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More Blockbusters Need the Small Stakes of ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’

And some other random thoughts about the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

In Thor: Ragnarok, Asgard is destroyed. In Justice League, the DC heroes have to stop the villainous Steppenwolf from obliterating Earth. In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos wants to eradicate much of the universe’s population. The stakes are often so astronomic in superhero movies that it can be hard to get excited about watching another film where the fate of millions of people are, predictably, hanging in the balance.

If it’s always life-or-death in these films, how can anything be that urgent? After all, the whole damn planet will be in danger again in four months when the next Marvel movie comes around.

Among the pleasures of Ant-Man and the Wasp is that it’s a comic-book movie that isn’t concerned with the fate of the cosmos, Earth or even the characters’ hometown of San Francisco. By superhero standards, it’s a small-scale affair: Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) are trying to find her long-lost mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who disappeared into the Quantum Realm years ago, while also battling a woman (Hannah John-Kamen) who has the ability to walk through physical objects. No one’s fighting for global domination. There isn’t a single Infinity Stone to be had.

In theory, this should make Ant-Man and the Wasp underwhelming. But as it turns out, the movie is actually a blessed relief. If anything, we could use more action movies with its relative chill. The whole appeal of Ant-Man is that Rudd’s petty thief Scott Lang is so clearly not an Avenger. In comparison to Iron Man’s suit, the Hulk’s strength or Thor’s hammer, being able to talk to ants and get really small isn’t especially cool. As a result, both the 2015 original and the new sequel sport a self-effacing tone that basically acknowledges, “Hey, we know we’re not your first choice for a Marvel movie. But we promise we’ll be fun.”

Like its predecessor, Ant-Man and the Wasp is jokey and goofy, almost apologetic about being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a breezy sequel that doesn’t put on airs — although it’s heartfelt and touching, Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t mired in angst or heavy emoting. When we get to the finale, there’s little question that nothing dire is going to occur. The stakes are all personal as the search to find Janet reaches its climax — the audience’s concerns aren’t “Oh man, is Earth gonna be wrecked?” but rather, “I sure hope these characters I like get their happy ending.”

It’s refreshing to watch a superhero movie where that’s all that’s on the line. The Marvel brain trust does a lot right, but they especially ought to be commended for figuring out what size each of their films should be. If you’re going to assemble the Avengers for a film called Infinity War then, yeah, you need to have something epic happen. But Ant-Man and the Wasp can just be a silly good time — it’s a movie that serves as an MCU self-correction, a lowering of expectations, until the next superhero extravaganza.

Other franchises could learn from Marvel’s example. Because everything else is still all death-defying spectacle. Case in point: Dwayne Johnson fights ginormous animals in Rampage. A Quiet Place gives us a world at the edge of ruin. Tom Cruise’s latest impossible mission is, somehow, even more impossible than his last one. There’s no sense of moderation. So when a modest charmer like Ant-Man and the Wasp or Ocean’s 8 comes along — nothing earthshaking, but still pleasant — we’re not quite sure what to do with it.

We need a name for these dependable, medium-sized spectacles: Snackables, maybe? Appetizer action films? Whatever you call them, they ought to be part of a well-balanced movie diet. You need a couple palate cleansers between the big meals.

Here are a few other takeaways from Ant-Man and the Wasp. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. Is there such a thing as truth serum?

In the movie, Ant-Man’s buddy Luis (Michael Peña) is captured by some criminals who are looking for the superhero. Luis refuses to reveal any information, but he’s tied down and injected with a liquid that will make him start talking. This gives birth to one of Ant-Man and the Wasp’s best running jokes: Luis freaks out about being given a truth serum, which pisses off the criminal’s henchman Uzman (Divian Ladwa), who insists that his brilliant concoction isn’t a truth serum — after all, he explains, there’s no such thing as a truth serum. That’s a Hollywood invention.

Or is it? Bustle’s Danielle Burgos decided to investigate, determining that “‘truth serum’ isn’t even a single specific chemical or batch of chemicals, but a catch-all name for a variety of psychoactive drugs whose effects are hoped to loosen the tongues of individuals they’re given to.” Most of us think of sodium thiopental — which is popularly known as sodium pentathol — as the drug used to extract information from tight-lipped characters in James Bond movies, but Burgos points to a 2016 piece in High Times, which mentions that the U.S. government tried using marijuana in the 1940s as a kind of truth serum: “It didn’t actually compel individuals to tell the truth, but it made them relaxed, a little high and distracted them enough to become a useful tool for interrogators.”

As it turns out, this is a problem with any kind of so-called truth serum: As Burgos explains, these liquids don’t make you tell the truth as much as they make you more willing to tell your inquisitor what you think he wants to hear. So, a magic truth serum remains a fancy fiction. And it definitely won’t make you do what Luis does under the drug, although it does lead to Ant-Man and the Wasp’s most hilarious moment:

#2. Is Paul Rudd Smug?: An Investigation

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my parents about Ant-Man and the Wasp, and they were expressing their misgivings about Paul Rudd. I was surprised: I thought everybody liked the genial, charming, self-deprecating movie star. But not my parents. “He just seems a little … smug,” they informed me, dismissively. Now, bear in mind, my parents have never met Paul Rudd: It’s just a feeling they had.

I didn’t think much about it until, more recently, I was talking to a friend who had actually met Rudd at a party. Not aware of my conversation with my parents, she let it be know that she didn’t like him much, either — and she used that same derogatory adjective. “He just seems kind of … smug,” she said. Again, I was surprised: If anything, he’s almost too boyishly bland to really leave a strong impression. Was I missing something? Had I been blind all this time? Is Paul Rudd, in fact, really smug? I decided to do some research, checking out videos of Rudd while doing press for Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Rudd’s always had a snarky public persona. For years, he would appear on Conan O’Brien’s programs to promote his movies, and every single time he’d bring the exact same ridiculous clip from Mac and Me and pawn it off as a clip from his new film. Each time, he’d swear that he wasn’t going to do the same prank — but he’d always do the same prank. It never wasn’t funny.

But that changed when I started checking out his Ant-Man and the Wasp appearances. I’ve become a fan of Wired’s Autocomplete Interview, where celebrities answer questions based on popular Google searches of their name. I find that having to respond to really basic inquiries — Where were you born? How did you become famous? What was your first movie? — often inspires the star to drop their guard a bit while reflecting on their life. Or, the star can seem annoyed and just deliver curt responses, which is a lot less fun. Rudd fell into the latter category.

But is he smug? I wouldn’t go that far. The truth is, I don’t know — and neither do you. Yet the fear that an actor we like might be a jerk is a pervasive one. This is why, whenever I mention interviewing somebody famous, the person I’m talking to will always ask, “Is he nice?” We want to believe they’re good people — it’s always such a bitter disappointment to learn that’s not the case. So I don’t know if Rudd is smug, but I hope he isn’t. Now that other people have put that doubt in my mind, though, I’m wondering about it.

#3. This isn’t the best Michelle Pfeiffer movie of the year — and you should seek that one out.

Pfeiffer has been enjoying a little bit of a career renaissance. After being away from movies for a few years, she’s recently delivered a series of great performances, whether as the mysteriously malicious visitor in Mother! or as the lone interesting character in the Murder on the Orient Express remake. She’s good in Ant-Man and the Wasp, but she’s barely in the film. No, Pfeiffer’s great 2018 movie flew so far under the radar that you probably didn’t even know it came out. But that film, a character drama called Where Is Kyra?, has just now popped up on iTunes and Amazon. She’s incredible in it.

She plays Kyra, a lonely New Yorker who’s spent much of her recent life taking care of her dying mother. Once her mom dies, though, this unemployed woman discovers that she can’t deposit her mother’s disability checks — she’s suddenly facing the proposition of having no job, no place to stay and no safety net.

Co-starring Kiefer Sutherland as a neighbor with his own demons, Where Is Kyra? is a muted but anguished portrait of how some people fall through the cracks. And Pfeiffer is heartbreaking as this angry, possibly troubled woman who grows increasingly more desperate as she tries to stay afloat financially. Most of us are lucky to have enough of a financial cushion that homelessness isn’t a real possibility — but Kyra isn’t so fortunate, and director Andrew Dosunmu offers a stripped-down, unflinching examination of the worst-case scenario.

Where Is Kyra? premiered at Sundance in 2017 and then spent a year looking for distribution. The movie finally made its way to theaters in April, with little fanfare. (It made less than $60,000, despite good reviews.) The rawness and panic that Pfeiffer brings to the role is remarkable. This isn’t one of those cases of a glamorous movie star ugly-ing up to play “destitute” — Kyra is a legitimately unpredictable, edgy character, and Pfeiffer conveys every inch of her quiet despair.