By Derek May:
YIN: Ant-Man and the Wasp
They say that the key to a good sequel is “the same but different.” This usually refers to retaining the elements that worked in the first film while adding newer, bigger, better elements. The sequel here to 2015’s Ant-Man and really also 2016’s Captain America: Civil War ticks all of those boxes with typical Marvel perfection.
Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t just pick up from the ends of those two previous entries but the pieces. The story is fundamentally driven by the consequences and events of those films. Paul Rudd’s affable Scott Lang may be out of jail, but he’s certainly still paying the price for having absconded with the Ant-Man suit to take a LARGE (get it) role in the superhero showdown at a German airport. Not only is he in hot water with the government for breaking the Sokovia Accords, but with his mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and his would-be partner, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). I don’t want to give too much away, suffice to say that the trio are reluctantly reunited due to Scott’s trip to the quantum realm in the first movie being the key to finally rescuing the original Wasp, Janet Van Dyne.
As such, the title is doubly apt, as not only must the current Ant-Man join forces with a now fully realized Wasp, but the duo are committed to re-joining that original eponymous pair. How’s that for same, but different? Continuing the trend are returning scene-stealer Michael Peña, his gangly crewmembers T.I. Harris and David Dastmalchian, as well as talented little cutie Abby Ryder Fortson as Scott’s seemingly never-aging daughter Cassie. Each somehow recaptures the magic from the first go-round, skimming the fine line between injecting the perfect amount of sweetness and/or comic relief and rehashing the same tired old joke. As before, one of the highlights of the film is Peña’s joyful, sugar-rushed storytelling, this time with even more of the cast giddily acting out the oral escapade.
And while rehashing the merriment of the past is all well and good, it’s the fresh aspects of the sequel that allow it reach new heights. The debut film took us through what it was like to be small, and Civil War showed us that Lang had seriously BIGGER tricks up his sleeve. So this time round, we get not only the best of both worlds, but all new ones. We see the Pym-particle technology taking things to both larger and smaller scales than we’ve heretofore seen, and along the way applying the technology to entire buildings and a plethora of vehicles. We even get to see what happens when the system bugs out, leaving Scott half the man once was.
Puns aside, the most important demonstration of the science is reflected in the new antagonist, the Ghost, played by British up-and-comer Hannah John-Kamen. Through her we see the darker side of the quantum realm—the excruciatingly painful and exploited side. In a very clever departure from the nasty villainy of Yellowjacket from the first film, we get a more developed, relatable character in Ghost, someone who’s certainly capable of doing bad things but for a very understandable and sympathetic reason. Along the same lines, Lawrence Fishburne’s newcomer Dr. Foster has a multitude of motivations for his actions, and sets up an interesting heel while acting as a sort of moral compass. Taking over the more comedic obstructionist role from Bobby Carnivale this time is funnyman Randall Park (a favorite of mine, especially from Fresh Off the Boat), as the slightly off-kilter Agent Woo.
All of that, however, leaves A-M&W with an interesting sort of problem: there is a surplus of bad guys, without anyone ever really being truly bad. Ghost is not nearly the standard evil entity we’ve seen both in this franchise and throughout the MCU. Dr. Foster and Agent Woo present more as obstacles than dangers. Which leaves Walton Goggins’s Sonny Burch as the only true “bad guy” in the film. Yet, even here, he never really rises to any significant or serious threat.
If there’s a chink in the otherwise shining armor of A-M&W, that may be it. The biggest complaint typically levied at the MCU is its weak villains, and there might be an argument for that here, even with such an abundance. But then again, with the whole being larger than the sum of its parts, and the fact that much of the conflict in the film stems from within rather than from without, it might be more fair to say that it’s yet another clever twist of the genre by the filmmakers. The film doesn’t need an external baddie because it does such an excellent job of keeping the conflict internal. And in storytelling terms, that always the better, if tougher, choice. But whichever side of the fence you may land on, I’d be seriously surprised if the film didn’t in one way other another end up tickling your fancy.
Ant-Man and the Wasp stands tall as an excellent film in its own right and a worthy sequel. But its greatest achievement may be yet to come. The ideas laid out here may potentially have massive implications, and ramifications, for the future of the MCU following the events of Infinity War. Could the quantum realm hold the key to saving not only the Avengers, but half the universe? Only time will tell, but whether your searching for clues to the next exciting entry, or just in the mood for a fun adventure, Ant-Man and the Wasp will leave you flying high.
YANG: Set It Up
Romantic comedies are a paradox. They are simultaneously both mechanically simple and infinitely difficult to pull off for the very same reason. The “boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back” is so clichéd—not to mention chauvinistic—that the aforementioned formula continues to be plastered beat by beat throughout screenwriting books across the globe. Most are written by men, yet for women, with too often very little concern for an authentic female perspective, much less genuine character. And so finding a modern rom-com with a fresh hook, interesting and realistic characters on both sides, and an honest, unforced relationship is about as rare a coup as finding true love on Tinder.
Fortunately, Netflix is continually stepping up their game, building an impressive roster of less-standard fare, and seems willing to take chances that other studios might not. The uniqueness of Set It Up starts at the top, with the rare combination of a female writer as well as a female director. Scribe Katie Silberman may not have a lengthy track record (yet), but seems to understand the genre trope enough to know where to use and where to turn it on its head. The story follows not one but two couples: our protagonist pair Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell) are equally ambitious, overworked assistants to equally appalling, unbearable bosses. After a clever meet-cute while serving their respective masters, they eventually come to realize that their mutual lack of a life might be solved if their bosses where to have love-lives of their own to occupy their time. And hence the scheme is born to create our second couple in Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs (interestingly enough, not for the first time, if you recall their pairing from Ally McBeal).
Silberman is able to develop the chemistry between Harper and Charlie not through reluctance or conflict—all too often the usual course—but through cooperation. The pair have to work together in order to achieve their goal. In an even smarter move, both Harper and Charlie are involved in separate relationships of their own, taking the pressure off their albeit-inevitable union. In fact, it is through their other relationships that we perceive more about the characters and what they truly want. Both are given clear, realistic ambitions and motivations, on equal footing and of equal value (it’s actually somewhat sad to realize how rare that simple statement is). In addition, their compatible sense of humor makes for an endearing mutual attraction as well as the driving element of the comedy.
Writing great characters is the first step, but then you need the perfect cast to bring them to life. Zoey Deutch emerges as a gem of impressive talent and presence. Her near-effortless charisma and pinpoint comic timing not only make Harper a lovable and sympathetic character, but are clearly signs of a career destined for future greatness (not unlike her mother, actress Lea Thompson). Equal to the task is Glen Powell, who I actually first noticed in Expendables 3, who delivers the same acerbic yet charming wit he’s shown across his short career, playing off Zoey in a seamless back and forth as effortless as two Wimbledon masters. Their easy-going appeal not only carries but elevates the film. Rather than the tiresome and predictable thrust toward romance, we’re privy to an honest development of friendship over the course of the film, which you then hope develops into romance. Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs’ characters serve as proof that it’s not enough to just put two attractive people in a room and sit back to watch love bloom. People have to connect on a far deeper level, and that may be not only the message, but the magic of Set it Up.
In truth, I may be predisposed to the tone of the film, given that director Claire Scanlon may be new to features but has a long history of directing some of my all-time favorite television comedies (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fresh Off the Boat, and GLOW to name but a few). So it may also come as no surprise that the level of comedy here often skews towards the sweetly juvenile and the maturely sophomoric. What we get is the tonal lovechild of When Harry Met Sally and American Pie, but somehow striking just the right balance so that even the most despicable characters appear at least partially redeemable and the rest lovably endearing.
Set It Up never completely breaks from its formulaic bonds, but distances itself well enough to provide a truly original and enjoyable tale of unorthodox courtship. Through the fresh voice of Silberman and the veteran eye of Scanlon, we get to really enjoy the journey of these four characters without wincing at the saccharine hokeyness of attractive lovestruck mannequins or measuring the systematic beats out with a stopwatch. Instead we get to see friendship blossom into something real, something true, all the while laughing at seriously adroit one-liners and astute observational gags. In a perfect world, this might just mean another run of the mill rom-com, but as it stands, Set It Up actually does something rather unique, while still giving us exactly what we expect.