**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B-
starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Michael Douglas
written by Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers and Paul Rudd & Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Ferrari
directed by Peyton Reed
by Bryant Frazer Ant-Man and the Wasp opens, like Ant-Man before it, inside Uncanny Valley, with one of those flashback scenes haunted by creepy, de-aged CG replicas of famous actors. Less than 40 seconds into the film, Cartoon Robot Michelle Pfeiffer widens and rolls her eyes in an unsettling, overdetermined gesture that feels no less artificial even if it's sourced from Pfeiffer's "real" work in front of a performance-capture camera. It's not just that CRMP's eyeballs seem so much more active than those of every other actor in the film--that could be put down to her individual style of emoting--but more that they don't quite sync up with the rest of her face. Sure, as crimes against nature go this one is minor; the similarly de-eldered Creepy Zombie Michael Douglas looming behind her is more distracting, with a deader face. Still it's an unforced error. Why go to these lengths? CRMP's presence is barely required in the film; in most of her scenes, she's already wearing a mask. And the scene offers no crucial information or insight.
Once Hollow Wraith Peter Cushing made his brief shock-and-awe appearance in Rogue One, this shtick was probably destined to become a favoured trope of Star Wars as well as its corporate sibling, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Ant-Man and the Wasp de-ages Laurence Fishburne, too, using Fishburne's son as a reference double. Other Marvel movies have given Kurt Russell and Robert Downey Jr. the same dubious treatment, and MCU impresario Kevin Feige is promising that Samuel Jackson will be de-aged by 25 years for the entirety of the upcoming Captain Marvel. Never mind whether or not these demonstrations of VFX wizardry circa 2018 will hold up 20 years hence (they won't). Never mind whether the backstories add emotional resonance that overcomes the distraction of seeing them acted out by pallid phantoms (they don't). Marvel employs these parlour tricks not because the de-aging process is visually flawless, or because it tells a better story, but because they can. It gets a "wow," and so they do it. Over and over again.
It's not even like the presence of that flashback works as a narrative shortcut. First, the most important part of that scene--it depicts the fate of the original Wasp (the Pfeiffer character's heroic alter-ego) and introduces the in-universe mythology of the Quantum Realm--was already a central flashback in the original Ant-Man. Second, it doesn't save us from enduring a metric ton of exposition on the subject in the first half of this film. In fact, Ant-Man and the Wasp is one of the most exposition-rich movies I've seen. The people in this movie explain so much of their own histories to each other that most of the film is laden with bland, stage-setting dialogue. If you missed Captain America: Civil War, you're in luck (?), because the characters here describe Ant-Man's antics in that film at length. Just as they did in old-school Marvel Comics, characters from one Marvel film franchise make guest appearances in otherwise-unrelated Marvel movies; these so-called "crossovers" are meant to maximize ticket sales. But the story being told in Ant-Man and the Wasp is nowhere near complicated enough to justify all that time-filling exposition. The first Ant-Man already showed us how Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas) invented the amazing shrinking (and expanding) technology inside the Ant-Man suit and how his wife and superhero sidekick, Janet Van Dyne (Pfeiffer), made the ultimate sacrifice by consigning herself to the subatomic realm in order to enter and disable a nuclear missile in flight. In this sequel, Pym has built a "quantum tunnel" he hopes can be used by his protégées, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), in their contemporary roles as Ant-Man and the Wasp, to find her and bring her home.
So, yep, it's literally a straight-up damsel-in-distress scenario (don't @ me), but the idea of a story set largely in the quantum realm, where bizarre, microscopically-scaled obstacles and adversaries might threaten to undermine any rescue mission, is tantalizing. Instead, the small army of screenwriters lards up the mission with multiple human-sized villains who stand in the way of firing up the ol' quantum tunnel at all. There's dear Walton Goggins as a black-market technology dealer, Laurence Fishburne as Pym's old business frenemy Bill Foster, and Hannah John-Kamen as Ava Starr, a.k.a. Ghost, a mysteriously glitchy woman who wants Pym's technology for reasons of her own. The framework is numbingly familiar, but there are clever ideas deployed within it. For instance, since Pym's technology is now known to easily enlarge objects as well as shrink them, the film makes his laboratory itself the MacGuffin--it shrinks to the size of a suitcase that can be toted around on a wheelie cart, so our heroes can lose it and find it and lose it again. Some of the action is especially inventive, like the chase scenes featuring automobiles that can be reduced to Matchbox Car-size, mid-chase, and then expanded again to full-size when it's convenient, sending other vehicles flying. Or the moment when a kaijū-sized Ant-Man wades into the waters off Fisherman's Wharf, briefly threatening to tip a tour boat before falling over and sinking to the bottom of the San Francisco Bay.
These flourishes keep Ant-Man and the Wasp light on its feet, making it an almost balletic palate-cleanser following the portentous death march of Avengers: Infinity War, and it doubles down on the first film's fathers-and-daughters themes to moderately heart-warming effect. (Little Abby Ryder Fortson, who once again plays Lang's daughter, remains delightful.) The visuals often approach the surreal while somehow staying grounded. DP Dante Spinotti has done some big VFX films, but, his work on X-Men: The Last Stand notwithstanding, he's not a comic-book kind of guy. His style meshes well enough with the usual Marvel look--colourful, well-lit but not over-bright--while maintaining a naturalism that helps make the fantastic stuff feel physical.
Even so, the movie is not nearly as much fun as the first Ant-Man, a similarly dazzling VFX extravaganza with personality to spare. Initially, I had credited Ant-Man's nimble pace and generally witty repartee to director Peyton Reed. After all, Reed made Bring It On, a modern Hollywood comedy so breezy it could knock over a windmill. But this comparatively clunky, talky follow-up made me realize a lot of Ant-Man's charm must have come from Edgar Wright, who developed the earlier film with co-writer Joe Cornish for years until departing the project shortly before shooting began. Though Wright and Cornish took only a story credit, much of what ended up on screen was clearly their idea--treating Ant-Man as a heist movie, they obviated many of the typical expository requirements of the MCU. And certainly nothing that happens in Ant-Man and the Wasp approaches the kid-driven, out-of-left-field spectacle of its predecessor's climactic fight scene, which was set, with positively Spielbergian brand-awareness, atop a Thomas the Tank Engine train set. Ant-Man was a small film with a huge, healthy sense of wonder. Ant-Man and the Wasp has a broader scope, yet its perspective feels narrower. That is to say, it is even more of a Marvel movie: more homogenized, more factory-farmed, more of the same.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Ant-Man and the Wasp looks good in its UHD BD debut. The film was shot with high-end ARRI digital cameras that delivered 6.5K and 3.4K images, but the footage was apparently downres'd and mastered at 2K for theatrical release and then upscaled for UHD viewing. Honestly, you'd barely be able to tell this wasn't a 4K-native production from top to bottom if it weren't for pedants like me pointing it out: the picture is crisp and noise-free from corner to corner, easily resolving detail like the texture of Douglas's sweaters or each whiskery bit of Rudd's perpetual five-o'clock shadow. Spinotti's imagery is uniformly and expertly thick with detail, and this disc's tasteful HDR rendering only makes his shots more lovely. Exterior action scenes are drenched in consistently soft light, though HDR makes the most of the limited contrast range; indoors, HDR emphasizes the subtler gradations of light and shadow that wrap the actors' faces, emphasizing their features and ensuring that every close-up is an exercise in portraiture. The ant-sized action scenes containing macro-style photography, with exceptionally shallow depth of field and soft bokeh in the backgrounds, feel almost three-dimensional here. Pym's passage through the quantum tunnel includes colourful, multilayered elements that could have been trimmed from a late Stan Brakhage film (although they're pretty enough on the BD, in HDR they positively glow), while the quantum realm itself draws inspiration from the candy-coloured micro-landscapes of latter-day scientific animation. The presentation is uniformly letterboxed to a widescreen 2.37:1 aspect ratio, presumably a deliberate decision though not completely uncontroversial, given that certain scenes were projected at a taller 1.90:1 in IMAX theatres. The video bitrate averages just under 44 Mbps, which seems to be plenty, especially given the lack of film grain to encode. I didn't notice any digital artifacts or other shortcomings.
Audio is solid if unspectacular. The soundfield is bright and dynamic overall, with plenty of low-end roar and thump throughout the action scenes. Dialogue is mostly limited to the front soundstage, but is quite directional when the scene calls for it, as are specific sound effects in the action set-pieces. Christophe Beck's score takes up residence in all of the channels throughout; otherwise, the surrounds only really come into their own when Pym dives into the quantum realm, triggering aural ripples and rumbles from all directions. (I was playing the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD core, so the vertical nuances of Dolby Atmos are lost on me.)
Special features of this "Cinematic Universe Edition" are packed onto the bundled Blu-ray Disc. They begin with an engaging audio commentary by Peyton Reed, who spends maybe a bit too much time explaining the story and telling us how we should feel about the characters, while also offering ample information on the film's conception--among its inspirations, according to Reed, are What's Up, Doc?, Midnight Run, The Big Lebowski, and the works of Elmore Leonard. He explains which scenes were captured on location in SF and which were shot in Georgia (to claim sizable state tax credits), draws deserved attention to Pym's humongous laboratory (a practical set he claims is the largest built for any Marvel movie), and says he was insistent that the film should clock in at less than two hours. (More proof, if you needed it, that 120 minutes is the new 90 minutes.) Meanwhile, Reed reveals that the screenwriters chose Ghost as the primary villain by paging through an exhaustive encyclopedia of Marvel characters, an admission that feels a little unseemly, like Sting admitting he uses a rhyming dictionary.
Hank's laboratory is explored further in "Quantum Perspective: The VFX and Production Design of Ant-Man and the Wasp" (7 mins.), the longest of four featurettes and still pretty superficial. Here, Reed emphasizes that he "fought really hard" to get approval to build the full lab as a functioning set. Also weighing in on details of the shoot are production designer Shepherd Frankel, Marvel Studios EVP Victoria Alonso, and VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti. Showing how the team selected locales in and around Atlanta for shooting, the piece does double duty as a commercial for the Georgia movie industry. The rest of the features, a mix of film clips, B-roll, alternate footage, and talking-head interviews, are keyed to the film's lead actors and their characters. "Back in the Ant-Suit: Scott Lang" (6 mins.) goes long on Lang's status as a "funny guy" and the "everyman" of the Marvel Universe by combining goofy outtakes with observations from Rudd himself alongside Reed, producer Stephen Broussard, Pfeiffer, and Douglas, plus supporting players Bobby Cannavale and David Dastmalchian. "A Suit of Her Own: The Wasp" (5 mins.) concentrates on the picture as a "coming-out" for the first female character to appear in the title of a Marvel film, with on-screen commentary from Reed and Lilly as well as Marvel honcho Kevin Feige, costume creator Ivo Coveney, and stunt coordinator George Cottle. And then there's "Subatomic Super Heroes: Hank & Janet" (4 mins.), with verbal contributions from Rudd, Douglas, Lilly, and Pfeiffer, who consider the roles of the elder Pym and Van Dyne in the generational history of the Marvel Universe.
Closing out the package: a garden-variety "Gag Reel" (2 mins.); "Stan Lee Outtakes" (0:46), featuring Stan the Man performing multiple variants of his trademark cameo appearance on a green-screen stage (excelsior and RIP, Stan!); "Tim Heidecker Outtakes" (1 min.), some excised footage from Heidecker's brief cameo as captain of a whale-watching tour boat; and two inessential deleted scenes with optional audio commentary from Reed, "Worlds Upon Worlds" (0:48) and "Sonny's on the Trail" (0:50). As a finishing touch, the cardboard slipcover is adorned with a lenticular two-shot of our eponymous heroes, masks flickering on and off depending on your angle of view.