Ant-Man and the Wasp, the latest trip to the corner of the Marvel universe where small things become big and big things become small, is perhaps the studio’s fluffiest movie yet — something that might seem like a strange choice in the wake of April’s Avengers: Infinity War, which ended on a dark, downbeat cliffhanger that still has superhero movie fans buzzing.
But the film turns out to be a fun palate cleanser before Marvel moves on to whatever’s next. It’s funny, sure, but it also uses a genuinely new story structure in the Marvel universe, relying less on a villain than on a series of factions all battling for the same thing: access to the Quantum Realm.
Instead of the fate of the universe, what’s at stake is the reunion of the Pym/Van Dyne family, as Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and the Wasp, a.k.a. Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), search for the original Wasp, the long-lost Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hope’s mom and Hank’s wife. Meanwhile, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) gets roped into their schemes, even as he’s supposed to be under house arrest.
The movie laces all of these complications with its typical sly sense of humor and a love for big, ridiculous moments. That made it a great time to talk with Marvel head honcho, Kevin Feige (the man who’s produced all of Marvel Studios’s movies, stretching back to 2008’s Iron Man), and director Peyton Reed.
First, Feige and I talked about the evolution of the MCU, as well as the company slowly trying on dramatic stakes smaller than “the fate of the universe is at stake.” (If you want to read his thoughts on Black Panther as an Oscar contender, they’re over here.) Both interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
The deeper you get into the MCU, the more that each corner of the universe kind of has its own ensemble cast. So many characters live in the Ant-Man corner of the universe by the end of this movie, and so many of them are fun to hang out with. What does building those ensembles that are almost separate from the overall Marvel ensemble bring to what you’re doing?
It’s a great compliment and a great signal that work that’s been done is appreciated when people ask, “When are we going to see this new character?” This character I had never heard of before two hours ago, I’ve now watched and I want to know when they’re showing up again.
It always varies. But there’s a shot in this movie where some characters run out of the front of a building. There’s a shot with like six, seven characters in the frame. And you’re right, it’s sort of the Ant-Man ensemble. And some of them we have plans and know where they’re coming from and going. Others we love now, and as the audience tells us they love them, we want to find where to put them.
Janet Van Dyne’s such an important character in Marvel comics history, and we really don’t get to see that much of her in this movie, comparatively. Did you just want to offer a very short tease of her character?
The idea was always this was going to be the search for Janet. But seeing her at the beginning of the movie in a certain time period, and then finding her in the second half of the movie was great, because the cover of [1963’s] Avengers No. 1 is now complete. Loki, Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, Wasp, they’re all there. They’re all accounted for now in the films, which does feel like a fun milestone for us.
The technology from the early scene where Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer look like they did in the ’80s, that’s been around for a few years now, and the first few times I saw it, it looked so plastic to me. But it’s gotten so much better. How has that tech developed?
I can’t speak to whatever the software and the specific technology is, but I know that that tech has evolved and the artists and the visual effects houses that do that work for us have gotten much more refined. And it’s also about biting off what you can chew with it. But those shots in the house of Michael and Michelle are pretty astounding.
The other question is, would you ever do a whole film like that? And the answer is, we already are. Sam Jackson plays a 25-years-younger Nick Fury in Captain Marvel for the whole movie.
What’s interesting to you about spending time in the MCU’s past?
It’s really about servicing the story of the particular film you’re watching. The bonus is filling in that broader mythology, filling in that broader timeline of the MCU.
I’m a fan of that. I’m a fan of deep mythologies and that the more interest you have in something, the deeper you can go and look into it. It’s got to work on a surface level — this is just a prologue to the movie I’m watching. But also, if you want to go deeper, you can see how it all connects.
We’ve done that for many years and we’re going to continue to do that because I find it fun and entertaining. You almost always, in a story, have a reason to discuss a past event or discuss something that has influenced whatever the actual plot is of the movie.
Outside of Infinity War, the stakes of your recent movies have been getting smaller and more personal. Black Panther’s about fighting for one country. This is about reuniting one family. How have you made the choice to shrink those stakes?
You can’t save the world every time. [Spider-man] Homecoming isn’t about saving the world, either. It’s about saving a plane full of stuff and the father of your girlfriend.
We always look for having enough stakes that there feels like gravitas, but sometimes that can be just because you’re going to lose your father or lose your parent or find your loved one. Or in the case of Ghost [in Ant-Man and the Wasp], dissipate completely. Or, sometimes it’s about stopping the madman with the gauntlet who wants to wipe out half of everything. I like that.
But whether it’s saving the entire universe or saving a country or a city block or a loved one, the stakes have to feel huge to the audience because that’s where, not only the entertainment value, but the emotional connection comes. So I think we’ll continue to try to vary that.
It feels like the ending of Infinity War really changed the conversation around Marvel. People are really trying to outguess how you’re going to continue that story in Avengers 4 next year. Do you feel a pressure to live up to that conversation?
There’s always pressure. Infinity War itself and earning that ending was pressure. I got very nervous in the days beforehand. Like what are audiences going to do? And it’s the best reaction. My favorite reaction is, “I hated it, but I loved it.” And when you can have characters that most moviegoing audiences didn’t know three years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, and have an emotional reaction like that, it’s very gratifying.
When he was brought in to direct 2015’s Ant-Man at the last minute — shortly after original director Edgar Wright left the project and with only a few weeks until production — Peyton Reed might not have seemed the most likely director for a superhero movie. His work on movies like Bring It On, Down With Love, and The Break-Up marked him as a terrific director of visual comedy, sure. But a superhero movie?
And yet Reed turned out to be just what Ant-Man needed, giving the character’s whole ridiculous corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe the feel of a candy-coated confection. Ant-Man, as Reed says, “shrinks, and he flies around on an ant.” So why not bring in somebody so adept with slapstick and goofy visual humor?
Reed has returned for Ant-Man and the Wasp, but this time, he was in the planning process of the film from its earliest days. He talked with me about drawing inspiration from unlikely sources in constructing the movie’s story and what he looks for in a visual comedy.
You mentioned at an earlier press conference that you wanted this movie to have a feeling like an Elmore Leonard novel, and that really made what this movie is trying to do snap into place for me. Where do you find that Venn diagram intersection between Leonard and superheroes, which are such different things?
The first Ant-Man movie was a heist. And the very beginning of formulating the story for Ant-Man and the Wasp, we knew the spine of the story was that partnership and are they going to be able to work together.
But we wanted to kind of stay in the general crime genre, so we really started talking about Elmore Leonard novels, and then talking about movies like Midnight Run or After Hours, movies that had a very finite time period, and a very clear goal and that goal is complicated by rivals, and antagonists, and double-crossing, and all that stuff. It felt like, “That’s something I really haven’t seen in a Marvel movie, and it feels like the tone of the Ant-Man universe.”
It led us to, obviously, the Sonny Burch character [Walton Goggins], and it led us to the idea of Hank and Hope being on the run and being estranged from Scott and having this portable lab. It opened up us being able to use the Pym particle technology in different ways, not just shrinking and growing people, but vehicles and buildings and stuff.
It wanted to be a ticking clock in a finite amount of time. I’ll go back as far as Buster Keaton, Seven Chances. Maybe the original ticking clock movie. “If you’re not married by 7 pm on your 27th birthday, you won’t get the inheritance.”
Another big influence was What’s Up, Doc?, the Peter Bogdanovich movie, with the cases that get confused, but also just the crazy chase in San Francisco. So that really was that vibe we were after.
It’s not that the movie doesn’t have a villain so much as it has a bunch of competing factions, and all of the “villains” have fairly understandable reasons for what they’re doing. And that’s a break from Marvel’s usual template. How did you develop that? Did you get any pushback from Marvel?
It came out of that Elmore Leonard or Midnight Run structure, which is a bunch of obstacles and antagonists and things. Ghost happens to be the most formidable, and the most powerful, and obviously has a personal connection to our heroes. That was intriguing. Once we landed on Ghost, her powers in the comics seemed intriguing as something that could be formidable for Ant-Man and the Wasp as a team. It wasn’t like “another hero shrinks or grows.” It was a whole different power set.
And very few people, percentage-wise, know who Ghost is in the comics, so we’re free to change up this character as much as want, so we decided to do a gender swap, and really have it sit more in the tone of our story. It was very Elmore Leonard that it was not just one thing. [Ghost is] the chief thing that’s standing in their way, but even [Ghost] is foiled by Sonny Burch and all these people.
I always like villains where you understand what their motivation is and you sympathize with it, and as powerful as she is, she’s a victim, and her powers are really more of an affliction than anything else. That seemed interesting, story-wise.
You were on this one from the beginning. How did that change the process compared to the first one?
It was really great to be in from the very beginning of the formulation of the story. Obviously, I had more prep time to do all the technical stuff, but it was really about being involved in the story from the beginning. I mean, on the first movie, we came in and Edgar [Wright] and Joe [Cornish] had a heist movie formula in place, which was really great, but when [Adam] McKay and [Paul] Rudd and I came in, there was stuff we really wanted to change and open up. We wanted to introduce the Quantum Realm, which wasn’t originally in it, and we wanted to deal with Janet Van Dyne, because McKay and I were fans of the original Ant-Man and Wasp, and really double down on the family story, and the emotionality of it.
I just wanted to increase the emotionality of it. Same with this movie. It was nice to decide from the beginning what the starting point for these characters in this movie is and how we progress them.
The Ant-Man movies are really built around father-daughter relationships, and you have three of them in this movie, effectively. What makes that relationship a good one to build the emotional and personal depth of these films around?
The Scott-Cassie relationship is so crucial to both movies. And in the comics, Cassie Lang ends up becoming a hero as she gets older. So it was fun to plant maybe some of the seeds for that, seeing her cover for her dad, and do some things that were pretty decisive. She’s the one who figures out that he’s Ant-Man again and all these things really deepen that bond.
But one of the major things that separates Scott and Hope is that Scott has a great deal of ambivalence about being a hero, not because he doesn’t like it, but because it’s only brought trouble and jeopardizes his relationship with his daughter. He’s not sure he can find this work-life balance to make them both work. Throughout the course of the movie, hopefully he does.
And with the Hank-Hope thing, we had an opportunity here, because there’s so much antagonism between the two of them in the first movie, and now that that’s resolved, starting them off in a place where they’re working together on this very specific and very personal thing. It’s so great to see the genius scientist and his genius daughter working together. That was a whole different dynamic.
When it came time to formulate the story of Ghost and Bill Foster, though they’re not literally father and daughter, metaphorically they are. He’s definitely taken a very paternalistic position in her life, and that just felt right, and it was in keeping with the theme of our movies.
Your filmography’s full of great visual humor, sight gags, things like that. That’s unique among comedy directors nowadays. What makes a great visual gag, to your mind?
I always liked comedic movies that took the visuals seriously. There’s certain comedies where it just feels like they’re recording people being funny, and maybe they want to light it pretty, but it’s not visual comedy. That’s always been important to me just in terms of the kinetics of the movie, and my favorite comedy directors have always done that.
I do feel like inherently there is a funny way to shoot a scene, there’s a funny way to move the camera or not move the camera, and not like an in your face kind of “Hey, hey, hey. This is funny.” But just the timing and the editing.
I started out working as an editor, and it’s amazing to get a scene that is designed to be funny, and you see a cut of it, where it’s like, “Well, this is not funny.” Then you spend time in the editing room, and it becomes funny. It’s like music. It’s rhythmic. If the rhythm is off, it’s not funny. That’s always been really important to me, because it’s not a radio show. It’s a movie. There’s got to be consideration for where the camera is.
This movie is indebted to San Francisco, with many sequences built around San Francisco landmarks. What was appealing to you about giving this movie such a sense of place in that regard?
I always like movies that have a really strong sense of place, and so much of the first movie takes place in Pym’s house, and in the Pym Tech laboratories that I really wanted to try and open this up more.
We knew we were in San Francisco, and it’s such a specific city in terms of the geography and the topography. Let’s design action sequences that take the best advantage of shrinking and growing, and also how insane the hills are in San Francisco and Lombard Street, and all these landmarks, and do a chase that could really only exist in that city, have fun with it, and photograph it on location as much as we can afford to do in this movie. I’m very happy about that aspect of the movie.
Tell me a little bit about creating the effects for Ghost, who frequently seems to exist in multiple probable versions of herself. I’m not sure how much you had to record multiple takes to get those apparitions.
There’s a lot of R&D. We had them do tests and things, and we knew generally what we wanted, but we also wanted to kind of be surprised, and there were a lot of different versions of the effect. It’s also trying to get them to look dimensional and not 2D. Some effects we tried early on felt too much like an old TV fritzing or Max Headroom or something like that.
When we finally landed on the effect we did, it had to tie in with the visuals of the Quantum Realm, because it’s quantum-based, and it wanted to be about light, and it wanted to be prismatic. It also wanted to kind of honor the notion of just the name Ghost.
What we would do is we do the different takes, and sometimes we’d pick the hero take of Hannah [John-Kamen], and then use portions of that take and portions of other takes where she’s doing different things, and it was really fun to see sometimes the ghosting get ahead of her. Or if it’s way behind her, it really had a weird, chilling, off-putting effect. It really was trial and error.
What do you like about working in the Quantum Realm?
I love it visually, and I also love that it’s virtually infinite in terms of the possibilities. It was something that we spent a lot of time not only developing visually but story-wise, how much of the Quantum Realm could this particular movie contain? How much do we show? What do we not show? It was the subject of endless discussion with the writers and trying to figure out.
We’d seen a glimpse of it, obviously, in the first movie. But also [we had to create] the internal logic of — Scott made it a certain way down and ended up in this weird void in the first movie that felt like he’d come back from this. And then we discover throughout this movie that maybe if you puncture through the void, there’s a whole other thing on the other side. Maybe that’s where Janet is. It was fun to create the internal logic of the quantum realm.
I think the third one’s got to have a giant tardigrade as the villain.
An evil tardigrade. Yeah.
All Marvel movies have humor in them, but these movies it feels like hit the comedic scale a little bit more. Is that just because the idea of small things becoming big and big things becoming small has that inherent comedic energy to it?
It’s Ant-Man. He shrinks, and he flies around on an ant. It feels like the appropriate tone.
All the action sequences come from a comedic place. We sit around and talk about the funniest uses of this technology, and the visual comedy of it, which is why I think we talked about things like What’s Up, Doc? and the Buster Keaton movies, because it’s a visual comedy.
Also, Scott Lang is the everyman of the MCU. He’s not a genius, he’s not a billionaire. He’s just an average person who’s made some bad mistakes, and is trying to just live his life that feels good and be there for his daughter, and maybe also be a hero. He’s surrounded by these geniuses and he’s always a half step behind, and that’s fun.
Ant-Man and the Wasp opens in theaters Friday, July 6, with preview screenings Thursday, July 5.