Friday, July 6, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Diminutive delight

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.6.18

OK, this character is growing on me.

If only a bit.

With FBI agents and criminal mercenaries determined to snatch her father's technology,
Hope (Evangeline Lilly) prepares for battle as the Wasp, while Scott (Paul Rudd)
reluctantly suits up as Ant-Man.
2015’s Ant-Man was a train wreck, due to its insufferably smug tone and an over-reliance on Three Stooges-style farce: a rare miscalculation in the carefully plotted Marvel Universe franchise.

This sequel, having nowhere to go but up, wisely executed a course correction. Star Paul Rudd is less haughty, and therefore more sympathetic; co-star Evangeline Lilly’s considerably expanded role is a welcome change; the characters’ size-shifting abilities are put to much better use; returning director Peyton Reed toned down the gratuitous slapstick; and — definitely a relief — the core plot is grounded in a manner wholly removed from the universe-shattering consequences of recent Marvel entries.

The villains here have sensible real-world motives: greed and self-preservation.

Best of all, the script — fine-tuned by no fewer than five credited writers, along with (no doubt) more behind the scenes — blends the obligatory action with plenty of larkish banter, all well delivered at a slow-burn tempo.

Points, as well, to whoever thought to reference 1954’s Them!

All this said, there’s still a sense that The Powers That Be don’t quite know what to do with this character: that he’s a second-string joke not granted the respect that his abilities should demand. Again, this may be down to Rudd — a credited co-scripter — who rarely looks like he’s taking any of this seriously.

The same could be said of Chris Pratt’s handling of Peter Quill, in the adjacent Guardians of the Galaxy series … but Pratt has a better acting range, and is a helluva lot more charming.


The “busted” Scott Lang (Rudd) remains under house arrest, thanks to his illegal alliance with Captain America, in 2016’s Civil War. Scott is a mere three days away from being freed from the ankle monitor that prevents outer-world quality time with beloved daughter Cassie (cute-as-a-button Abby Ryder Fortson). Happily, relations with ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her new companion Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) have improved; they’re now sympathetic to Scott’s plight.

Elsewhere, genius scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Lilly), long on the run from government agents, have been building a massive “quantum tunnel” with which they hope to find Hank’s long-lost wife — and Hope’s mother — Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer). Thirty years earlier, when Hank and Janet were the original Ant-Man and Wasp, she saved thousands of lives by shrinking below the molecular level: a brave act of self-sacrifice from which there was no return.

At least, that’s what Hank thought at the time. Technological advances have given him hope that Janet might be found and retrieved, even after all this time. To that end, he and Hope have concealed themselves behind aliases, in order to buy black-market tech from gangster Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins). Alas, he just learned who they really are, and now wants to weaponize Hank’s research to the highest criminal bidder.

To make matters worse, another adversary enters the picture: the white-cloaked Ghost, with the ability to temporarily “phase” out of our reality. She’s actually Ava (Hannah John-Kamen), a vengeful and increasingly desperate woman whose power is both painful and largely uncontrolled. She has survived this long with help from scientist Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), a long-estranged former colleague of Hank’s.

But Foster’s intervention has reached its limit; Ava has mere weeks before her body will discorporate forever. More telling, she (unfairly) blames Hank for the long-ago lab accident that created her condition, which gives her a serious case of righteous fury.

Sidebar characters include Scott’s business partner Luis (Michael Peña) and their two numb-nuts employees, Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris); Scott’s socially inept FBI handler, Randall Park (Jimmy Woo); and Sonny’s trio of thugs, led by Uzman (Divian Ladwa), an adept hand at chemically induced interrogation.

All become involved in the repeated loss and retrieval of (first) a dictionary-size gizmo, and (subsequently) Hank’s entire multi-story lab. Thanks to his shrinking technology, the latter can be reduced to the size of a carry-on suitcase, complete with handle and wheels.

I should remind folks, at this point, that Hank simultaneously developed a means of controlling molecular density, which means that Scott (reluctantly resuming his role as Ant-Man) and Hope (taking over as the Wasp) can deliver full-strength punches while rapidly blipping between ant-size and full size.

It also (presumably) means that Hank’s lab doesn’t weigh as much as the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, when it’s being pulled around and even carried (!).

Needless to say, our quaint notions of physics really must be discarded, when approaching this film. On top of which, one can’t help wondering, with Ghost constantly phasing through solid objects — sometimes uncontrollably — why she doesn’t simply sink through the floor on a one-way trip to the Earth’s core. Details, details.

Basically, the whole film is an extended game of Hot Potato played out through the streets of San Francisco: on foot, while astride winged ants, or via vehicular chases given clever comedic heft by the good guys’ ability to shrink their wheels when advantageous. And yes, we even get a chase down Lombard Street. (Cut them some slack; it’s been awhile since that cliché was properly exploited.)

And, as we learned in Civil War, the not-quite-accurately named Ant-Man also has the ability to get larger, which is put to droll use more than once. Visual effects supervisors Stephane Ceretti and Dan Sudick were kept quite busy; this film makes excellent use of its amusing and cunningly employed rat-a-tat CGI efforts.

Minor dollops of father/daughter heartstring-tugging are provided by Rudd and Fortson, who share several quietly charming scenes. It’s nice to see, amid the chaos, that Lang keeps his eye on the real prize, and doesn’t want to screw up his chance to be freed from FBI hyper-supervision.

Lilly is persuasive as a resourceful super-heroine, and John-Kamen effectively slides between tragic victim and enraged psychopath. Douglas is appropriately cranky; Fishburne is unexpectedly honorable; and Goggins — as always — is a hoot as a debonair villain with homicidal tendencies.

Peña has a lot of fun with an extended sequence resulting from Luis’ exposure to truth serum.

None of this has the gravitas of an average Marvel Universe entry, which is fine; there’s nothing wrong with a playful, light-hearted romp, and the cast clearly has a good time. As, I suspect, will most viewers.

But some will find it odd, given the rigorously meticulous planning and cross-cutting that takes place between every Marvel Universe entry, that absolutely no mention is made here, of the fact that half the world’s population — and superheroes — vanished in a puff of smoke a few months earlier, due to the cataclysmic events in Avengers: Infinity War. The apparent continuity lapse has fueled all manner of fan speculation, but the simplest answer seems most likely: Ant-Man’s sophomore effort takes place post-Captain America: Civil War, but prior to Infinity War.

All told, then, Ant-Man and the Waspi s pure popcorn. Kick back, have a good time, and — if only briefly — forget about the impending sturm und drang of next year’s Avengers wrap-up. Things’ll get serious again, soon enough…

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