The first appearance of the miniature superhero Ant-Man was in a 1962 comic book called Tales to Astonish, published five years after The Incredible Shrinking Man arrived in cinemas. This classic midnight movie is famous for scenes featuring the titular protagonist battling a spider with a pin raided from a sewing kit, and navigating comparatively huge household objects (a pencil and a coffee tin have never been so intimidating). Now more than 60 years old, Shrinking Man has ten times the charm and sense of wonder as Ant-Man and the Wasp, the latest franchise flapdoodle to fall off the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) assembly line.
The first and superior Ant-Man is one of the better MCU films, partly because director Peyton Reed (back in the chair for the sequel) seemed to understand that spectacle has everything to do with scale. Bathtub water became a tsunami for the matchstick-sized hero, and a Thomas the Tank Engine train set became menacing.
These touches were cute and the film was endearing. All of it was bettered, however, by a single sequence from the excellent Disney movie Zootopia (released the following year) during which the hero of one world simultaneously became a Godzilla-sized monster of another, trampling across a tiny gated city populated by rodents.
The first truly engaging moment in Ant-Man and the Wasp is a kitchen-set confrontation between Hope, aka Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) and a bunch of Central Casting baddies. The sidekick of the titular character (Paul Rudd) darts around the room, dodging bullets and running down a literal knife’s edge. And boy, it’s over quickly. Reed and his producers are strangely stingy with their set pieces, focusing instead on middling dramas involving cut-out characters. These include a quest to rescue a person – Hope’s mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) – who is lost in an alternate reality, like the grid in Tron or the far-flung cosmos in A Wrinkle in Time.
Early in the piece during a flashback, Janet utters sweet nothings to her young daughter then bids her goodnight. She leaves the house and, as you do, gets lost in the quantum realm. The five credited screenwriters accept that this moment constitutes enough detail about the mother/daughter relationship. No big deal, just the entire emotional core of the film. The screenwriters similarly see no need to divulge any meaningful information about entomologist and physicist Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). He simply exists, like part of the scenery, his personality explained like beige paint splashed across a wall.
MCU fans may argue that this film exists as part of a series, so such details are not necessary. The former is true, of course, and the latter passed off as a quasi-panacea for bad writing, supposing that screenwriters are not capable of engaging different kinds of viewers at the same time.
The director Edgar Wright might have fleshed out Pym’s character – adding enriching detail for those acquainted with him, and introducing him to those who aren’t – using one of his trademark rapid-fire montages which would consume perhaps five or six seconds of running time. Then again Wright, who was originally going to direct the first Ant-Man, fell out with the producers over “creative differences” – which is another another way of saying the cowboy from Mulholland Drive paid him a visit and offered an ultimatum.
Ant-Man and the Wasp’s principal villain Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) gets the reverse treatment: a soapbox on which she not only launches voiceover-accompanied flashback, spelling out the details of her backstory, but also a potted summary of things the audience could have worked out for themselves had they been offered the chance. “In exchange for my soul…” she bleats, explaining the price she paid when she collaborated with bad people. “They weaponised me…” she continues, in a shameless display of boilerplate writing that goes well beyond crude exposition.
The writing is patchy throughout and the dialogue is dreck. Reed’s characters alternate between invoking the sentiments of a long-lost mother (“She’d be so proud of you…”) to reciting technical sounding mumbo-jumbo (“We should begin the extraction process”) to exchanges that were old before they had been written, let alone performed (“We have to find another way.” “This is the way”). At least the obligatory Stan Lee cameo raises a chuckle. The comic book legend sees the car he is about to enter reduced to the size of a matchbox. “Well the ’60s were fun,” he says to himself, “but I’m paying for it now.”
We are all, indeed, paying for it now. In the ’60s Lee and his colleagues were pumping out new characters, as if conjuring iconic superheroes was something you did before breakfast. Some were more interesting and original than others, but all were made in a spirit of invention. In that sense, the characters he created and the films they inspired, could not be more different.
Lee invented, his beneficiaries copied, and infantilised contemporary audiences became accustomed to being served different portions of the same thing. Buoyed by media saturation and extraordinary brand familiarity, Marvel movies, in an alternate world, would take the most rather than the least risks. In our world, the opposite is true.