We’re in the peak era of superhero movies and superhero movie fatigue.
Ant-Man and the Wasp is a welcome change of pace, just as Ant-Man was in 2015. Despite budget and scale, these movies work best with streamlined plots, astute characters, and a story that doesn’t rely on superpowers and VFX.
The reason Ant-Man was such a tight, successful film is because it wasn’t a superhero movie so much as a heist. It belongs in the conversation with the Ocean’s films as much as it does the Captain America series.
Ant-Man and the Wasp is a family film – about nuclear families, grieving families, broken families, found families. It’s about fighting for the safety of your family, which is as close as most of us will come to saving Earth from Thanos, and feels just as important.
The good news is that Marvel appears to be embracing this film-within-a-film model. 2017 boasted not only Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, as mentioned above, but the teen comedy Spider-Man: Homecoming and in 2018, the politically subversive drama Black Panther.
It’s easy to break down the elements of these successes: A protagonist (possibly with an origin story), some friends/allies, a love interest, a mission, a risk, a reward. You don’t actually need more if you tie these together skillfully.
Ant-Man is, on paper, the story of Scott Lang and his peers, who attempt to rob Hank Pym for money and immunity. The love interest is technically Hope, but much of the stakes in the Ant-Man movies come from Scott’s relationship with his daughter.
The Avengers films are at a disadvantage in that they can’t cut down on characters, and introducing anywhere between six and two dozen characters can eat up a lot of screen time. The plots of The Avengers and Infinity War are fairly simple, but additional characters add subplots and conflicts that risk bloating the overall mission.
Additionally, these films lack the extra genre element. They’re very squarely superhero movies about defeating a murderous alien villain. There’s not enough time in space to belong in the same category of space drama as The Martian, Gravity, or even Star Trek.
There are moments of romance and plenty of jokes, but you wouldn’t classify Infinity War as a comedy or a romance. (It could compete in the Love Actually ensemble sub-genre, but there’s not enough love, actually!) Ultron got close to sci-fi with the sentient robot villain, but stopped short of leaning into those genre allusions for a full men-versus-machines dystopia.
A neat plot and low stakes give breathing room to the true flesh and blood of the movie. In the Ant-Man films, we get to spend time with Scott’s family and friends, and get to know his sense of humor.
He and Hope interact constantly on-screen to demonstrate their chemistry, so when they do get together it feels earned rather than shoehorned in (looking at you, Sharon Carter!) (jk I’m never looking at you again). Relationships deepen the audience’s emotional investment, so those relationships have to be adequately built up.
In its 10 years, the MCU has shown that it knows how to deliver a fully formed, entertaining superhero blockbuster, with the best of the genre aspiring to something more. We’re glad to have Ant-Man and the Wasp as a distraction and an example.
We hope for the same from next year’s Spider-Man: Far From Home and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, with extra pressure on Captain Marvel as it brings a female hero into the fold. And maybe, if we concentrate real hard, we can bring this winning structure to those mind-boggling crossover ensembles, to Avengers 4 and beyond.