Light Spoilers Ahead
What’s a franchise to do after raising the stakes as high as conceivably possible? For those keeping score, the last film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War, saw the combined efforts of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes™—an amalgamation of street-level brawlers, scientific geniuses, reality-warping sorcerers, intergalactic misfits, and literal alien gods—fail spectacularly to stop a xenocidal maniac from wiping out half the life in the universe. Barring a foe capable of blinking all of space-time out of existence, there’s literally nothing else Marvel could do to elevate said stakes. (And considering producer and MCU mastermind Kevin Feige has multiple films barreling down the pipeline, including another Avengers cross-over, it’s not out of the question.)
The answer is to do the exact opposite and lower them. Take Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, the sequel to Reed’s own Ant-Man (2015), arguably the first MCU film that did away with national, international, global, or galactic super-threats as well as traditional blockbuster bang-boom excess in favor of a quirky heist story that just so happened to feature super-heroes. It picks up with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a cat-burglar-turned-superhero-turned-incarcerated-cat burglar, nearing the end of his house arrest in San Francisco, having been imprisoned after teaming up with Captain America to fight the Avengers in the Russo’s Captain America: Civil War (2016). He spends his days struggling to be a father to his precociously adorable/adorably precocious daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), running a security business startup with best friend and former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña), and staving off the maddening boredom of spending several years cooped up inside a single building. But with only three days left of his term, he’s pulled back into the world of battle-suits and spandex following a bizarre vision of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the long-lost wife of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, entomological weirdo, and experimental physicist who invented the Ant-Man super-technology.
Hank and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) have been on the run and off the grid as fugitives since the events of Civil War, but they reunite with Scott in order to save Janet from her subatomic prison by technobabbling with the help of black market quantum technology that allows them to technobabble technobabble technobabble. This time around Hope has her own super-suit, a chic little number that turns her into the Wasp, a hero who can not only shrink and grow like Ant-Man but also fly and shoot energy blasts. These improvements prove useless when Scott and Hope are attacked by the appropriately named Ghost (Hanna John-Kamen), a villain who can phase through matter and turn invisible. Ghost, the alter-ego of former super-soldier Ava Starr, needs the technology so she can stabilize her rapidly deteriorating body from dissipating into nothingness after a lifetime of phasing. How? By technobabble technobabble technobabble which will have the side effect of killing the missing Janet.
If that wasn’t enough to contend with, there’s also Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), the black market dealer with shady connections to even shadier government officials who double-crosses Hope and Hank, wanting to sell their Janet-rescuing tech to the highest bidder. Then there’s Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), an FBI agent and Scott’s particularly enthusiastic parole officer who wants nothing more than to catch him breaking the terms of his house arrest so he can put him away for twenty years minimum.
But back to those stakes. Let’s imagine for a moment that the eponymous heroes failed. What would happen? Would a super-villain swoop down to enslave mankind? Would a monster rampage across the cosmos? Would the very laws of space-time be torn asunder? The answer to all of these questions is no. Let’s say Scott, Hope, and Hank fail to save Janet: it’d be a tragedy, but nobody outside their immediate circle would suffer. Let’s say Ghost gets the technology: her main prerogative is to live, not conquer the world, meaning the only people who would be affected would be Scott & co. Let’s say Sonny Burch gets the tech: that’d suck for a number of reasons, but his suggested buyers aren’t implied fascists or madmen, so at worst an organized crime syndicate gets shrinking powers. And let’s say Jimmy Woo nabs Scott: he’d probably only languish in federal prison until Captain America comes back into the government’s good graces and bails him out. Ant-Man and the Wasp may have the lowest stakes of any MCU film so far; even the first Ant-Man with its villain wanting to sell superhero science to Hydra—Marvel’s Nazi stand-ins—had higher stakes. It’s a delightful, refreshing palette cleanser.
It certainly helps that Reed’s returned with the same irreverent, fast-paced humor and confidently energetic storytelling that made the first Ant-Man so delightful. This is a plot with many moving parts of varying degrees of seriousness—Ghost is an efficient, cold-blooded killer while both Sonny Burch and Jimmy Woo are portrayed as buffoons of the respectively sinister and well-intentioned kind. Yet it never loses steam, although there are still one too many eye-rolling moments of distracting, shrugging shtick that threaten to halt the dramatic momentum. (Although one such scene where an intense villain monologue is interrupted by Cassie calling Scott on his cell phone to ask where her soccer shoes are is one of the film’s highlights.)
Much of this comes down to Ghost as the film’s requisite super-villain. In the past few years the MCU finally managed to buck their trend of forgettable, disposable villains, giving audiences such memorable and meme-worthy baddies as Cate Blanchett’s Hela, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, and Josh Brolin’s Thanos. Ghost, however, feels like a return to the one-and-done baddies of the MCU’s Phase One. (Abomination, anybody? How about Whiplash? Anyone remember them?) She isn’t very scary, doesn’t have any instantly classic moments or lines, and doesn’t even sport a particularly inspired costume. None of this makes her uninteresting. Her innate selfishness borne from an instinctive need for self-preservation makes her an odd anomaly in Marvel’s rogues gallery. She’s uniquely similar to Michael Keaton’s Vulture in Jon Watt’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), the MCU’s other notable low-stakes outing, the owner of a small construction business who only wanted to support his family and save his workers from unemployment. It’s hard to root for demagogues who want to rule the world, but we can admire and even sympathize with those who want to protect themselves and their loved ones from harm. Crucially, Scott, Hope, and Hank don’t want to defeat or kill her. Stop her, sure. Ghost’s arc ends with the promise of redemptive grace, not resounding failure. This too is refreshing for a genre whose antagonists usually end up as bloodied corpses, gelatinous glops of goo, or temporally displaced phantasms. Ant-Man and the Wasp is, after all, a film about protecting and sacrificing for one’s family, and it’s love that binds such relationships together. And perhaps, Reed suggests, it’s love that binds the rest of us as well.