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In a vast ocean of Marvel people, the second Ant-Man installment perfects the recipe.
Do you know what movie is great? Ant-Man and the Wasp. It’s everything I didn’t know I wanted in a Marvel movie. It’s fast-moving, with pacing fleeter than a six-footed samba. The tone is light and doesn’t compromise the strong emotional core of the movie. Most importantly, the now-streaming-on-Netflix title only tangentially relates to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe storylines—I prefer to take in Marvel movies as single-serving experiences.
I’ve never cared much for the larger mythology at play, mostly because it all goes in one ear and out the other. Most of the movies are fine in the moment but dissipate quickly after leaving the theater. Part of me wishes I had more passion for the MCU. Seriously, how cool is it that a studio could do something this ambitious with this much success?
I hung around for a while, making it through most of Phase 1 (until Thor). Iron Man 3 is when I threw in the towel and started to pick and choose which Marvel movies I caught (sorry Thor: The Dark World). As we close in on Endgame, I’ve filled in some gaps, but not all (sorry Thor: Ragnarok). While I like most of the Marvel movies I’ve seen, Ant-Man and the Wasp is the only that sparked something in me that made me think, “Can’t wait for the next one of these.”
It starts with the cast. Everyone’s favorite everyman, Paul Rudd, delivers exactly what “Paul Rudd as a superhero” implies. Rudd makes Scott Lang charismatic, playful, and serious when necessary, everything an action comedy needs from the lead. Marvel has the resources to get whomever it wants, so it isn’t surprising that the movies work because of high-end casts. Still, I’ll go to bat for Rudd as the best Marvel lead (apologies to Chris Hemsworth, whose skills became maximized when recent Thor movies allowed him to be fluid and funny).
While Rudd does his thing, it’s the supporting cast that lands this fish. The roster is deep and everyone delivers when called upon. Michael Pena all but steals the movie, while Randall Park connects on all of his jokes. Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer have meatier roles, and they’re predictably good, especially in the dramatic moments. But they don’t slouch on the comedy either. Everybody gets his or her moment without the script having to force anything. No matter who is driving the action of a scene or reacting to it, everyone just bounces off each other so well. One of my only quibbles with the film is that it can’t get to all of the different combinations of characters and actors. The cohesion and chemistry among that cast stand against the Avengers movies, which have too much going on to luxuriate in the talents of the cast.
The story is as engaging as most of the other MCU movies, but one key difference is that the plot doesn’t revolve around Lang. He’s not passive by any means, but this is Dr. Pym (Douglas) and his daughter Hope’s (Evangeline Lilly) story. Lang just happens to be the key to helping them find their long-lost wife and mother, Janet. By not forcing Lang to anchor the emotional stakes of the film, it allows him to pinball around and serve as the connective tissue for all the disparate parts. This also helps the movie move between tones seamlessly.
As the 20th film in the MCU, I’m not surprised that Ant-Man and the Wasp is a well-oiled machine. The formula has been meticulously honed at this point. I am surprised that it doesn’t feel like a retread. It benefits greatly by setting its action prior to the events of Infinity War. Ant-Man and the Wasp opened after Infinity War, so the lighter tone feels like a palate cleanser. It’s free to be its own thing with most viewers, I assume, knowing that the bigger drama is lurking just out of sight. After delivering its own satisfying thing, we get the tie-in we know is coming with the Thanos snap. While it isn’t the spectacle of the Infinity War snap, the emotional payoff hits just as hard.
More so than any Marvel movie before it, this one felt like a full experience and not just a piece of the puzzle. Ant-Man and the Wasp gave me that feeling that so many others have experienced with prior entries. Early in the movie, Scott shows off his newly acquired close-up magic tricks for his daughter. He’s warm, kind, funny, and you forget that you’re watching a Hollywood spectacle. I finally felt some of that MCU magic. Better late than never, I suppose.
For most of my adult life, monoliths have dominated two of my passions. The New England Patriots and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have loomed so largely, for so long, that I have a hard time remembering how things were before their arrival. I love the NFL and I love movies, but I do not love the Pats or the MCU. The arc of my relationship with the Pats and MCU starts with me rooting for them when they were underdogs. Then I grew to resent their success for no other reason than I wanted to see someone or something else on top. Finally, I looped around to begrudging respect and indifference.
If nothing else, I’m fascinated by how the success of the Patriots and the MCU have changed their respective fields. The Patriots went from establishing a dynasty with three Super Bowl wins in four years to forging a monopoly on how the game is researched and played. The MCU went from Iron Man’s stunning $100 million opening weekend to Infinity War grossing $106 million on its opening day to whatever unconscionable number Endgame is about to put up. With Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski retiring, Tom Brady theoretically close to the end, and the MCU (as we’ve come to know it), winding down, it’s got me reflecting on both. The different iterations of the Patriots all have their pros and cons, and I’m hard-pressed to pick a favorite team from their run. I’d probably go with the 2007 tragic juggernaut that lost at the end or the 2014 squad that upset the Seahawks.
Picking a favorite MCU movie is much easier. My heart has been won over by a movie about a teeny tiny hero with a giant heart. Rudd is Brady, the superstar sacrificing a little bit of the glory so the whole team can shine. Ant-Man and the Wasp is Malcolm Butler making the goal-line interception to seal it.
Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.