After the punishingly world-ending stakes of Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel's new movie Ant-Man and the Wasp is almost soothing in its relative inconsequentiality.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the man who would be ant-sized, is still a bumbling ex-con trying to do right by his young daughter and playfully sparring with Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), now a costumed hero herself as the Wasp. While the movie's ensemble cast is large, many of the characters are there primarily to participate in an inventive, extended chase sequence in the movie's final stretch. The spectacle comes not from crumbling buildings or planets, but characters getting small, then big, then small again — and from Rudd's goofball chemistry with a motormouthed Michael Pena, playing Scott's sidekick Luis, who, as in the first movie, provides many funny tangents.
Yet with all of the time the movie makes for amusing digressions in both dialogue and plot, there's one thing director Peyton Reed seems positively skittish about: romance.
We're not supposed to demand romantic interludes in our modern superhero blockbusters, lest we harken back to when damsels in distress entered and exited superhero movies through a revolving door of peril. The Marvel Cinematic Universe established a different sort of male-female relationship in the first Iron Man, where Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) flirted with and frustrated each other in equal measure, a screwball romance in the margins of a superhero origin story.
But later Marvel entries seem to have learned the wrong lesson from Tony and Pepper, namely that romance should be ushered offscreen whenever possible. In the first round of Marvel origin stories, there's some genuine swooniness between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane (Natalie Portman), and a bittersweetness to the developing love of Captain America (Chris Evans) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) that hits a series high point. But those movies came out seven years ago, and during that time, Marvel has seemed progressively less interested in the space between a flirty first kiss and the eventual break-up. Avengers: Age of Ultron introduces some kind of romance between Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), but it's over before it even really begins. This approach becomes more literal in later installments: Black Panther and Doctor Strange both begin their movies with ex-girlfriends who clearly mean a lot to them, with their actual relationships safely packed away before the events we see on screen, and the girlfriend characters given just as little to do as traditional love interests.
To be clear, Marvel is right not to shoehorn its female characters into stock romance/rescue arcs these days. But it would be better if more of their movies addressed male-female friendships as nimbly as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, with its pairing of Cap and Natasha — or if Ant-Man and the Wasp wasn't their first film, 10 years and 20 movies in, to put a female superhero in the title.
The frustrating thing about the lack of romance in Ant-Man and the Wasp is that the lighter, zippier material seems designed for the superhero take on a romantic comedy, especially with the origin stuff taken care of by the original Ant-Man. There, Hope served as Scott's trainer; he was clearly smitten, they bantered, and the movie ended with them in a clinch. Ant-Man and the Wasp sets them back to zero, with Hope and her dad Hank (Michael Douglas) estranged from Scott after he used their tech to break the law in Captain America: Civil War. It's a tedious excuse for Marvel to yet again elide any scenes where Hope and Scott do more than smile shyly at each other; their actual coupling happens entirely in between movies, and their de facto comedy of remarriage has little His Girl Friday-style flirt-arguing.
This would be fine if the characters were positioned as platonic partners in crime-fighting, or even if the Wasp was given more of a personality outside of her reactions to Ant-Man. But Ant-Man and the Wasp repeatedly insists that they are a couple-to-be, while denying the audience the pleasures of a romantic comedy. Perversely, Peyton Reed has plenty of experience in this area, from the retro rom-com Down with Love to the unexpectedly stinging anti-rom-com The Break-Up. But the movie is hellbent on maintaining its status as a family film, literally: Hope spends much of her time on screen conspiring with her dad to rescue her mom from the Quantum Real, a trippy micro-universe.
None of this plot business is terrible, but it's all a bit boilerplate; Iron Man, Black Panther, and Thor already have the family drama angle pretty well covered. Their movies have too much else on their mind to go full-on rom-com, but Ant-Man and the Wasp emphatically does not, to the point where it's left retreading a lot of ground from the first movie. The movie is so pathological about avoiding sparks between its title characters that it starts to seem less like progressive treatment of the Wasp than a time-honored tradition of boys calling kissing icky.
Two more hours into the Ant-Man saga, and the lead characters have barely progressed beyond the kiss they share at the end of the first movie, apart from the vaguest of passing implication that maybe, at some point between movies, they might have been sleeping together (they talk about it as if there are kids present, even when there aren't). Nothing like that makes it on screen; if anything, there's less physical interaction between them in the sequel than there was in the already-chaste original.
Marvel super-producer Kevin Feige has long boasted that he wants his superhero movies to dip into other genres. But even the low stakes of Ant-Man and the Wasp are apparently too valuable to risk on romance.