Here’s a bit of controversy for you: Ant-Man and the Wasp was my favorite MCU film of 2018. Go ahead and gather your pitchforks.
I love big dramatic world-is-ending superhero blockbusters as much as the next guy (or, okay, ever so slightly less than the next guy). I loved Avengers and Civil War more than just about any other MCU film. It is definitely exciting watching our favorite superheroes battling to save the world/the space-time continuum/reality itself.
But lately, it seems that superhero films have all become about saving the universe. X-Men Apocalypse literally has a title villain named after the end of the world. Doctor Strange was saving the world from the Dark Dimension. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was saving the entire universe from Ego. Thor Ragnarok was trying to have it both ways by cutting between a sci-fi buddy film and the end of Asgard. Black Panther was saving an entire country from a usurper, and then the entire world from said usurper. And Infinity War was about saving all life in the universe (spoiler alert: they failed).
Some of these films were very good, and others less so. But it gets somewhat exhausting fretting about the fate of the world every other month in cinemas. (This feeling could just be coming from seeing four MCU films in the span of the last eight months.) And truth be told, it’s somewhat hard to relate to. This writer has never yet had to save the world. I’ve never meddled with time, gone to parallel dimensions, had the fate of a country in my hands, or tussled with superpowered celestial beings. (Of course, I couldn’t tell you even if I had!)
Superheroes, as a genre, were always something of a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Wouldn’t it be cool to have powers? Wouldn’t it be awesome to help people? Wouldn’t it be great to have abs like Thor? Of course, after a while that fantasy got deconstructed – hence “great responsibility,” the persecution of X-Men, and the rise of antiheroes. But at the core, audiences are still supposed to picture themselves as the superhero in the story. And that’s harder to do when billions of lives hang in the balance every time.
So lately, I’ve found myself looking forward more to the small-scale superhero films. Ant-Man was a welcome palate cleanser after the hectic Age of Ultron. Deadpool was a respite from battles for all of mutant-kind. Spider-Man Homecoming was by far my favorite superhero film last year, a wonderful coming-of-age film that included superpowers. And Ant-Man and the Wasp is a breath of fresh air after Infinity War.
It’s just so refreshing to see superheroes struggling even when the fate of the world isn’t at stake. To these characters, reuniting a family or winning a mentor’s approval matter just as much as fighting aliens. And that’s something we can relate to – if one of my parents were missing for 30 years, you can bet I’d be as concerned about that as about an impending alien invasion.
Without the crutch of big CGI-filled battle sequences, these smaller films have to do more work to hold the audience’s attention. It’s no coincidence that the two most charming heroes to come out of the MCU after Phase 1 are Spider-Man and Ant-Man – their films have to do more work on character. It also doesn’t hurt that they’re portrayed by national treasures Tom Holland and Paul Rudd, but I digress.
The Ant-Man films have also done a very impressive job of attracting A-list talent. It’s not unusual to get a respected older Oscar winner for an MCU flick, but it is notable that Michael Douglas returned for a second film… and could potentially return for more. The only analog we have is Anthony Hopkins making multiple appearances as Odin, but that’s a much smaller role.
In Ant-Man and the Wasp, there are enough Oscar-caliber actors in there to make it look like a year-end prestige picture… were it not for the goofy giant ants interspersed with them. Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, and Michael Douglas have six Oscar nominations among them. And even the smaller roles are filled out with excellent performers – Michael Pena, Randall Park, and a severely underused Judy Greer.
The humor feels less forced, there’s time to develop funny bits instead of the wearying constant quips of Guardians of the Galaxy. I could barely hear Michael Pena’s entire monologue over the audience laughing. And the bit where Paul Rudd plays Michelle Pfeiffer was several minutes of pure joy. Sure, maybe these bits are not quite as meme-able as “pirate angel,” but I vastly prefer them.
And while Spider-Man, Ant-Man, and Wasp do revisit the MCU’s be-all-end-all theme of daddy issues, they do it in a much gentler way. Less histrionics and life-and-death disowning, more emotionally-charged conversations. Scott Lang clears a very low bar to be the best dad in the MCU, and I couldn’t help get a little choked up during one of his conversations with Cassie.
Credit where it’s due, the only MCU film to make me cry was Infinity War (with Spider-Man, naturally). But I argue that’s an achievement on the part of Spider-Man Homecoming in making me care about Peter Parker, enough to induce waterworks in about ten minutes of screen time in another film.
What will be interesting is whether the smaller films like Spider-Man and Ant-Man prove to be the template for the MCU in Phase 4. A lot of the world-is-at-stake heroes have contracts ending with Avengers 4, and we’re also going to be seeing the end of Thanos and the Infinity Stones. Unless Marvel introduces another universe-destroying Big Bad right away (Galactus, maybe?), it’ll take time to convincingly put the universe in jeopardy again.
Of course, some of the Marvel franchises will lend themselves to apocalyptic stakes naturally. Doctor Strange will always have macrocosmic stakes because he’s dealing with timey-wimey stuff, unless they try doing a fun Back to the Future style movie where only Stephen Strange’s life is at stake from time shenanigans. As we wrote in February, Black Panther will likely be the new flagship franchise with world-altering events. But hopefully, those will be balanced out by movies about regular guys just trying to get through high school or house arrest (same thing, really).
Marvel can even run with the theme of down-to-earth MCU heroes with an affinity for bugs. Picture it: solo movies for Spider-Man, Ant-Man and Wasp, and Black Widow in Phase 4, culminating in a glorious Avengers: Age of Insects with Mantis along for the ride. Here’s hoping!
Do you enjoy the smaller-scale (no pun intended) MCU films? Or do you like it when the fate of the world hangs in the balance?