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[This story contains spoilers for Ant-Man and the Wasp.]
A goofy sense of humor isn’t just the special charm that makes the Ant-Man movies stand out in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s the element that holds all of its wild concepts together, whether the films are articulating the terrifying and physical possibility of going subatomic, or selling viewers on the excitement of heroes that can change sizes at the press of a button. This focus on comedy provides a elasticity with tone which helps Ant-Man and the Wasp prove it was more than just a breather from Thanos’ apocalypse in Avengers: Infinity War.
Directed by Peyton Reed as an action-comedy that’s heavy on the comedy, the film takes on comparably smaller stakes than other MCU movies, but is fueled by character work and a winning taste for comedy. After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang is snuck out from house arrest by Hope van Dyne (Evangline Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to help bring the missing Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) out of a subatomic state. At the same time, their technology is being pursued by a woman named Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who is assisted by a former friend of Dr. Pym’s, Laurence Fishburne’s Bill Foster, and Walton Goggins’ greedy Sony Burch, who wants to make a lot of money off of the Quantum technology.
If its hero weren’t so down to earth in a naturally funny way, or if the comedy seemed like it was trying too hard, the entire concept wouldn’t work. Perhaps the best example of comedy’s power in Ant-Man and the Wasp comes at the midway point, when Bill and Ghost have tied up Scott, Hope and Hank and are explaining their evil plan. In a lot of other movies, this would be played straight, but in this film, Scott’s phone rings. It’s his daughter, and he thinks it might be an emergency. We find out soon enough, as Bill holds the phone in front of Ant-Man’s face pretending he isn’t in captivity, that it’s not a pressing issue.
While they use their unique hero in an often-standard narrative form, the Ant-Man movies have a special comedy storytelling tool with scenes featuring Michael Pena’s Luis, a former criminal accomplice of Lang’s who returns in the sequel trying to get his X-CON security company off the ground. His ability to weave a fast story that leads to a hilarious montage is like a superpower itself. It made for crowd-pleasing moments in the first film, when we first learned about how a robbery plan had come together, which made for a memorable closing gag at the end of the pic.
That fast-talking, always-excited charm pops again in Ant-Man and the Wasp, especially when Luis thinks he’s under a truth serum. It leads to a montage where he babbles about his mother’s stern love for Morrissey, and provides his own origin story to how he and Lang met long ago in jail.
As the movies imagine the possibilities of big and small, there’s a sense of playfulness that particularly sings during its fight scenes. When comparing third-act showdowns between the two films, the first one had a great deal of fun when it used a train set as a location for battle, but Ant-Man and the Wasp makes things even bigger and better when it takes its visual comedy to hilly San Francisco streets. For movies that gain a kinetic energy from the super-suit power of being able to change size in an instant, this scene is bolstered by its focus on visual comedy, like when a mega-sized Pez dispenser becomes a jumbo road obstacle, or a toy van is shown racing underneath that of the villains in pursuit. This playful sense allows for a fresh type of action, like when their van goes to regular size and launches the villains’ car into the air. Or when Ant-Man is in Giant-Man form and uses a truck bed as a type of scooter.
Ant-Man and the Wasp is basically a sweet spot when it comes to Marvel’s burgeoning interest in all-out comedy. At first, comedy was used to make characters in the MCU accessible, whether it was mining for quick-witted charm in Tony Stark’s smugness, or making Thor more down to earth by showing he’s no match for a tranquilizer shot to the butt. It’s also in that show-stopping moment when Hulk smashes Loki like a rag doll in The Avengers. The appeal of mocking Thor and Loki was that it made jokes out of heroes and villains otherwise meant to be taken seriously.
But then James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy broke new ground, focusing on characters who are already goofballs in their own right, like the massive Drax’s way of taking things so literally, or how Gunn stages a final showdown that ends with a dance-off. It’s an approach that leads with oddball characters and gonzo comedy that informed the delightfully more dorky approach to Spider-Man: Homecoming. When a random person asks him to do a flip to prove he’s Spider-Man, Peter Parker does it. And when he thinks he’s stopping someone from stealing a car, he’s actually just attacked the owner, in a moment that awkwardly escalates while showing that he’s still got a lot of learning to do.
The Ant-Man franchise has the benefit that it’s always been this way. As acclaimed as Thor: Ragnarok was, tonally it feels like a complete rebranding for the character. While it does make for some excellent Jeff Goldblum riffing and a welcome amount of director Taika Waititi’s Kiwi-flavored deadpan humor, it seems like an adopted sibling to the previous Thor installments.
The Ant-Man movies succeed with script ideas big and small because they never take themselves too seriously; they only aim to be sincerely funny. Along with their focus on characters’ small-scale objectives, the Ant-Man pics are uniquely enabled by their comedy. So much becomes possible in these movies: Even a household pest can be seen as more adorable, or more heroic, than we might initially think.
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Academy Museum of Motion Pictures