This month’s charming ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ is another victim of the MCU crossover machine.
Ant-Man and the Wasp ends on a charming, upbeat note because it’s a charming, upbeat movie. There are no world-shattering consequences to the film’s climax, just a little bit of cleanup to do in the wake of a giant-sized car chase. Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) has been saved, her relationship with her daughter and husband is about to begin anew, and Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man has finished his stint under house arrest, free to have charming sight-gag drive-in movie nights with his daughter and a shrunken convertible. The credits roll! The day is saved! Ant-Man has done it again! Peyton Reed deserves your applause!
And then the mid-credits stinger hits, and Janet, her husband, and her daughter all spontaneously combust.
Without the added context of this year’s superhero bonanza Infinity War, it’s a ridiculous and borderline insulting plot development. While it may seem unlikely that many of the people who trek to the theater for Ant-Man will have missed Infinity War, it’s worth sparing a thought for the poor mom who likes Paul Rudd just enough to show up to the theater and be totally and completely baffled by the wanton genocide that takes place just after the initial credits have rolled. When Marvel’s stingers started, they were charming little references to comic book concepts, exclusively for die-hard fans and those who wanted to add an extra layer to their cinematic experience. Now, we’ve graduated completely to a world where post-credits scenes make no sense unless you’ve seen the last Marvel movie, which in turn required you to see every Marvel movie before that. It’s corporate-mandated completism, a way to ensure a ticket gets sold to every viewer for every movie, out of a blind fear of missing out.
But there’s a larger issue at play here than just that straw-man imaginary viewer who skipped the biggest movie of the year in favor of the shrinking comedy. Since ditching the creative committee that stifled so many voices in the early days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the studio’s filmmaking has grown in leaps and bounds. Even as their larger crossovers groan under the increasing weight of their dozens upon dozens of characters, Marvel’s solo entries are growing more vibrantly inventive and creatively consistent than they’ve ever been. Last year alone produced three of their best films, each from a diverse and engaging voice. 2018 kicked off with another unqualified success story in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. So why does the studio insist on ignoring and, in extreme cases, actively undermining those films with stories like Infinity War?
Ant-Man and the Wasp‘s ending is the perfect example of this mentality. After a good two hours devoted almost entirely to saving Janet Van Dyne from the depths of the Quantum Realm, the film frees her and reunites her with her family. Hope (Evangeline Lilly) and Janet get their own moment together, a refreshingly feminine-focused arc in the middle of the testosterone-infused MCU. It seems clear that their story is just beginning until the mid-credits scene cuts it off short.
This isn’t a piece about how frustrating it is that Marvel has decided to pretend that it’s actually killed off three-quarters of the main Ant-Man cast. It does say a certain upsetting thing about the franchise’s priorities that it chooses to fridge two women for the price of one here, leaving Scott to avenge their “deaths” alongside a team of primarily male Avengers in next year’s Avengers 4. But the far worse storytelling choice is the one that essentially handwaves away the rest of the film in favor of crossover bait that some audience members won’t even see. Fans complained for years that Iron Man 2 spent too much time advertising The Avengers and not enough time on Iron Man, so why aren’t they upset that the Ant-Man stinger is a far more harmful version of the same problem, abandoning the text of the film to instead abruptly downshift gears from “funny heist thriller” to “genocidal tragedy”?
Earlier this year, another insectoid hero suffered a different version of the same problem. Spider-Man: Homecoming ended on a note of quiet humility for its lead character, with Peter Parker choosing to turn down his mentor Tony Stark’s invitation to join the Avengers, knowing deep down that he wasn’t ready to take on that responsibility. Infinity War throws that out the window with irritating ease. The character that only one movie before was determined to stay a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” is now gallivanting across the galaxy in a spaceship, suddenly deciding out of nowhere that in fact, he is prepared to join the Avengers. Obviously, there was never any possibility of Marvel’s golden boy missing out on their universe-defining crossover; Spider-Man was always going to join the Avengers. But the way he does so is a disservice to the careful character work of Homecoming, and it’s made even more obnoxious as a retcon by the fact that there’s a way for the film to have its cake and eat it too, with Tony sending Peter back to Earth via a built-in suit parachute after he stows away on a quickly moving spaceship. That easily could have been the end of Peter’s Infinity War appearance; you get your charming Spider-Man action scene and your built-in marketability without abandoning the thematic conclusion of his last film.
And Infinity War does Thor: Ragnarok even dirtier. After a full film built around the idea that Thor’s home world of Asgard isn’t defined by its setting, but by its citizenry, Infinity War dispatches the entire population of his planet offscreen, immediately murdered by Thanos without any fanfare or elaboration. There’s some handwaving dialogue later in the film about half of the population escaping, but it’s far too easy to miss, and it disobeys the cardinal rule of visual storytelling: Show, don’t tell. If half of Thor’s people have survived, why is he so grumpy? Shouldn’t he be getting in touch with them? Where are the charming sidekicks he acquired in the last film? If Thor’s powers were just as powerful without a weapon, why does he need to build another one? What was the point of taking his eye away if it’s replaced just as easily?
Nearly all of Ragnarok is dispatched this way, minutes into Infinity War. At least it manages to function on its own, without much universe-building contaminating Taika Waititi’s film itself. Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t even get that courtesy, with the franchise’s larger concerns leaking into the very last moments of the film and virtually destroying its relaxed, hangout vibe altogether. Narrative retcons are a classic part of comic-book storytelling, but it’s far rarer for a well-received, hyper-promoted film to be essentially undone before the final credits even roll. If Marvel is going to continue to pretend that each film in its universe is essential and unskippable, they’re going to have to start treating those films more like films and less like idle pencil scratches to be quickly erased.