to leave the house to run his new security business (staffed by his reformed team of thieves from the first film) and have outdoor adventures during his weekend custody of his beloved daughter Cassie.
Everything is going great until he has a dream where he sees life through the eyes of Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp who was lost to the quantum realm during a mission decades before. He calls up Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, still perfectly cast as a cranky scientist and former superhero), the creator of the Ant-Man technology, to let him know. When Scott wakes up, he winds up back in the realm of still-technically-illegal superhero technology when Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly finally allowed to strap on the supersuit and become The Wasp) and Dr. Pym kidnap him. They believe they can use Scott's head to track Janet's location in the quantum realm and return her to the full-size world.
Aside from breaking his house arrest order (which can land him 20 years in prison), Scott's unwillingly reformed superteam have to battle a billionaire weapons dealer and a supervillain who can phase in and out of the physical dimension. Both villains also want Dr. Pym and Hope's newest quantum technology.
Like all superhero films, there's a lot of exposition at the start. Unlike most, Ant-Man and the Wasp is incredibly funny throughout that exposition. The opening action sequence sees Scott build a giant cardboard model of an Ant-Man-like adventure so his daughter can have fun pretending to have superpowers. This intrusion of the shrinking and growing technology for mundane everyday activities becomes a growing theme of the film as Dr. Pym and Hope are escaping international criminal action by shrinking their cars and the laboratory to toy sizes for their own safety.
The over-reliance on technology is where much of the conflict happens. Despite needing Scott's memories to complete their plan, Hope and Dr. Pym have no intentions of ever really working with him again. He betrayed their trust by flying off on his own for Captain America's mission in Germany. They literally cut off communications and wrote off the Ant-Man suit as failed experiments. That means, when they do realize they need Scott again, the new technology needed for a wingless suit is still being experimented on and often breaks. Scott can't change shape as well as he should unless Hope reboots the suit during battles or espionage missions.
The physical toll of the quantum realm on the body and mind creates what I believe is my favorite of all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's supervillains. Ghost is a new take on a recurring villain in the comics. Originating in Iron Man, Ghost was a computer scientist who developed technology that can phase into another realm to be far more efficient for brief periods of time and return with all the newly acquired data intact. He eventually infused himself with the technology to take revenge on people who wronged him and became a corporate espionage force for hire.
The new version of Ghost if a far more rewarding character to explore. Ava (a phenomenal Hannah John-Kamen) is a young woman who is seriously injured by an experiment gone wrong with the quantum realm. Her body is physically pulling itself apart at all times into individual quantum particles. It is held together by her will, her training, and a series of technological advances like a supersuit and a containment cell. Ghost is motivated not by vengeance, but by a desire to do anything to eliminate a permanent state of chronic pain as her body is ripped apart and pulled back together every waking moment of her life.
This experience with the quantum realm makes her a perfect foil for Ant-Man. We know from the original film that the quantum realm can have major effects on the mental state of people who venture into it. Now, the physical challenges are being brought to the forefront because of the unwitting field research of Scott Lang and Ava. Their ability to not just survive but thrive in their physical and mental ability to manipulate the quantum particles in the real world makes them assets for so many, but only if the time is convenient. Outside forces are constantly telling them to wait, constantly insisting that other matters are more pressing. They're called unreasonable or selfish if they dare to put themselves first.
Obviously, the paths are quite different. Scott might be a former criminal, but he is using his Ant-Man abilities for the greater good. He wants to help people, even if the physical toll on his body is so strong that he has to sleep for days after completing a series of missions.
Ghost is motivated by her own life and goals. It's perfectly valid considering the amount of pain she's under that her abilities are used for selfish reasons. Sometimes, we have to put ourselves first, even if it causes others pain. Where she does cross the line is physically hurting people to achieve her goals out of desperation. Her justification is logical--she's in pain, so why shouldn't other people feel a fraction of what she feels?--but inhumane. The system has clearly failed her at many levels and even those who try to protect her in the present still put the greater good ahead of actually finding a cure for her condition.
There's a darker undercurrent to Ant-Man and the Wasp than the original film and that's a good thing. The original Ant-Man film almost felt too frivolous in its aims. It was a comedy heist film with superpowers and no real character development for the villain to create any real tension. Scott really was the best-developed character while every other player felt like an after thought.
For better or worse, Ant-Man and the Wasp tries to add dimension to the universe. It's quite clear that Ant-Man's absence from Avengers: Infinity War was intentional. There has to be something that Scott Lang can do as Ant-Man that none of the other Avengers could do to save the day. However, that means that there needs to be a stronger tonal connection between the slapstick Hot Wheels car chase sequences of Ant-Man's world and the gritty reality of the constant physical, political, and intellectual battles of the rest of the MCU. Infinity War raised those stakes for the Guardians of the Galaxy crew and now Ant-Man and the Wasp does the same for Ant-Man's main players.
This film ultimately is a successful action-comedy. The slapstick fights look amazing with the special effects. It really does feel like these characters can manipulate the size of any object or person they chose in the blink of an eye. The car chases alone with characters and cars shrinking and regrowing to outmaneuver obstacles is thrilling and hilarious. Add in Ghost's ability to appear and disappear in different locations and you have some of the most entertaining action sequences in the entire MCU. Ant-Man and the Wasp sets out to be a fun film with a bit more depth than the original and it succeeds.