Ant-Man and the Wasp unmasked hero

Ant-Man and the Wasp solved a major superhero movie problem. Will others follow?

Contributed by
Jul 13, 2018

Everyone can agree that Marvel Studios, whose Ant-Man and the Wasp marked its 20th consecutive No. 1 opening, has developed a winning formula. The downside to formulas is that they demand repetition. For all of Marvel's innovations, their films (and other studios' copycats) have developed a predictable weak spot: the third act, where digital effects trample character and plot as our heroes fight to save the world from destruction. Surprisingly enough, Ant-Man and the Wasp, regarded as a minor film in the Marvel canon, delivers a terrifically entertaining climax that breaks all the superhero-movie rules. Will anybody take notice?

To some extent, superhero movies have always had a third-act problem. When a character spends an entire film doing extraordinary things, how do you raise the stakes high enough for a satisfying climax? From Superman spinning the Earth backward to The Dark Knight's perplexing boat-hostage rescue, the genre is full of near-misses. But the MCU established a new standard: every superhero movie should end with the fate of the universe at stake, a battle between digitally rendered superfolk, and enough computer-generated explosions, earthquakes, and aliens to let the audience know that things are really serious.

The first time Marvel heroes banded together to fend off an apocalypse, in 2012's The Avengers, it seemed like a fitting culmination of what came before. When Marvel did it again three years later in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the impact was gone. And while some directors have spun the third-act climax in fun and unexpected ways — Doctor Strange's fight in the Mirror Dimension, Tony Stark battling his own suits in Iron Man Three — these sequences have begun to seem obligatory, and rarely feel essential to the characters or stories.

**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Ant-Man and the Wasp below**

This problem plagues even the best of recent Marvel films: The battle for Asgard is the least memorable part of the deliciously idiosyncratic Thor: Ragnarok, and the otherwise gorgeous and innovative Black Panther climaxes in two digital catsuits punching each other on computer-generated railroad tracks. By the time we get to Avengers: Infinity War, all the early scenes are simply the set up for a giant battle with zero emotional stakes for anyone and which furthers nobody's story. Where can we possibly go from here?

Ant-Man and the Wasp solves this problem by pulling everything back — way back.

Ant-Man and the Wasp, ghost

Credit: Marvel Studios

In the grand scheme of the MCU, the third-act stakes in this film are tiny. They are also literally tiny: Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) has shrunk himself down to particle size to search for his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the quantum realm, while Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) need to rescue their lab, shrunk down to the size of a suitcase, from the hands of a villain.

Director Peyton Reed stages the film's climax as an exhilarating car chase through the streets of San Francisco, during which the title characters and the cars themselves continually shrink and grow. Meanwhile, in the quantum realm, Hank races the clock to rescue Janet before the tunnel either closes or falls into the wrong hands. Both sequences seem vital to the story; they have obvious consequences for the characters. And neither is an epic battle.

It seems obvious that a film can reach a satisfying conclusion without turning everything into a war zone. Films do it all the time! Just not superhero films. And seeing as superhero films will be dominating studio slates for the foreseeable future, it's time for them to get more creative with their climaxes. Now that audiences have survived countless near-apocalypses, going smaller and more personal can actually have a bigger impact.

To illustrate, I'll conclude with a non-Marvel film. Wonder Woman (2017) was in many ways a perfect superhero movie, but its most affecting fight scene wasn't the giant battle-of-the-gods climax; it was the No Man's Land sequence, in which Wonder Woman ran through a hail of bullets to rescue an occupied German village. It was a big, glorious action set piece, but it was so specific to the protagonist and her ideals that it could only have happened in a Wonder Woman movie. Likewise, the incredible shrinking car chase couldn't happen to anyone but Ant-Man and the Wasp. Every superhero in the canon has a different story; it's time for studios to stop telling them all the same way.