ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: Come On, Get Happy

We used to have record albums (the old man yelled at the cloud). LPs, they were called, for long play. When bands made LPs they did something called sequencing, which was putting their songs in a specific order intended to bring the listener for a journey. You weren’t supposed to skip around the LP, and there was no way to shuffle the songs, so you would drop the needle at the beginning and listen through until the end. It feels archaic today, the idea of sitting down and listening to an album in full (and getting up to flip it over in the middle!), so archaic that it has become retrohip, and even Hot Topic sells vinyl LPs. But I think that with the heyday of the LP and the heyday of albums behind us, we have also lost the heyday of sequencing.

Good sequencing would build over the course of an album side, getting up to a crescendo of intensity and pace, and then perhaps pulling it back for a sonic palate cleanser. Think about Rubber Soul, by The Beatles (UK version) – side one ends with Michelle, with its French cabaret feel, and side two opens with a blast of zany country as Ringo sings What Goes On. That creates the space needed for the band to go in a totally different direction with Girl, which has a Greek folk sound. By putting the Ringo country song in between these two European love songs The Beatles create an experience for us that transcends the individual songs.

In 2018 Marvel Studios has accomplished a major feat of cinematic sequencing. Opening the year with Black Panther they got us revved up, excited, triumphant. Then came Avengers: Infinity War, which ends on one of the all-time down notes (for post-Beneath the Planet of the Apes blockbusters, anyway). But that isn’t the finale – the album isn’t over – and so they’ve wisely programmed Ant-Man and the Wasp right afterwards, giving us a small breather, a little bit of space before leaping back into the fray next year.

Which isn’t to say Ant-Man and the Wasp is the MCU equivalent of a Ringo song… although maybe it is? I think Ringo’s songs get dismissed out of hand, but some of the warmest Beatles tracks have Ringo vocals. With A Little Help From My Friends is a classic, and Ringo’s crooked vocals make that song. Yellow Submarine is a song that might outlive the very concept of The Beatles, but they needed Ringo to make that track work. There’s a warmth to Ringo’s quirky style, and he sings in a way that is friendly and positive for kids, like Octopus’ Garden. And Ringo songs are perfect for the exact sequencing of Beatles albums, breaking up the flow in a way that allows us to catch our breaths and get ready for what is next. They’re FUN.

So okay, Ant-Man and the Wasp IS a Ringo song. It’s the Yellow Submarine of Marvel Phase Three, a bouncy number about friendship and adventure. And, like Ringo’s drumming itselfAnt-Man and the Wasp could be underestimated amidst the sturm und drang of the end of Marvel Phase Three. But it shouldn’t be, as Ant-Man and the Wasp opens beautiful doors in the blockbuster universe, reminding us of just what stakes can be, and showing why villainy is a very limiting quality for antagonists.

Set two years after the events of Captain America: Civil WarAnt-Man and the Wasp finds Scott Lang finishing up his stint of house arrest, living in absolutely sweet domestic harmony. He has turned his San Francisco home into a playground for himself and daughter Cassie, who visits on weekends. When his ex-wife and her new husband come to visit they are supportive and loving. Scott’s ready to leave the house and take his place at X-Con, a new security company he’s founded with Luis and the other ex-cons from the last movie (Luis lives with him). All is well, even if the FBI keeps showing up because Scott accidentally brings his ankle monitor outside the perimeter of the house.

It’s not all sweetness and light, though. Scott hasn’t talked to Hank Pym or Hope Van Dyne in two years, since he took off with the Ant-Man suit to Germany and didn’t tell them. But when he has a bizarre dream wherein he IS Janet Van Dyne, who disappeared into the Quantum Realm 30 years back, he makes a phone call… and finds himself caught up in their attempts to get into the Quantum Realm and rescue Janet.

To do that they’ll need to build a “Quantum Tunnel,” and that requires a special component they have to buy on the black market. But when their supplier, Sonny Burch, realizes what they’re up to he refuses to hand over the part unless he gets a piece of the action – he realizes the Quantum Realm opens up new possibilities for energy, and thus new avenues to make money. While Hope is dealing with Sonny and his goons, a new player shows up – a grey-suited figure that phases through matter, a rogue element who comes to be known as The Ghost.

So here’s your plot: Hank and Hope have a limited window to get down to the Quantum Realm to save Janet. They need Scott’s help, but he’s under house arrest and breaking it would land him 20 automatic years in prison. Sonny Burch’s boys want the Quantum Tunnel tech – and so does The Ghost, for reasons that become not only clear but compelling.

None of those reasons are to save and/or end the world. We talk about stakes a lot in modern blockbusters (too much, if you ask me), and Infinity War – which had half the universe be destroyed – really took the concept of ‘stakes’ and cranked it up to 11, so it’s refreshing that Ant-Man and the Wasp dials the stakes down to just about 0. If everything went poorly in this movie, nobody outside of the characters involved would know. A couple of lives hang in the balance, but one has been missing for 30 years and the other is an occasionally immaterial assassin. Worst case scenario is that some unsavory types get the Quantum Tunnel technology and end up cornering a new energy market and getting really rich.

But don’t confuse the lightness with being a lark. Sure, the fate of the world isn’t in question, but the emotions and relationships of these characters is, and that’s where real stakes lie. What’s charming about Ant-Man and the Wasp is that even these stakes are fairly ‘low,’ because we like these characters the stakes of X-Con getting the big deal it needs, or Scott making his relationship with his daughter work, can carry the same weight as getting the Infinity Stones. I think too often we confuse ‘light’ with ‘meaningless,’ or ‘dark’ with ‘serious’ (see: the DCEU), and Ant-Man and the Wasp proves you can have a light movie with low stakes that still feel emotionally present. You don’t need to be all twisted up with stress during a movie for the stakes to land and feel real. It’s refreshing to watch a blockbuster where the conflict isn’t based on endless violence or hatred.

At the heart of Ant-Man and the Wasp is a movie about finding family, and about how important it is to communicate with them. Most of the film’s complications come from communication breakdowns, with characters simply not telling one another what they need or asking for help. In fact, most of the film’s central conflict could have been solved if The Ghost had simply asked Hank Pym for some help. Scott’s problems with Hank and Hope wouldn’t exist if he had simply thought to tell them he was going to Germany. He wouldn’t have been arrested in Germany if he had asked Hope for help. And there are a bunch of third act complications that only happen because Scott doesn’t tell Hank and Hope what he’s doing with Luis and the X-Cons.

But Scott does communicate with his daughter. In one of my favorite scenes in the film he sits with Cassie and has a heart-to-heart about his situation, and about the things he needs to do that might land him in jail. Wonderfully enough, his young daughter talks him not only into continuing to be a superhero in the face of everything, she convinces him that what he needs is a partner (she means herself, and that is a path she takes in the comics… one that leads to her death (and resurrection. It’s comics)). This is the heart of the movie, the idea that you can’t do it alone, and that you should talk about what you need.

Along the way the film opens up the mythos of the Pym Particle corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Quantum Realm starts to seem like a big deal, and while we’re still basically being teased with it (will Ant-Man 3 be set largely in the Quantum Realm? I’m guessing that’s a possibility), it’s exciting. And Hank Pym’s history comes more into focus with the introduction of Bill Foster, aka (Black) Goliath. The Ghost also expands some of the backstory in a direction that adds depth to the MCU – when Nick Fury shows up in Iron Man telling Tony Stark he isn’t the first superhero, these are some of the characters he’s talking about.

Bill Foster is especially interesting. I’m gonna get into some minor spoilers here, so be warned. His relationship with Hank Pym is… complicated, to say the least. In the comics Hank is truly fucked up – suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder, a wife beater, occasional villain – but in the MCU Hank has been modulated down from being abusive to being an enormous asshole. It’s sort of like the way Tony Stark’s alcoholism got sublimated into other less extreme issues in Iron Man 2, but the dialing down of Hank works better for the movies, because him beating Janet would be a story point from which he could never recover.

Bill helps us contextualize just what kind of an asshole Hank is; they worked together decades ago at SHIELD, but Bill left because he couldn’t stand his partner/boss anymore. The two men disagree over whether Bill left or was fired, but I get the sense that Bill is telling the real story. At any rate, Bill is working with The Ghost to get quantum tech from Hank and Hope, tech that could save The Ghost’s life. Because of his long standing grudge against Hank, Bill can’t simply go ask him for the help, and so they end up butting heads.

But Bill is coming from a place of familial caring. More spoilers here – it turns out that The Ghost is actually the daughter of a SHIELD co-worker, a girl who was exposed to quantum energy in an explosion that killed her family but that gave her the barely controlled ability to put her atoms out of phase. Bill, blaming Hank for the accident, took the girl under his wing even as the SHIELD higher ups saw that she was a valuable asset and trained her to be a silent, literally untouchable assassin.

Bill’s motivations are complicated, and because he’s a human being he can’t just put aside his Hank issues and go to the man for help in getting The Ghost into permanent phase. So he finds himself working with this assassin he raised like a daughter, trying to save her life while also keeping her from behaving in the extreme ways that SHIELD trained her to act.

Laurence Fishburne is perfect casting for this; he brings the weight of Morpheus and Furious Styles to the role, a comforting paternal figure with a low key slyness. That makes the reveal of his role all the more shocking – he’s the bad guy?!? But of course he isn’t, and in another version of this movie we’re watching Bill and The Ghost set up their own heist of tech from that asshole villain Hank Pym.

Scott, who has such a problem communicating, becomes the center of all communication between Janet and her family. It seems that when he briefly went subatomic in Ant-Man he actually encountered Janet, and she did…. something to him that allowed Scott to become a psychic conduit to the Quantum Realm. His dream happened when Hank and Hope briefly opened their first tunnel; later Janet actually possesses Scott and helps Hank set up the machinery to rescue her.

It’s a great scene. Paul Rudd plays Michelle Pfeiffer pretty wonderfully, not going campy with it but still keeping things this side of goofy. Watching him stroke Michael Douglas’ cheek is simultaneously sweet and silly. It’s interesting that Scott’s big moment of communication comes when it’s not even himself at the wheel, although the subtext of the scene is that Scott IS a part of this family.

Communication issues plague the X-Cons as well, by the way, as Luis is subjected to a truth serum and tells his co-workers some secrets about the business that they perhaps should have known all along. What’s nice here is that this scene allows the movie to explore you can obfuscate with over-communication – when asked where Scott Lang is, Luis launches into a long, tangent-filled story like the one that won fans’ hearts in the first film.

With the first Ant-Man there were many questions about what came from original director Edgar Wright. Many of the guesses were wrong (Luis’ speech and the Cure song, for instance, came from Peyton Reed), but you can still see the nature of Edgar Wright’s storytelling in the bones of the film. Wright is a watchmaker as a storyteller, a superbly intricate plotweaver, and one of the joys of watching his films is seeing all the payoffs from the subtle setups. But Ant-Man and the Wasp is shaggier, and I mean that in a very complimentary way. If the first film was a heist movie, this is a chase film with reversals and betrayals along the way. Nobody’s got a master plan in this one.

What’s more, this movie is decidedly uncool. Again, this is a huge compliment (Ringo isn’t cool, after all), and I think Peyton Reed’s filmography is full of uncool, incredibly earnest movies. There’s not a lot of irony in the guy’s film work (which is impressive, as he’s an incredibly gifted comedic director with lots of ironic material on TV and in shortform), and he wears his heart on his sleeve. Reed lets us know that he’s unafraid to be corny by opening his film with The Partridge Family’s Come On Get Happy. That’s not a deep cut, a weird B-side, or an underappreciated track that highlights the group’s true artistry – it’s the fucking theme song of the TV show. It’s a blaringly corny track that is deeply, immediately associated with a very corny show. And yet Reed’s not deploying it with sarcasm – it’s scoring a scene that shows us that things are going pretty well for Scott!

I love this. Earnestness is the new punk rock, and ironic distance and sarcasm belong to the Republicans and Pepe 4Chan trolls. By the way, it’s worth noting that as a music video director, Reed is part of the generation of artists that ironically embraced the songs of the 70s. But now the irony is gone.

But that earnestness doesn’t stop the movie from being very, very funny. What’s impressive about Ant-Man and the Wasp (script by Community powerhouse Chris McKenna, along with Erik Sommers, and Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari) is that it gets lots of laughs without making anything inherently silly. This isn’t sitcom stuff, and the characters themselves are funny. There’s one scene that’s a little situational – Scott’s size regulator is broken and he is shrunk to child-sized while infiltrating a grade school – but even that ends up feeling character oriented, as it literalizes the relationship between Scott and Hope (she is sort of a maternal figure to this manchild, albeit a sexual one).

And that earnestness doesn’t stop the film from being breathtakingly clever in the way it utilizes the ability to change size. Ant-Man and the Wasp feels like a film where everyone involved sat down and figured out their bucket list of size-changing gags and tried to work as many into the proceedings as possible. The final car chase through San Francisco is absolutely a joy, filled with inventive and clever uses of Ant-Man and the Wasp’s powers.

Speaking of the Wasp, I guess as this review draws to a close this is the place to bring my one real gripe about the film: there’s not enough Janet Van Dyne. And when she does pop up at the end, there’s not enough filled in about her circumstances, or how she survived 30 years at the subatomic level. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dummy – they’ll explore this in the third film – but I still wanted more. Marvel got Michelle Pfeiffer, and she’s wonderful in a small number of scenes, but it would have been nice to get more of her.

By not having as much Janet, we lose out on some of Hope’s story. Hope grew up without her mom, thinking she was dead, and now she has the opportunity to get her back. But the film sublimates most of the emotional aspects of that into Hope being very, very focused on her mission. That’s fine, and I think it’s sort of standard action movie stuff, but it feels like a loss. I’ll be honest – I’m still not sold on Evangeline Lilly’s range, and so maybe stoic and sort of annoyed is the best fit for her in a movie, but I would have liked to see more scenes that delved into her relationship with her mom from her point of view. Scott gets all the emotional beats, and Hank gets a couple, but Hope feels all business in this movie until the very end.

Still, knowing Marvel’s certainly going to round out this trilogy (Jesus, an Ant-Man trilogy? Who could have ever hoped) takes some of the edge off. Perhaps the next movie will have the space to have more Michelle Pfeiffer and give her some scenes with Lilly. I mean, Janet’s most emotional scene with Hope is when she’s controlling Scott’s body, so I’d like to see the actual actress take a shot at having a deeply emotional scene with her cinematic daughter.

That is a minor complaint, by the way. Nobody promised me either a rose garden or more Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s simply that if you have Michelle Pfeiffer I’d like to see you use more of her, especially when she’s got Michael Douglas off of whom to bounce.

But otherwise Ant-Man and the Wasp is a delight, a movie that might get dismissed as a lark but that I think has lots of wonderfully beautiful deep love within it. It’s a sweet, uncool, earnest movie about family and communication, that’s clever without being self-satisfied, that’s in love with its characters, who are all in love with each other. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to watch Bobby Cannavale hug Paul Rudd – a current husband hugging an ex-husband – and not have the movie play it for a moment of jealous or homophobic discomfort (Scott has SOME discomfort, but that stems from his inability to communicate how he feels). It would be so easy and cheap to make Cannavale a bad guy here, but why?

Scott gets by with a little help from his friends, after all.