Marvel superheroes have always had the distinction of being ordinary people first, later thrust into extraordinary circumstances while gifted with extraordinary abilities. This lends a humanity to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s heroes and villains that keeps them compelling and relatable even as the stakes they fight for keep expanding in breadth and significance. Perhaps that is also why the Ant-Man franchise is so much fun, because more than its brethren, it reminds us that our protagonist is a regular guy who honestly kind of sucks at being a superhero. When we first meet Scott Lang (aka Ant-Man), he is an unsuccessful thief transitioning into a somewhat less unsuccessful superhero. As we catch up with him again in Ant-Man and the Wasp, we are clearly reminded that most people suddenly given an amazing super-suit would probably screw things up with it. Scott is worth about three of them.
The story begins as Scott is in the final days of his house arrest following his involvement in the Civil War brawl between Captain America and Iron Man. Lang’s legal troubles have put him on the outs with his benefactor Henry Pym and Pym’s daughter (and Lang’s love interest) Hope can Dyne. But when Lang starts receiving visits from a quantum apparition of Janet van Dyne — Pym’s wife and Hope’s mom — the gang must assemble once more to build a vehicle that can rescue Janet from the quantum realm, where size and time begin to stop making sense. But others are hot for the same tech that Lang, Hope and Pym are after, including a menacing figure whose quantum instability both grants her the power to phase through solid matter as well as gives testimony to secrets that Pym would rather not discuss. Scott still isn’t much better at being Ant-Man, but with Hope as his new super-powered partner, the Wasp, they might just collar a few bad guys, rescue Hope’s mom and get Scott back home in time before his parole officer knows he’s missing. For a job this big, sometimes it pays to think small.
There is a lot to like on this movie, but especially for those exhausted by the increasingly cosmic scope of the MCU, and the increasingly somber tone of the MCU’s Phase Three Movies—which repeatedly touch on the themes of sacrifice, the power of family, and how heroes sometimes cause more problems than they solve by dint of the collateral damage they leave behind. Ant-Man and the Wasp, in its way, touches upon all of these things, but it does it through its unique filter of levity, humor and brightness that successfully renews Marvel’s license to tell whatever kind of superhero story it wants. Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t especially strong on plot, to be honest; it’s basically another amped-up caper movie. But that’s alright, because the appeal of Ant-Man & Co. has never really been the plots they drive, but the characters they inhabit. And on that scorecard, Scott, Hope, Pym, Lang’s feckless crew of friends/accomplices (can we please get a video of Luis summing up the entire MCU to date?), and even some of Pym’s old colleagues all come together to populate a corner of the Marvel universe that is long on chemistry and charisma.
One of the biggest delights of this movie is how it delivers on the promise of elevating Hope van Dyne to superhero status herself. As the Wasp, she re-establishes herself as Lang’s partner and superior. In every way, she is the better hero in terms of skill, mindset and preparedness. We are treated to seeing her show off her new abilities in ways that we know Scott can’t ever match, and half the fun is knowing that he isn’t really going to try. Hope is all business, and as the stakes of this story begin to reveal themselves, we realize that indeed, Hope occupies every bit as much of our attention as Scott does. Their partnership isn’t just a function of the movie’s title. It is in the hearts of the audience itself.
As Hope becomes the hero Ant-Man was always supposed to be, Scott keeps on figuring out ways to misuse his own powers. Sometimes, to fix problems of his own making. And sometimes, to prove that deep down, he deserves a whole lot more credit than he gets as both as a superhero, and more importantly, as a dad. Sure, it’s a blast to see him wonk our sizewise and act as the centerpiece of some really fun action sequences. But there is nothing more satisfying that seeing him report back to his daughter and win her seal of approval. Even in a world of costumes heroes and villains, some priorities still top all others. And if Lang can’t claim to be the best hero on the block, as long as he can earn a #fatheroftheyear from his kid, well, that’s more than good enough.
For all of the fun and games, though, there is still an undercurrent of peril here. We see it most when we begin to wonder if Lang is really going to live up to his role as a dad, or if he’s ever going to quit clowning around enough to realize that people’s lives are on the line. The stakes he has been fighting for are small, in Marvel terms, but what makes a hero isn’t the scale, but the why. And when we see Lang finally stand and deliver, it’s a rich payoff, indeed. Which is why the moment of truth here is during the epilogue, when he finally suits up and takes a deep dive into the quantum realm on a mission he knows he might not come back from. And then, when it is too late even for the audience, we discover why. And more than that: we realize that the worst hero in the world might be the only one left to save it. Time to grow up, Scott. In more ways than one.