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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Ant-Man and the Wasp is an easy, breezy, meaningless entry.)

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe increases in bombast, it needs the occasional palette-cleanser. The bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron was followed by Ant-Man, a heist film in the vein of a studio comedy. Similarly, the gargantuan Avengers: Infinity War was succeeded by Ant-Man and the Wasp. The Ant-Man films are as literal as “going smaller” gets, focusing not only on shrinking superheroes, but on intimate father-daughter dynamics, thus steering the MCU away from its usually apocalyptic stakes.

As with its predecessor, though, Ant-Man and the Wasp begs the question: is smaller inherently better when it comes to superheroes?

For what feels like the first time since Thor: The Dark World, a Marvel movie fails to be about anything in particular. Ant-Man and the Wasp is hardly a contender for bottom spot — it’s too well-meaning, and its supporting cast is too likable for the film to be truly worthless — and it breaks from Marvel’s traditions in notable ways. A handful of these deviations are refreshing. For instance, tonal consistency, along with visual and aural filmmaking that actually matches it. Other departures however, render the film thematically vapid, making it stick out even further in a series so otherwise loaded.  

ant-man and the wasp clip

Marvel and Meaning

Marvel Studios rarely goes all-on on dramatizing its themes; the series’ priority is entertainment above all else, including meaning. But while its latent ideas rarely come to the fore, they form a framework within which its narratives operate.

The Iron Man films, confused though they may be, center on the idea of a reformed weapons manufacturer wrestling with political power. And while entries like Iron Man and Iron Man 2 are colossally paradoxical — both films were funded and approved by the U.S. military, as were Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel — the backdrop of politics and military conflict makes for fertile narrative ground, propaganda or otherwise. Even Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, space-operas bookended by showy theatrics, are grounded in themes of abuse and emotional barriers.

The Marvel films all follow a particular roadmap when it comes to dramatic expression. Fictitious entities or antagonists stand-in for real ones so as not to ruffle political feathers, while heroes, more often than not, come to some realization about their responsibility or trauma that ultimately makes them punch harder. Twenty movies in, this structure is admittedly frustrating, but it provides a sense of momentum.

Even a film like Avengers: Infinity War — so engorged by disconnected ideas that it required not one, but two of these deep-dives — ends up striking a chord, because its characters adhere to familiar dramatic textures. They want. They need. They’re held back by their own egos, even if a lack of lasting consequences prevents their stories from amounting to very much. That Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t feel like any Marvel movie ought to be a blessing. However, the film never attempts to replace the Marvel formula with a workable alternative.

The heroes and apparent villains share the same objectives, so the film features no real external antagonist. This reprieve centers likable characters without the need for bitterness, but there’s little internal conflict either. The story forgoes pretense in the realm of political statement, but its personal dynamics have little to say. It refuses to fall back on the usually exhausting Marvel climax, but instead of big battles and far-too-smooth mayhem, it offers almost no climax at all.

Ant-Man and the Wasp proves, at once, how little underlies the Marvel formula when its specifics are stripped away, and yet how effective that formula is for popcorn entertainment.

Fathers and Daughters

First things first: Abby Ryder Fortson ought to be a regular fixture of the Marvel Universe. As Cassie, daughter of Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), she injects the Ant-Man series with a sense of genuine warmth, something she’s been doing effortlessly since the age of six. Cassie is an all-time great movie kid, and Fortson’s screen-presence opposite Rudd gives Ant-Man and the Wasp its glimmer of childlike mischief.

Cassie, a future Avenger herself (the comics’ Stature) is barely fazed by giant ants. In fact, she greets them with a smile. Her scenes are never twee, in that mechanical way that makes you wonder if the filmmakers have ever met an actual child. And while she’s never the center of the sequel’s conflict, her doe-eyed, jokey dynamic with her father inspires the best in him.

This helps the film outdo its predecessor in one vital way. Characters like Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) no longer need to stop the film in its tracks to extemporize Lang’s story. This time, Lang attempting to be worthy of his daughter is an implicit backdrop, rather than a repetitive promise of an arc that never fully manifests.

Like the first film, the father-daughter dynamics here are central to the story. It opens in flashback, with Pym re-explaining the disappearance of his wife Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the original Wasp, to his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). Though the prologue doesn’t hint at Pym’s subsequent aloofness during Hope’s childhood. This earlier conflict between the two characters disappears entirely, despite never really being resolved in Ant-Man.

The purpose of this opening, however, is to establish that Janet might still be alive in the Quantum Realm, and that the heroes will spend the remainder of the film trying to get her out. The scene is functional, and it hints at the film’s heist-like nature, thus injecting a deeply personal element into familiar genres. But this foundational sequence never sets up anything resembling emotional friction for Hope, Pym or Lang.

The father-daughter scientist duo is now on the run, thanks to Lang’s actions in Captain America: Civil War. They hold a slight grudge against Lang for this. However, they never have to work through their conceptions of him in order to enlist his help — his memories of the Quantum Realm are vital to saving Janet — nor does Lang take any concrete steps to earn back their trust.  

The film’s third father-daughter duo features the closest thing to dramatic tension. Bill Foster (Laurence Fisburne), Pym’s spurned former college, looks after Ava Starr a.k.a. Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen). The accident that killed Ava’s parents also suspended her in a state of painful quantum phasing; her cells continually dislodge and re-align, and she appears to constantly travel a few seconds backward and forward in time.

Ava wants to extract Janet from the Quantum Realm too, though she hopes to use the energy Janet has absorbed in order to save herself from agony. According to the other characters, this procedure will likely kill Janet. Foster intends to assist Ava but their methods often clash, with Foster colouring within moral lines while Ava grows desperate enough to consider kidnapping Lang’s daughter. Though after a brief, stern exchange between Ava and Foster, neither this idea, nor anything like it, crops up a second time.

Ava partially shares her objective with the heroes. That they both wish to retrieve Janet from the Quantum Realm is potentially momentous — several action scenes feature Ava and Hope fighting over tech — but given the way the film is structured, (both its plot, and its emotional mechanics) this similarity has little to no bearing on how the story plays out.

There even comes a point, less than half way through the film, where nearly everything is resolved.

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