When you’re living through history, it can be hard to appreciate just how historic it is. That’s especially true when it doesn’t seem that historic at first. Everybody knew “Star Wars” (1977) was a big deal as a film when it came out but I don’t think anyone understood or foresaw that it was going to literally change how Hollywood did business for decades to come. The kind of movies that get made, how they get made, and how they get sold to the public were permanently altered by George Lucas’ little space opera.
41 years later, history was made again with the birth of what they call the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” or MCU. It launched a run of 20 films in 10 years that is again changing the entire way Hollywood functions. This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown is going to take a look at the latest entry into this four-color juggernaut. It’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018) vs. The Rest of the MCU in a contest to determine if it’s actually possible to have too much of a good thing.
If you want to understand just how much the MCU has changed movie storytelling, start with this: “Ant-Man and the Wasp” isn’t so much a sequel as it is the continuation of a storyline that has now stretched through six films, three of which Ant-Man isn’t even in. It starts with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the small-time thief who stole a scientific super-suit and became an unlikely hero, days away from ending his time under house arrest, which he was sentenced to after his involvement in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016). All Scott wants to do is get his electronic monitoring bracelet removed so he can go outside and co-parent his adorable daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) and help his old buddy Luis (Michael Perla) keep their fledging security company above water.
So, they thought Evangeline Lilly was too hot and decided to give her the least attractive hairstyle EVER?!?!
Those plans go out the window, however, when Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) need Scott’s help to rescue Pym’s long lost wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the sub-atomic Quantum Realm Scott visited in “Ant-Man” (2015), and all of that has to happen while dodging an FBI that’s looking for anyone who violates the “Sokovia Accords” from “Captain America: Civil War,” a criminal dealer in black market technology who wants Pym’s lab to sell to the highest bidder, and an intangible terrorist called the Ghost (Hannah John-Kaman) who needs Pym’s tech for a much more personal reason. That’s probably the most involved premise a lightweight piece of fluff like this has ever had.
Don’t take lightweight piece of fluff as a criticism. It’s simply an accurate description of how the low stakes “Ant-Man and the Wasp” entertainingly kills time until the next Avengers flick comes out in 2019. This isn’t a film about saving the world or even saving the city. It’s about saving a grand total of two people. And none of the characters undergoes any sort of personal growth or evolution. There’s no challenge or ordeal they have to face which leaves them different people at the end of the movie than the beginning. No one learns to be a hero or takes responsibility for their actions or discovers the world isn’t the way they thought it was. It’s just about punching bad guys in the face and telling jokes.
The only things that elevate “Ant-Man and the Wasp” above the level of cinema pabulum are the things that have defined the entire MCU: A high level of craftsmanship and an intelligent and genuine sense of morality. Even this motion picture, which frankly has no second act and turns into an 1980s flick/MacGuffin chase in its third act, is consistently engaging and has main characters that are good people not because the movie tells you they are good people but because they act like good people and are happy being good people.
How did this scene not send some people screaming from the theater?
Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas do a great job carrying a movie that’s more about their characters than it is about Scott Lang, with Lilly in particular doing a lot of humanize a very Mary Sue-ish, perfect-in-every-way Hope Van Dyne. Paul Rudd brings the funny as a hero who is more the butt of the joke than the jokester. The special effects are quite good, though it’s a little weird how Rudd’s voice never changes no matter what size he is, and while the action scenes are a bit less elaborate than we’ve seen in other MCU flicks, they are exactly what this kind of story needs. You can’t keep the dial cranked all the way up to 10, with every movie trying to outdo the one before, without the audience become numb and a little jaded. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” has modest ambitions and a limited scope. Cramming it full of ostentatious set pieces that don’t fit that aesthetic would only jar the viewer out of their suspension of disbelief.
“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is exactly the right kind of franchise palate cleanser you need to follow gigantic spectacles like “Black Panther” (2018) and “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018). It allows the audience to take a breath and reminds them that what makes these films worthwhile isn’t the colorful costumed antics on screen but that we care about the human beings inside those super-suits. That’s a fundamental element of storytelling that’s too often overlooked in modern entertainment.
So, where does “Ant-Man and the Wasp” rank among its MCU brethren? Well, let’s go to the list:
20. “Iron Man 3” (2013). This is, by far, the worst Marvel movie ever made and gets by exclusively on the goodwill generated by a great original, a decent sequel, and Robert Downey Jr.’s amazingly charismatic portrayal of Tony Stark. It’s overwrought, has the worst sort of special effects overkill, and the only legitimately interesting element in the film takes a huge steaming dump on Iron Man’s greatest comic book adversary.
19. “The Incredible Hulk” (2008). So bad that Marvel essentially pretends it didn’t even happen. The only reason it isn’t the worst of the bunch is that a second consecutive Hulk flop apparently taught them what they were doing wrong and resulted in the vastly superior Bruce Banner and his raging alter ego we’ve gotten since.
Seriously...WHAT IS WITH THAT HAIR?
18. “Thor: The Dark World” (2013). When you give the main female character’s comedy sidekick her own comedy sidekick, that’s a good sign you’re making a movie which has no genuine reason to exist. Just a pointless exercise but again, Marvel was able to recognize that despite it not being a box office failure and learned how to avoid repeating that mistake in future installments of the overall franchise.
17. “Captain America: The First Avenger: (2011). A “meh” origin story they needed to get out of the way so the franchise could move forward. It’s certainly not a disaster like “Green Lantern” (2011), which nearly killed DC’s attempt at their version of the MCU, but you can’t call it anything more than “okay.” The best thing you can say about it is that this film tries to be its own thing and not merely repeat or recycle what worked for the budding franchise before.
16. “Thor” (2011). Another “meh” origin story they needed to get out of the way to the franchise could move forward. It gets this spot because this is the film where Marvel seemed to discover that humor can be used to spackle over the cracks when adapting a super-hero to the big screen doesn’t quite work. Thor is an interesting case in comic books where instead of things being added to the character and his story over time, Thor has had a lot of interesting elements stripped away until the modern version they adapt here is little more than a generic strong guy with Nordic myth stapled onto him. Addressing that by bringing in humor that has never been part of the comics is one of those little moments of genius that make the MCU work.
They suddenly realized eating a big bowl of beans before putting on their airtight super-suits was a bad idea.
15. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015). This is where things get a little complicated because from this point on, we’re focusing on films that all range from honestly good to incredibly great. “Age of Ultron” lands here because it’s a clearly inferior version of something we’d already seen. You can detect the strain of managing all the things this movie needed to do while trying to make something of worth on its own. It manages to do both but not without a lot of visible effort.
14. “Iron Man 2” (2010). Some might quibble with this ranking, given that this sequel is obviously not on the same level as the original but I give it points for crystalizing how the Marvel Universe was going to work on screen and for the effective villainy of Whiplash and Justin Hammer in a franchise that has surprisingly struggled when it comes memorable bad guys. It’s also the first appearance of Scarlett Johansson as The Black Widow, so…hubba hubba.
13. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017). Highlighted by Kurt Russell as possibly the single best villain in the entire MCU and finding surprisingly powerful things to do with seemingly limited characters like Star-Lord, Gamora, and Andromeda, this movie proved that the MCU could be more than relatively repetitive origin stories and ginormous end-of-the-world spectacles. It gets a demerit, though, for doing to Drax what “Family Guy” did to Stewie and reducing him from a defined and specific character to someone who just says funny stuff.
12. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018). How many marriages wish they could be as good after 10 years as the MCU?
11. “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017). How many times is the third part of a trilogy the best one? This is another example of the brains and boldness that has made the MCU what it is. They acknowledged the first two Thor flicks weren’t really that good, recognized the humor is what was best in them, and decided to just do the third as almost a straightforward comedy while still giving it a story that’s probably the second darkest and most dramatic in the whole franchise. No Kat Dennings, though.
"What the hell? Your hair is normal! Who is this person?"
10. “Ant-Man” (2015). Of all the super-heroes ever created, I’m not sure there’s one less likely to have been turned into a movie than Ant-Man. Maybe Matter-Eater Lad, but I’m not sure. Reaching deep into the Marvel Universe to give us both the original from the 1960s retrofitted into the MCU and the more culturally relevant reboot of the character from the late 1970s, it essentially combines two origin tales with a heist caper and one of the more positive portrayals of 21st century masculinity you’ll ever see out of Hollywood. While previous Marvel movies had been blockbusters, I think people finally realized just how big the franchise could get when this thing clicked both creatively and commercially. Try this on for size: The origin story of Han Solo is going to end up making less money than the origin story of Ant-Man.
9. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017). After a second Spider-trilogy died after two disappointing films, Sony essentially gave the rights to the character back to Marvel and they responded with the second best Spider-flick ever made. Yes, “Spider-Man 2” (2002) still holds the crown but this is probably the single best representation of Peter Parker and Spider-Man on the big screen and it offers up one of the most compelling villains in the MCU in Michael Keaton’s Vulture. It should never have taken six tries to finally bring Lee and Ditko’s teenage wallcrawler to the big screen but better late than never.
8. “Doctor Strange” (2018). Some might not rank this so high, considering it is to all intents and purposes a remake of the movie that started the MCU, but if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. It might be the second best representation of the ideals of heroism and moral responsibility at the heart of the MCU, has flatly amazing special effects in an era where we’ve gotten used to seeing the impossible, and has the most wonderfully Silver Age climax of any super-hero movie ever. It also introduces a surprisingly mature take on romance into the franchise with a female love interest who very plainly isn’t intended to be the hero’s soul mate.
7. “Black Panther” (2018). The best sort of motion picture spectacular that works on both the human and super-human levels. Some of its box office bonanza may have been due to the zeitgeist but this is still a compelling and daring film where the bad guy is more sympathetic than the good guy. It poses more provocative questions than it has satisfying answers but this isn’t The Federalist Papers. It’s a movie about an African king in a cat costume trying to regain the throne of his super-secret, sci-fi kingdom. And the next time someone tries to talk to you about “cultural appropriation,” remind them that 99% of the stuff in this movie was created by white guys. Would we have been better off if Lee, Kirby, and the rest had created the Irish Tiger?
If you're going to have Bill Foster in the movie, why not have him suit up as Black Goliath?
6. “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018). A masterful motion picture spoiled only by being part one of the story. It does rely on viewers having watched a whole bunch of the MCU already but uses the extra time allowed to build up its other worldly antagonist and if they’d developed the character of Thanos a little more fully in previous films, perhaps they could have devoted a little more space to things like the relationship between The Vision and The Scarlett Witch, something that actually happens almost entirely off screen and truly only works if you know the story from the comics. But when you end with one of the greatest cliffhangers in cinema history, you know you’ve done a lot right.
5. “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014). I called “Ant-Man and the Wasp” a lightweight piece of fluff and you can say much the same about this movie but I give this one points for at least pretending to have some narrative ambition. It not only introduces the public to an element of Marvel Comics never before seen on screen, it has a feel and vibe that is distinctly different from the rest of the MCU. Again, it largely exists to service the franchise rather than because it’s a story that needed to be told but anything that brings both Rocket Raccoon and Howard the Duck to the Silver Screen is aces with me.
4. “Captain America: Civil War” (2016). This isn’t a Captain America movie. This is an Avengers sequel that fits in between “Age of Ultron” and “Infinity War.” It also brings some of the moral confusion of modern comics to the MCU where heroes spend their time fighting other heroes instead of villains. But unlike modern comics where the moral issues at stake get lost in all the punching and talking, this film grapples with the realistic implications of super-humans and their battles without losing perspective and forgetting this is a story of super-heroes and not just super-humans. It also has probably the best fight scenes to date in the MCU.
3. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014). Cap has been around since the 1940s but if anyone had ever said he’d be the title character in two of the best super-hero movies ever made, even hardcore comic fans would have scoffed. But by combining super-hero action with a plot from a 1970s political thriller, this thing exceeds any expectations of the genre while not abandoning its roots. A super-hero story can be very smart and very deep and very complex but if it forgets that is it ultimately about people in colorful costumes kicking evil in the butt, it’s not really a super-hero story. I wouldn’t quite call “The Winter Soldier” great art but you can enjoy it the same way, viscerally on one level and intellectually on another.
2. “Marvel’s The Avengers” (2012). I’m not sure there’s another great film that achieves its greatness by not sucking but this one does. There are so many things to praise about this movie but the fundamental quality of it is that so many things could have gone wrong but they didn’t. Writer/director Joss Whedon was asked to do something that no one had ever really done before. He had to unite four separate film franchises into one motion picture, making sure everyone’s favorite character got their own chance to shine and without doing anything that might substantially affect future installments of each individual franchise. He didn’t entirely succeed. “Iron Man 3” was weighed down by the aftermath of “The Avengers” but that was as much by choice as necessity. But when you look at DC’s two attempts at the same thing, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) and “Justice League” (2017), and how badly they foundered on the same rocks Whedon soared over, all you can do is applaud.
Oh. That's why.
1. “Iron Man” (2008). The granddaddy of them all and don’t let anyone fool you. The MCU exists only because this movie is so damn good. Much like George Lucas has spun a pretend history of what “Star Wars” was always supposed to be, there’s a tendency to talk and write about the MCU as if it were the product of some carefully calculated plan. It wasn’t. I’m not saying there weren’t a bunch of ideas flying around about what could be done with Marvel characters in the movies but there’s a reason why they were able to start from scratch and make an Iron Man sequel by 2010 before Captain America and Thor movies came out in 2011. The reason is that no one truly expected “Iron Man” to be as amazing and successful as it was. Robert Downey Jr. is astounding as a larger-than-life man who’s combining his mid-life crisis with his long delayed coming of age. No other MCU film more perfectly embodies the concept of super-heroes as flawed human beings that made the Marvel Universe so enthralling to generations of readers. The combination of intentional and casual humor that permeates the franchise started here, as did the tradition of outstandingly strong supporting characters. No other franchise in motion picture history has produced as many movies that are as good as the MCU in such a relatively short time, yet “Iron Man” remains the best of the best.
How long can the MCU keep going? Well, tastes change and actors, unlike characters drawn on the page, get old or decide they want to do something else. Marvel still has a wealth of heroes, villains, and storylines to exploit, but “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017) demonstrated that franchises can go very bad very quickly and studios don’t always react well when they do. No matter what happens in the future, we’ve had a decade of some hellaciously fun films to enjoy. It’s not something any previous generation quite had and they can never take it away from us, so embrace history while it lasts. Fingers crossed, we might even get a good Fantastic Four flick one day.
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Written by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari. Yeah, the story seems like that many people banged their heads on it.
Directed by Peyton Reed.
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Walton Goggins, Abby Ryder Fortson, Hanna John-Kamen, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer, Randall Park, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, T.I., David Dastmalchian, and Michael Cerveris.