Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Finity war


ANT-MAN AND THE WASP

Ant-Man returns with all the charm and humor and spectacle of his first outing, and pays off on the promise inherent in his second film's title, but Ant-Man and the Wasp reveals too much of these movies' fundamental hollowness for anybody's good.

2018
Directed by Peyton Reed
Written by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrarri, and Paul Rudd
With Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Evangeline Lilly (Hope van Dyne), Michael Douglas (Hank Pym), Michael Pena (Luis), Tip "T.I." Harris (Dave), David Dasmalchian (Kurt), Michelle Pfeiffer (Janet van Dyne), Abby Ryder Forston (Cassie Lang), Judy Greer (Maggie), Bobby Canavale (Jim), Randall Park (Agent Jimmy Woo), Walton Goggins (Sonny Burch), Laurence Fishburne (Bill Foster), and Hannah John-Kamen (Ava)

Spoiler alert: high


Give or take a Thor, of all the sub-franchises proliferating beneath the Marvel Cinematic umbrella, the Ant-Man series is still my favorite.  Partly that's because it's the most consistent (in terms of both quality and pedigree—for it seems completely correct to call it "Peyton Reed and Paul Rudd's Ant-Man series," given that both films share the director, and the returning star is also the only returning screenwriter, and there's not a whiff of difference in tone between the two pictures).  Partly that's because it's the most self-contained (of all the mini-franchises, Ant-Man feels the least important, in a good way).  And partly that's because it's just the most plain-and-simply pleasant of all of Marvel's little constituent families, playing effectively as nice-guy superheroic comedies with heart, a frivolous style, and a great central action mechanic that remains the freshest spectacle Marvel's programmers provide.

I'm glad I can still say that, even when Ant-Man and the Wasp is, at turns, a blood-curdling disappointment; I'm glad I can still say that even when I'm pretty sure that this disappointment has a lot to do with everything good I just mentioned, from Reed to Rudd to the frivolity down to all the myriad pieces of no-stakes niceness that form its elementary particles.  But that does leave us with a disappointment regardless, for despite the fact that and the Wasp delivers upon the same general level of quality that Ant-Man did back in 2015, and despite all the well-arranged generic elements it offers—indeed, despite the disarming grin it wears while offering them—and the Wasp does the one thing Ant-Man never did while it was appearing not to give a shit, which is actually not give a shit, and in one crucial way that really doesn't seem to want to do anything other than ruin the movie.

Well, as with its predecessor, and the Wasp gives off a shaggy vibe (and often lives up to it) while still being more-or-less straightforward: in the film's only necessary connection to the MCU as a whole, we find our pal Scott "Ant-Man" Lang once again languishing under the weight of the crimes he's committed thanks to the trait that defines his character (namely, Scott's compulsive desire to do, or be lauded for doing, "the right thing," usually without thinking through what "the right thing" is; I like this, because it's subtle shading, and probably also because it makes Scott Lang the screen superhero closest to myself in terms of temperament, in that we both want constant praise and validation for being "good").  Happily, this time he gets to serve his sentence under house arrest rather than in prison, even though his felonies this time were tantamount to supervillainy, or at least international terrorism; but, either way, this gives Scott the opportunity to hold down a job (amusingly, he and his partners-in-home-invasion from the last film, Dave, Kurt, and the indispensable Luis, have set up a fledgling security consulting company) and to be a dad to his little girl, Cassie.

He's even set to go free in just a few days, which means exactly what you think it means: it's time for Scott to be pulled right back into a world of superheroic shenanigans by the family he turned into fugitives with his own rash actions (oops!), the suppliers of his size-based powers, Hank Pym and his daughter Hope van Dyne.  You see, Scott's escape from the seemingly-unescapable quantum realm has led Hank and Hope to suspect that their respective wife and mom, Janet van Dyne, didn't really die when she disappeared into that same quantum realm thirty years ago, and Hank's at last decided to try to rescue her.

What ought to be about thirty years too late, but turns out to be merely just in time for a sequel.

However, pursuing Hank's project leads to all manner of complications, from the techno-gangsters they run afoul of, to the FBI agent who's starting to wonder if Scott might just be tricking him, to Hank's bitter former lab partner Bill Foster, to that crazy cat who walks through walls, and beats the crap out of both Scott and Hope, even though Hope, in taking on her mother's mantle as the Wasp, has finally convinced her overprotective father to outfit her with all the size-changing powers he gave the bumbling patsy he explicitly didn't care about in the first film—plus wings, plus laser guns, plus actual competence—none of which appear to matter much to this intangible "ghost."

There's enormous fun to be had with that scenario, and Reed certainly has it; once again, the play with scale is an absolute blast.  If nothing here quite lives up to the first film's delirious, winking climax—and it was never going to; that's not even the smallest factor in this film's disappointment—then sheer quantity still balances the scales.  In several respects, in fact: aside from and the Wasp serving up more size-changing set-pieces, more quickly, it throws in its heroes' newfound ability to get bigger, and it lets us pluralize the phrase "heroes," too, since of course now we've got two of 'em.  Meanwhile, it never feels like it's repeating ideas (at least in terms of its superheroics), and offers a great many more little grace notes, like the Hot Wheels carrying case full of shrinkable vehicles (never called Ant-mobiles, as such, but that's what they are) or the five-story lab that Hank lugs around like one of those dorky rolling suitcases.

Like the first film, the action is played for laughs (and it gets almost every one it sets out for); like the first film, it masters the difficult trick that the other Marvel movies only occasionally pull off, of making an overt joke out of its proceedings without sacrificing a sense of awe and wonder.  (Though it is also a comedy-comedy a lot of the time, too, and this is very noticeable in the cutting: beware of a thousand tiny continuity errors that indicate that Reed and editors Dan Lebental and Craig Wood were strongly prioritizing the film's pace and the cast's best line reads over not suggesting that the cast involuntarily teleports a couple of inches each time they say something funny.  And, since I won't have a chance to mention it later, let's point out here that Dante Spinotti isn't an entirely effective replacement for Ant-Man's cinematographer Russell Carpenter, either.  Now, Spinotti is a fine cinematographer, a collaborator in Michael Mann's abrasive experiments in digital video; and while he's doing a "normal" here, and the Wasp isn't nearly as interested in popping with its colors.)

Otherwise, it plays like a quippier, zippier Silver Age comic book—and not even necessarily a Marvel one.  Of all the superhero films these days, the Ant-Men get the closest to an old DC comic.  That's especially true for and the Wasp, which has its central "villain"—tragic backstory and all that jazz—but whose antagonism rests at least as much, in terms of screentime, on a clutch of suited gangsters, who refuse to give any impression they ever realize just how hilariously outmatched they are.  Likewise, it's a movie that features Michael Douglas doing super-science with the help of giant-sized ants, and Douglas yelling at them when they get the wiring wrong.  Now, I love Silver Age comics; and it would seem that no movie which features the former of those two things, let alone both of those two things, could ever be a drag.

Yet and the Wasp can drag.  It can drag something awful whenever it needs to lay out some exposition (the exception is when it's Michael Pena's Luis doing the exposition, arriving in an obligatory callback gag that is simultaneously forced, way too late in the game to be genuinely helpful to anyone who's lost the plot... and still amazingly funny).  But the film might as well stop cold and invite you to hit the lobby while Ghost lays out her history; then again, very little besides Ghost's basic visual appeal as a spectral terminator makes her memorable at all, and the attempt to make her anything more than a neat visual concept pays off only in the sense that and the Wasp is such a fine vehicle for positive father-daughter relationships that you hope that everything's going okay in its screenwriters' personal lives.  Apart from that wee twist, Ghost only gets worse when she's not being played by a stuntperson, or a CGI cartoon; outside of Hannah John-Kamen's very first scene without the mask, which crackles with off-kilter energy, the script rapidly (and unfortunately) grounds the character in a tale of perfunctory loss meted out by a perfunctory scientific disaster, her superpower/medical condition being described as a source of constant agony that John-Kamen, rather noticeably, is not asked to actually constantly perform.

What up, Splinter Cell.

It drags, too—though you only notice it once it's gotten there—in the very core of its quest, and this is the disappointing part.  Three years later, I'm still not sure if I was being unfair to Ant-Man when I criticized it for simply being what it was—a movie within a shared universe that couldn't be totally self-contained or offer a sense of finality, no matter how hard it tried—even if Ant-Man would very obviously be better if Scott's dive into the quantum realm had had any consequences that accorded with what the movie said they were (space! time! all that stuff!) or had any strong metaphorical resonance with the story Ant-Man was telling (about a father who'd missed his daughter's childhood, putting himself into a position where his sci-fi scenario effectively demanded that he miss a lot more of it).  The thing is, Ant-Man did have that "shared universe" excuse; and the Wasp, by contrast, has pretty much no excuse, because it's hard to see why the perfectly-unearned happy ending it pulls out of its butt was necessary.

Now, before I say something mean about them, I want to be clear and say that the central cast here is great (and even the vast majority of the extended cast, for, boy, does and the Wasp have one extended cast! Judy Greer and Bobby Canavale are reduced to a day's worth of shooting group hug scenes in this one, though I like their group hugs, as well as what they represent).  Anyway, Rudd is as magnificent as he ever was, combining matinee-star super-handsomeness with his proven goofball comic chops; Douglas remains cantankerous in his inimitable manner; even Evangeline Lilly, possibly the weak(er) link in Ant-Man, finds a much more natural groove here, beneath her much more natural hair, as part of the group rather than standoffishly outside it, without actually surrendering her mean mommy archetype.  Even so, not a one of them attempt to sell this as a story about obsession and/or grief—because, in their defense, they have accurately judged that it isn't, even though the screenplay says it is.

God knows what it would have to say about obsession or grief if it were, but when and the Wasp finally does break its way down into the basement of existence, it has absolutely nothing to show for it other than the rote fulfillment of its story's beats—it obtains that Silver Age quality both for good and for ill—and it's here that you can honestly perceive something like  a Silver Age comic's contempt for its audience, sieving through the film's wall of jokes and fun.  (There have been plenty of badly-conceived things in Marvel's movies these past ten years, but I have never had my suspension of disbelief snapped in one of them; somehow, and the Wasp manages this exceptionally difficult feat.)  After two films' worth of build-up (not to mention the otherwise-unrelated Dr. Strange) it turns out and the Wasp doesn't have one single idea in its head about what to do with this "quantum realm," which is presently revealed to be about as conceptually exciting as a fucking lava lamp, and possibly less, since if you were trapped in a lava lamp for thirty years, you'd still face the threat of starvation, or at least go a little insane; even on its chosen level of complete and total indifference, and the Wasp can't conjure up so much as a pulp adventure setting out of this crazy dimension to explain its bullshit.  That is almost unbelievable in its laziness.

At the same time, it telegraphs itself so  metanarratively blatantly in its opening flashback that—operating under the assumption that the movie you're watching is an honorable one—you're bound to guess that and the Wasp actually does have some surprises waiting for you, and possibly even some real weight behind them: based on the (rather good!) de-aging CGI applied to Michelle Pfeiffer's Janet van Dyne, you might have even been prepared to call and the Wasp capital-I Important after all, as you might have thought it gestured to some whole new industrial realities for actors who've crossed into the second half of their careers.  I mean, you don't hire Michelle Pfeiffer unless you have a character in her fifties, and you don't have a character in her fifties in this particular movie unless Janet is rescued, and, if Janet is  to be rescued, you don't showcase that in your first scene by revealing that you've cast a 59 year old actress to play her.  That is, unless you're doing something very clever and revolutionary and worth considering from a hundred different angles.  Or, I guess, if you're an asshole; and the Wasp is an asshole.  Dead or alive, there's a potentially vast fascination in either option that isn't remotely present in the least-interesting option this movie actually chooses, namely a Janet van Dyne who's been sitting in the Phantom Zone for three decades aging completely normally and apparently not even running dry on cosmetics. The paradox of it is that it would've been a spoiler even to say that and the Wasp spoils itself, but it does, then it spoils itself again, in its goofiest scene, that sees Rudd doing a very, very bad Pfeiffer impression via quantum entanglement, which (shamefully) I laughed at, but which does even more direct violence to the narrative structure of the quest plot than the opening does.

And, despite it all, I do not condemn the movie for operating in such a dull, stupid, and offensively obvious straight line—in fact, I'm not sure if a better explanation for it is Reed and his screenwriting army collapsing into shrugging ineptitude, or doing it entirely deliberately, in pursuit of their movie's abiding gentleness—but while it's quite possibly the worst thing any Marvel movie has ever done, it doesn't magically wipe away everything and the Wasp does right, which is almost everything else.  Sure, it cheapens itself in a way that makes me hate the hell out of that one part of it, for pointing at ambitions (cinematic, technological, sociological, emotional) the movie doesn't have any intention of fulfilling—but then I look at that dumb giant ant.  It's playing the drums!  How do I deny that?  Thanks, Ant-Man and the Wasp, you've once again confirmed what we've always known: I'm an easily-pleased moron who expects more from his art than he usually gets, then happily accepts what he's been given, anyway.

Score: 8/10

3 comments:

  1. Paul Rudd DOES get more handsome with every year he ages, doesn't he?

    And when I was in the thick of the movie, I didn't think much about how the quantum realm was portrayed, but you're so right that it's a huge missed opportunity. What a bummer!

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    1. Paul Dude's a vampire or a Dorian Gray. It's disheartening.

      And yeah, and the Wasp is both a delight and a bummer, which I guess is true of a lot of Marvel movies, in that they don't seize any but the easiest opportunities. Oh well, still tons better than most *actual* Marvel comic books these past many years.

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    2. Ok, I think I like that autocorrect thinks it's "Paul Dude," and I'm not gonna fix it.

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