Paul Rudd as Ant Man and Evangeline Lilly as Wasp in Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) (IMDB)

The Obstacles in ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ Are Not Typical of MCU

Peyton Reed's "Disney-fied" Ant-Man and the Wasp is unchallenging in all the best ways.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018) is the 50th Marvel film since Blade (Norrington, 1998) began the boom of Marvel Films that we are currently experiencing. It’s also the 20th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a series of interconnected Marvel Films that began with Iron Man (Favreau, 2008). Despite these significant numerical milestones, however, it’s easy to write off the film as inconsequential, even forgettable.

Ant-Man and the Wasp was the third MCU film of 2018. While the first two, Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) and Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018), were record-breaking cultural phenomena, Ant-Man and the Wasp was modestly successful. It’s the lowest-grossing film of the MCU’s entire 11-film ‘Phase Three’, running from 2016 to 2019. The film also didn’t carry much narrative weight for the larger shared universe. Ant-Man and the Wasp is a breezy, fun MCU caper film released just two months after Avengers: Infinity War, which ends with Thanos snapping away half of all life in the universe. Given that, it would be easy for even the most devoted MCU fan to wonder why they should care about this film.

Then again, perhaps a breezy, fun, small-scale, low-stakes film was exactly the right thing to release at that point. I praised Ant-Man (Reed, 2015) as a wonderful palette cleanser for the MCU, a superhero heist film that offers a respite from galaxy-ending or world-destroying threats so often depicted in major blockbusters. Ant-Man is quieter, less splashy, and it helps balance out the massive spectacles.

The massive success of the MCU gave Marvel Studios licence to adapt stranger, more niche comic book properties such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr. Strange and Ant-Man. There’s something quaint about the studio behind the Avengers films making two (to-date) films about Ant-Man. Beyond that, many elements from Ant-Man and the Wasp would soon be incorporated more deeply into the overarching MCU storyline with Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019), making Ant-Man and the Wasp more significant retroactively.

The other somewhat significant element of Ant-Man and the Wasp is the prominent inclusion of the Wasp. Black Widow is the most significant female superhero in the MCU, and there are other female Avengers, female Guardians of the Galaxy and strong female characters. But before this film, no female superhero had been featured in the title of an MCU film until Ant-Man and the Wasp. Eight months later, Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck, 2019) would deliver a far more female-centric MCU film, and be co-directed by a woman. And yet, bringing the Wasp to the big screen (and to the title) was a nice, overdue step in the right direction for the MCU.

Janet van Dyne/Wasp is a significant character in Marvel Comics history. Created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Ernie Hart for Tales to Astonish #44 (June 1963), Janet first appears as the young, flighty daughter of a scientist colleague of Dr. Hank Pym/Ant-Man. In that issue, she becomes Pym’s lab assistant, partner in crime-fighting and love interest. Like Pym, she is given the ability to shrink using his Pym Particles. Unlike Pym, she is also fitted with wings and ‘stingers’ while she is small. Ant-Man and Wasp stories continued in Tales to Astonish but, more importantly, Janet became the only female founding member of the Avengers when they formed in The Avengers #1 (September 1963). Most of her important stories tended to appear in the pages of The Avengers rather than her own book.

In the ’60s and early ’70s, Janet was depicted very one-dimensionally as a ditzy, flirty, overly-feminine caricature. She was typically unfocused and weak in battles. Later writers were much more effective at incorporating Janet’s stereotypical femininity into a more fleshed out character. In late ’70s and early ’80s comics, Hank Pym’s character becomes more troubled, dealing with anger and insecurities. He famously hits Janet, then his wife, in a domestic dispute. For that he’s kicked out of the Avengers.

As Pym faded from the comics, Janet rose. She is the official leader of the Avengers throughout most of the ’80s and is second only to Captain America as longest-serving leader of the team. Despite her being a founding member of the Avengers, one of its longest-serving leaders, and a Marvel Comics mainstay, it took 20 Marvel films to fully depict her on-screen.

There are narrative complications around the character. The writers of Ant-Man chose to focus on Scott Lang, a character who inherits the mantle of Ant-Man from an older Hank Pym. Allusions are made to Janet, Hank’s wife, who disappeared while saving a city from a missile 30 years earlier. The implication in Ant-Man is that Hank and Janet’s daughter, Hope, would become the Wasp in a sequel.

But a sequel was not a sure thing. In October 2014, nine months before the release of Ant-Man, Marvel Studios announced nine films as part of their Phase Three plan — that didn’t include a second Ant-Man film. Success of the first film was not a given at that point. When Ant-Man was well-received and moderately successful, Marvel Studios rearranged the Phase Three schedule to incorporate a sequel.

Marvel also boosted the popularity of Ant-Man by including the character in Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016) alongside nearly every other MCU hero. That film grossed about twice as much as Ant-Man and included a couple of standout moments for the character. Marvel seemed to be putting its full support behind its smallest hero.

The main cast of Ant-Man signed on to return for the sequel, as did director Peyton Reed. Reed was a last minute replacement on the first film after Edgar Wright (who had developed Ant-Man for a decade, wrote the script and cast the film) left the project over creative differences with Marvel. Reed deserves a lot of credit for crafting such a strong film despite the behind the scenes tumult. For the sequel, Reed had the opportunity to build the film from the beginning. After several hints in the first film, Reed insisted on the inclusion of Janet in the sequel, organizing the entire plot around rescuing her from the impossibly small quantum realm. Thus, the title simultaneously refers to the older (Hank and Janet) and younger (Scott and Hope) generations of Ant-Man and the Wasp.

The sequel maintains the themes of restoring familial bonds from the first film, as well as the smaller-scale and lighter tone. The sequel also follows the first film’s crime caper plotting. Whereas Ant-Man was a heist film, the sequel’s filmmakers were more inspired by the novels of Elmore Leonard. These typically feature large casts of colourful criminals acting at cross-purposes, creating endless obstacles and complications for the heroes. I would go so far as to say there’s no real villain in Ant-Man and the Wasp, just obstacles.

The film could most-closely be compared to the Disney family adventure films of the ’50s and ’60s. Tonally, it feels like a modern version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Fleischer, 1954) or even The Absent-Minded Professor (Stevenson, 1961). This is not a sleight in the least. Ant-Man and the Wasp is a good-natured, family-friendly science-fiction adventure film that’s very much like the live-action Disney films of that era. Beyond the lack of villains, the film also features straightforward but imaginative technology that is exploited for exciting or funny gags for all ages.

When Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment at the end of 2009, there was a fear amongst some Marvel fans that Marvel comics and films would become “Disney-fied”; that is, any sharp edges or mature themes would be completely removed to conform to Disney’s family-friendly brand. Ant-Man and the Wasp is the kind of film that those fans feared, but it’s the only MCU film produced along those lines. Consequently, the film is pleasant and different. This is the film that Marvel fans can show to their young children as an introduction to the MCU. It’s fun, funny, exciting, colourful and unchallenging in all the best ways.

That’s the good news. The bad news it’s also inconsequential. There are several supporting characters the offer nothing to the story other than perfunctory complications or fun gags. Also, by continuing the themes of the first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp limits the development of its main characters. The first film is about fathers and daughters rebuilding their relationships, whereas the sequel sees them simply maintain those relationships, which is far less interesting. The two leads, Scott and Hope, develop from an argumentative relationship to a romantic relationship in the first film. The sequel begins with them broken up and not speaking, allowing them to once again develop from an argumentative relationship to a romantic relationship.

Treading the same character ground is a property of poor or unimaginative sequels. The lack of strong character development or purpose is most crushing when it comes to the Wasps, given that the film’s marketing focused on the importance of introducing a key female superhero. Since rescuing Janet is the ultimate goal of the story, she only appears at the end. Meanwhile, Hope should be equal to Scott in terms of screentime and development, but she’s disappointingly underserved. She has a good relationship with her father, rekindles her romance with Scott, and wants to find her mother. That’s the extent of Hope’s inner life.

The film opens in the late-’80s with Janet van Dyne/Wasp (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Hank Pym/Ant-Man (Michael Douglas) saying goodbye to their young daughter, Hope (Madeleine McGraw), before leaving on a ‘business trip.’ In voiceover, Hank explains that they are on a mission to stop a missile from striking a city. They land on the missile in their shrunken superhero forms, but are only able to stop it by shrinking to a subatomic size. Janet did so in the past, stopping the missile, but she shrunk uncontrollably into the quantum realm. Hank concluded that no one could return from the quantum realm.

But Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) did just that in the climax of Ant-Man. After the events of that film Hank, with his grown daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), begins building a quantum tunnel capable of finding Janet and rescuing her from the quantum realm. This is the narrative drive of the film, and everything else that happens simply serve as complications or obstacles to their success.

Three years later, Scott is estranged from Hank and Hope after the events of Captain America: Civil War. In that film, the United Nations ratifies an agreement stating that all super-powered individuals should operate under governmental oversight. This and other personal drama splits the Avengers, leading to a climactic brawl in Germany. Captain America recruits Scott to his side, and the fight features the thrilling first on-screen depiction of Scott growing into Giant Man. However, in the aftermath, Scott is arrested and charged with unlicensed superheroing.

When Ant-Man and the Wasp opens, he has spent nearly two years under house arrest in San Francisco, supervised by FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park). Scott passes his time inside with drumming, toy bowling, expert rubber ball bouncing, singing karaoke, reading young adult novels and learning close-up magic. He also remotely works on his security start-up with his friend Luis (Michael Pena), and builds incredible cardboard forts and slides for his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Forstan). I’m currently writing this article in self-isolation during the COVID-19 crisis, so I can fully relate to Scott’s stir craziness. Scott’s main motivation is to be a responsible parent for Cassie, but that was his motivation in the first film as well.

Unfortunately, Scott’s battle in Germany also exposed the work of Hank and Hope, making them fugitives. They no longer speak to him. But Scott has only three days left in his house arrest, a great relationship with Cassie, his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her husband Jim (Bobby Cannavale), an exciting new business, and he hopes to get his life back on track. Then Scott has a dream about the quantum realm and experiences one of Janet’s memories. The vision is strange enough for him to call Hank.

Almost immediately, Scott is knocked out and taken by Hope in a miniaturized SUV to a nondescript grey building that houses her lab and the quantum tunnel. This impressively retro sci-fi set is the largest set built for an MCU film up to this point.

Hank explains that they tested the quantum tunnel at the exact moment Scott had his vision. They opened a gateway to the quantum realm and Janet reached out to them through Scott. They deduce that Scott must have become entangled with Janet in the quantum realm, so they need his help to rescue her. But Scott only cares about his house arrest, and the danger of breaking parole right before it ends. This is how Scott’s situation becomes an obstacle to saving Janet: he wants to help, but he’s constantly afraid of being caught and jeopardizing his freedom on the cusp of a fresh start.

Fortunately, Hope programmed an enlarged ant to live in Scott’s house, mimicking his daily routine and wearing an ankle bracelet. This leads to sight gags such as a giant ant lounging on the couch eating Froot Loops. The house arrest obstacle still arises occasionally.

Hank and Hope have been on the run since Scott was arrested. They travel in various cars that shrink down to toy size and are stored in a case. Even better, their lab building shrinks down to the size of a suitcase, complete with wheels and an extendable handle. They have nearly finished the quantum tunnel, but require one more component. Acquiring the component brings in the next obstacle to saving Janet: Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins)

Burch specializes in trading black market technology, but he has figured out that Hope and Hank are building a quantum lab. When Hope attempts to buy the final component, Burch offers to buy her lab for $1 billion on behalf of a secret backer. Hope refuses, and Burch spends the rest of the film attempting to steal the lab. This is the Sonny Burch obstacle.

And that’s really all he is in the film, an obstacle. Burch is not menacing or defined enough to be an outright villain, just a constant annoyance to the heroes in true Elmore Leonard fashion. The missing quantum tunnel component is never explained and Burch’s backer is never identified. It’s not important. The film manages to get the most out of such a shallow obstacle by simply casting Goggins, a fantastic character actor and expert at balancing subtle menace with mild buffoonery.

Burch later has a fun scene interrogating Luis with truth serum. It’s a callback to the standout scenes in the first film: a Luis tip montage. In these montages, Luis explains something in his particular brand of chipper, over detailed candor. As he does, the film cuts to the various people he’s discussing, and they lip sync along to Luis’ narration. In this case, Burch asks, “where is Scott?”, which Luis interprets as where Scott is emotionally. His monologue follows Scott from meeting Luis in prison, to meeting and falling for Hope in Ant-Man, to Hope dumping Scott after he’s arrested, to Scott reuniting with Hope in this film. The montage is predictably hilarious, but it’s just tacked on to please fans of the first film. This could have been cut to make a leaner film, or rewritten to actually matter.

However, the Burch subplot also provides the first opportunity to demonstrate the Wasp. When he initially refuses to sell the component to Hope, she leaves the meeting to return as the Wasp. Scott struggled to master the Ant-Man suit in the first film, whereas Hope emerges here as an expert. She shrinks and grows seamlessly as she fights Burch’s men through a restaurant and kitchen to get the component. She prevents some from escaping by enlarging a salt shaker in front of a door, then shrinks to gracefully avoid knives being thrown.

Also, unlike Ant-Man, the Wasp suit includes wings and wrist blasters. The fight is kinetic and inventive, making great use of the hero’s unique powers. Lilly felt it was important that Hope express herself femininely during conflicts and fights, never regressing to female stereotypes or defaulting to masculine traits. Female superheroes remain rare on film, and Lilly wanted Wasp to feel distinct from male superheroes while remaining effective. The sequence is thrilling, and also introduces the third major obstacle to saving Janet.

Hope is confronted by a ghostly attacker in a white suit. The attacker can become intangible, and jitters in an out of sight, leaving fading images behind, much like a ghost. The attacker is Ava Starr/Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), and she steals the component and the shrunken quantum lab before disappearing. Without any equipment to track the lab, Hank reaches out to his estranged former partner, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Foster needles Hank about losing Janet, demonstrating their fractured, contentious relationship, but agrees to help. He suggests tracking the lab using Hank’s old Ant-Man suit, which Scott has hidden.

Unfortunately, he hid it in a small trophy that Cassie brought to school for show-and-tell. This is a silly tangent for the film, but it allows for a fun sequence. The newer Ant-Man suit has a malfunctioning regulator that causes Scott to suddenly grow or shrink at random. So, while he sneaks into school with Hope, Scott becomes giant in a janitor’s closet, then shrinks to the size of a kindergarten student. Christophe Beck’s score mirrors the shrinking predicament by switching to tinny old video game instrumentation on the score. With the suit recovered, the heroes find Ava.

They’re immediately captured by Ava and Foster, then the film tells her story. Ava’s father was also a colleague of Hank’s, but Hank had him fired and discredited. He moved to Argentina to continue his risky quantum experiments until one exploded, killing Ava’s parents and causing young Ava to begin uncontrollably “phasing”. The atoms in her body painfully break down and reform, and her physical form occasionally becomes… intangible. While working for SHIELD, Foster met Ava in Argentina and offered to help her. She was trained as an operative and given her suit to help control her powers, but she was never cured. Now she has only weeks to find a cure before the phasing kills her, and she believes that drawing energy from Hank and Hope’s quantum tunnel, or even from Janet directly, will heal her.

This is a lot of exposition, but the film breaks it up with Cassie FaceTiming a captive Scott to ask about her soccer shoes. Foster is helping Ava, but he’s uneasy with the thought of hurting anyone to do it. Once again, Ava and Foster are not truly villains, they’re trying to save Ava’s life. But, since they want the quantum lab for their own reasons, they’re also obstacles to saving Janet.

Ava and Foster also fit into the larger theme of the film: restoring families. Scott wants to be with his daughter without the barrier of house arrest. Scott also wants to rekindle his romance with Hope and friendship with Hank, but that jeopardizes his freedom. Hope and Hank, of course, want to reunite with Janet. And now, Ava and her surrogate father, Foster, want to cure her before she dies. There’s little drama in Scott being able to see his daughter more than he already does, or in the inevitability of Hank and Hope reuniting with Janet.

Viewers aren’t invested enough in Ava or Foster. Because of that, Ant-Man and the Wasp feels shallow, albeit with imaginative set-pieces and visuals, and entertaining characters. The character arcs are not fully defined. Scott helps his friends and avoids the FBI, but he never grows as a character. Hope wants to reunite with her mother, but nothing changes or develops for her throughout the film. Even that long-awaited reunion with her mother doesn’t give Hope a showy emotional scene. The scene is played for laughs with Rudd at the centre.

Once the lab is recovered, Hank and Hope test the tunnel again. This time, Janet fully possesses Scott, allowing her to calibrate the tunnel to find her precise location. Rudd plays the scene as Janet very well — funny without going over the top. ‘Janet’ compliments Hope like a proud mother and banters with Hank like a longtime wife. I love the scene, but it’s a major loss for Hope’s character to have her one major motivation — reuniting with her mother — happen through the male star of the film.

The second act ends with all of the obstacles converging. Janet pinpoints her coordinates with only two hours to reach her before her quantum position moves. Meanwhile, Burch alerts the FBI to their location, meaning Scott must rush home before he’s found violating house arrest. He leaves Hank and Hope to be arrested, and Ava steals the lab from the FBI. Scott gets a nice pep talk from Cassie, and rescues Hank and Hope from custody. This convergence of everything, Burch and Ava after the lab, the FBI after the heroes, and a ticking clock to save Janet, sets up a very fun third act chase.

Scott lures Ava out of the lab, allowing Hank to enter the quantum tunnel in a spaceship-like vehicle that recalls another great ’60s sci-fi film, Fleischer’s, Fantastic Voyage. Hank shrinks down past tardigrades and through trippy, visually-impressive realms on his way to the quantum realm. Once there, he nearly loses his mind to the senseless chaos until Janet emerges. As Avengers: Endgame makes clear, time works differently in the quantum realm, which means Janet should not have aged 30 years.

The filmmakers wanted her to be significantly older, however, to ensure there’s a strong emotional impact to finding her. Despite this minor inconsistency, the Ant-Man and the Wasp filmmakers worked closely with the filmmakers behind Avengers: Endgame to ensure that all the quantum elements shared between the two films lined up. Audiences didn’t know it at the time, but Ant-Man and the Wasp establishes the plot device that forms the basis for the biggest film of all-time. With Janet in his ship, Hank must wait until the lab is enlarged in order to return.

The lab has been shrunk to help hide it. Hope, aided by Luis, leads Burch’s men on a car chase through San Francisco which, at least since Bullitt (Yates, 1968), must be the most interesting city to have a car chase. As Luis drives, Hope and Scott shrink and grow, moving into and all-around Burch’s vehicles to take them out.

Hope flies into one car, enlarges to fight some henchmen, then shrinks to fly out as they crash. She also throws shrinking pellets to shrink motorcycles from under the riders, and enlarges a Hello Kitty pez dispenser to throw at others. Ava is also in the mix, and the suitcase-sized lab building passes from party to party like a hot potato. Ultimately, Burch boards a ferry on the San Francisco Bay with the lab. Scott flies after him on ants, but the relatively huge seagulls make that difficult. So he grows enormous, at least 60-feet, to chase Burch.

He’s first mistaken for a whale from the ferry, then emerges to grab the lab. Scott returns the lab to the shore before passing out from the strain of growing. Ava enlarges the lab on the shore while Hope rescues Scott.

Hope and Scott fight Ava in the lab until Hank and Janet’s ship bursts out of the quantum realm. Hope and Janet have a tearful reunion, and Janet somehow heals Ava with her quantum energy. It’s implied that Janet was changed by the quantum realm, but that will likely be explored in a future film. All that’s left is the series of happy endings. Ava, now healed, escapes with Foster. Luis catches Burch and his men for the FBI, giving his security company great exposure. Scott misdirects the FBI by leaning a giant empty Ant-Man suit against a building, allowing him to get home.

When his house arrest is lifted, he hangs out with Cassie and Hope. Finally, Hank and Janet shrink their house to move it to a secluded beach. The main film ends before the effects of Avengers: Infinity War reaches the characters in the mid-credits scene. But the filmmakers wanted the main film to have a happy ending.

And that is because Ant-Man and the Wasp is a sweet, good-natured family film. There are no real villains, just obstacles. There’s no threat to the galaxy or the world, or even to people’s lives most of the time, just threats to family unity. None of the MCU films are particularly gory or sexualized or adult — that’s more Deadpool’s territory — but most feel somewhat mature. This makes Ant-Man and the Wasp the perfect introduction to the series for younger kids.

Unfortunately, the film never goes much deeper than exciting, inventive, funny sequences. It works well as pure entertainment, but lacks any depth or strong character development. Some of the character motivations are even repeated from the first film. Ant-Man and the Wasp is notable for having the first eponymous female superhero in the MCU, but it doesn’t give that female superhero enough material or development. If the film had something more to say, or some way for the characters to grow, it would be much more satisfying.

But it was successful. Ant-Man and the Wasp earned $217 million in North America (an 11% increase in ticket sales over Ant-Man) and $623 million worldwide (a 20% increase over Ant-Man). Those increases are likely due to increased exposure of Ant-Man in Captain America: Civil War and the overall increased success of the MCU brand. Even so, Ant-Man and the Wasp is the lowest-grossing film in Phase Three of the MCU, much like Ant-Man was the lowest-grossing of Phase Two.

Ant-Man was also one of the few superheroes notably missing from Avengers: Infinity War. But ultimately, it’s nice to have “smaller” characters, if you will, and smaller series within the gargantuan MCU. Ant-Man is a more down-to-Earth, everyman superhero, with smaller-scale issues and threats. That’s refreshing. Marvel Studios has been successful enough to take risks with niche characters like Ant-Man. Furthermore, Ant-Man and the quantum realm became central to Avengers Endgame. Months after that film was released, Peyton Reed signed on to direct a third Ant-Man film. And so, despite the character’s relatively modest success, the MCU’s little guy will endure.

* * *

Stan Lee Cameo Corner: During the third act car chase, one of Hope’s shrinking pellets goes astray and shrinks Stan’s car. He writes it off to all the drugs he did in the ’60s. That’s 34 cameos in 50 films.

Credits Scene(s):

• In the mid-credits, Hank, Janet and Hope have built a smaller quantum tunnel into the back of Luis’ van. They send Scott into the quantum realm to collect some ‘quantum healing energy’. Unfortunately, just as they plan to recover Scott, Hank, Hope and Janet turn to dust, a result of Thanos’ snap at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. This leaves Scott trapped in the quantum realm. This thread is picked up in Avengers: Endgame.

• In the post-credits, while the Emergency Broadcast System plays on Scott’s television at home, the giant ant that posed as him in house arrest plays his drums.

First Appearances:

• Michelle Pfeiffer later appears in Avengers: Endgame, and will likely appear in the third Ant-Man film

Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order:

Even though the mid-credits scene references the end of Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp almost entirely takes place before then. So, I would watch it right before Infinity War:

Phase 1

  1. Iron Man
  2. Iron Man 2
  3. Thor
  4. The Incredible Hulk
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger
  6. The Avengers

Phase 2

  1. Iron Man 3
  2. Thor: The Dark World
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy
  4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  5. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  6. Ant-Man

Phase 3

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  2. Captain America: Civil War
  3. Black Panther
  4. Doctor Strange
  5. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  6. Thor: Ragnarok
  7. Ant-Man and the Wasp
  8. Avengers: Infinity War

Next Time: One of Spider-Man’s most popular villains gets his own film… without Spider-Man.