Peyton Reed might be the luckiest director working in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Whereas most MCU installments serve to connect a blockbuster infrastructure, the bridges, highways, and tunnels plotted and planned by Kevin Feige, the Robert Moses of Hollywood, the Ant-Man series allows Reed to work on a granular level. Or a molecular one. Perhaps even quantum.
The plot of Reed’s sequel, this week’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, acknowledges the past — drink every time someone says “Sokovia accords” — but runs on the energy of the urgent present, and uses every last breath to crack wise. It’s Marvel’s funniest movie, its slickest caper, and its most “standalone” since Iron Man. The emphasis on scale gives Reed tremendous room to play. There are no Infinity Stones, but there are Pez dispensers the size of Thanos.
After years of developing the original Ant-Man with Baby Driver director Edgar Wright, Marvel brought on Reed with a cast on hold, a script in flux, and a release date set. While the finished film was cohesive, a cloud of development turbulence still hovered over the release. Ant-Man and the Wasp has no such identity crisis: beaming with personality, the quirky, relationship crime comedy pushes the size-amplifying rules of the Pym Particle to new heights (and lows), while nodding to the Silver Age comics that inspired it.
With Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, and Michael Peña returning, plus a new set of characters, including Michelle Pfeiffer as the original Wasp, Janet van Dyne, Reed tells me he was in position to do exactly what he wanted to do with Ant-Man and the Wasp. So he did. Here, Reed reveals his thoughts on a few of the movie’s major choices.
[Minor spoilers ahead]
Matt Patches: What did you want to do with the sequel that, in a way, you fully owned?
Peyton Reed: The biggest difference obviously was, I won’t say luxury, but having the time to develop the story and the screenplay and in addition to actually prepping the movie at hand. These are really dense, technical movies. So it was really, really fun. I feel ownership over the first movie; I came into that movie really quickly, but I’ve come to other movies quickly, before. But it was great because coming back into it with Paul and with Evangeline and Michael [Douglas] and Michael Pena as well — we’d worked with each other, and we had a shorthand. We didn’t have the burden of telling the origin stories again, so we could just hit the ground running and move these characters forward in ways that we felt were going to be funny and interesting and hopefully unexpected. To be able to add, Laurence Fishburne, Walton Goggins and Michelle Pfeiffer was fantastic.
It was great and a different experience for me mostly because I had never directed a sequel before in my career. I had chances to direct sequels, but I hadn’t been interested. This one, for obvious reasons felt like, okay, there’s a lot more story to tell with these characters that I have a genuine affection and kind of protective feeling about these characters. Anytime to be able to tell a story like this on the scale that Marvel allows you to tell is, as a director, is a wild and great experience.
There are a number of screenwriters credited for the script, but you’re not one of them — knowing that you were around from the beginning, how does that writing process work at Marvel?
Reed: I’ve never taken a screenwriting credit on the movie, but I’m intimately involved in the writing and the development of the script. This is where it really started with Barrer and Ferrari, the writing team who had been production writers with us for a lot of the first movie, but didn’t get credit on the first movie. They had written some really interesting spec script called Die in a Gunfight that I read when we were doing the first Ant-Man and we brought them on — they’re really talented guys who came up with some really, really cool stuff [like] the Luis to montage in the first movie. They wrote that and knocked it out of the park.
We started the movie with those guys, broke the story, then started evolving the story. Paul Rudd obviously was involved with them in writing and that felt like a nice natural progression from the first movie. And then [Spider-Man: Homecoming writers] Chris McKenna and Eric Summers came on and continued to write. So it was a really good group of likeminded people who really got the tone.
How early did you start work on the script? The movie is self-contained, but it’s informed by previous events in the MCU.
Reed: We initially had these sort of really generalized story meetings about the things we had set up in the first movie and different directions we wanted to go. Then for me ... I approach it as a moviegoer. There are sequels that I really like and sequels that I don’t like and there are reasons why. I really liked the idea of starting out our leads, Scott and Hope, way further down the road then the end of the first movie — it’s like catch up.
Around that same time we were looking at cuts of [Captain America: Civil War] and it became clear to me early on and kind of like, you know, the Russos were doing what they were doing in Civil War, but the obvious thing to me about Scott in Civil War is it gave us this really organic jumping off point. My first reaction was like, oh my God, Hank Pym is going to be pissed. This is his worst nightmare. The whole [first] movie’s about him trying to find a faithful steward of this particle technology. And Scott runs out and gets involved in this at the interest in fighting and exposes the tech to Tony Stark and gets thrown in prison and the suit’s confiscated. That’s Hank Pym’s worst fucking nightmare. That felt to me like, okay, we have the beginning of our movie. And not only has he ended up in house arrest, but now they’re after Hank and Hope, because it’s Hank and Hope’s technology in violation of the Sokovia accords. They’re estranged at the beginning of the movie, so that was great. So that was interesting because it is a sequel to Ant-Man, yet obviously, but it’s kind of a sequel to Civil War as well.
There were fans who felt the original Ant-Man sidelined The Wasp. Did you address any specific concerns while writing the sequel?
Reed: I suppose [Ant-Man and The Wasp] is a reaction to the first movie. The intent of the first movie to sort of step it out because there’s so much setup in the first movie. We not only had to set up Hank Pym and introduce him retroactively into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we had to set up the idea that he had had a wife named Janet and then we had to set up that there’s this guy named Scott Lang who was an ex-con and he’s coming out and how he’s involved. Then there’s a daughter, Hope van Dyne, this Pym tech and there’s Darren Cross. There was still an incredible amount of setup in that movie, and it was just like, are people gonna buy the concept of Ant-Man?
We knew while making the movie that the answer to Hank’s problems is right there under his nose. It’s Hope and he can’t see it because of their dynamic, the fact that he didn’t want her to end up and have a fate like Janet had. He’s being overly protective. So we knew we wanted her to be a big character in the first movie, but to introduce her if we had a chance at a second movie as a costumed character. That was something really that [Adam] McKay and Rudd brought to the script because there really was no Janet van Dyne or mention of her in the original drafts of the first Ant-Man. Or the or the Quantum Realm. That was stuff that McKay and Rudd brought to the party.
The movie delivers more shrinking and “giant” gags, but I wondered how you came up with the high-school setpiece, which introduces us to Hobbit-sized Scott Lang.
Reed: There was a thing early on when, after Giant-Man had been revealed in Civil War, we were talking about what we were going to do with size. We had to show the audience new uses of the Pym particle technology. Then it occurred to us that if they would use it on people, then maybe they’d use it on vehicles and buildings.
We also loved the idea that since Scott hasn’t been Ant-Man for a while and Hank and Hope have been busy doing this quantum tunnel, so maybe when it comes time for Scott to suit up, Hank hasn’t put quite enough effort into the suit and it’s not quite done and it’s, you know, it’s as he says, it’s a work in progress. And then we started talking: could we get away, can we do two-foot-tall Scott Lang? And it just occurred to us as something funny. So we started to storyboard and do some pre-vis and some visual development stuff on that and it visually it was just like, oh, this is really funny — particularly because it’s going to be Paul Rudd doing it. So it really just came out of us riffing.
In the middle of the movie where Janet uses her “quantum entanglement” connection to Scott to take over his body and speak to Hank and Hope. How’d you find the right note for Rudd to “play” Michelle Pfeiffer in that scene?
Reed: That was another thing that we came up with in the script phase. Part of it is in these movies [is the question of] how you dramatize this sort of pseudo-science. This movie is about quantum entanglement, right? So how do you make that really understandable, but also fun.
When we started talking, I said it should be like a version of All of Me, where Lily Tomlin is inhabiting Steve Martin’s body. Maybe it didn’t need to be that broad, but it was the idea of can we do this? Rudd still refers to this as the “big swing” for us in this movie. And I think there were certain people who are nervous about us pulling it off, but it’s one of my favorite things in the movie and, again, I think only works because it’s Paul Rudd.
We talked at a point about like, do we have Michelle Pfeiffer come in and perform the thing? We saw Paul kind of do his version of it and that just seemed like an unnecessary step. Paul could just do it. He’s worked with Michelle, he knows Michelle, and the way it unfolds in the movie I think was really fun because it’s weird and it’s funny and it’s uncomfortable. And it’s a reunion with Janet, but not really. It struck us that we hadn’t seen it in a movie before. Certainly not a Marvel movie.
Ant-Man and The Wasp is the first movie I’ve seen that represents the Mexican-American love for Morrissey on screen. How’d that wind up in the movie?
Reed: I’ve been a Smiths fan since the beginning. In fact, I played drums for a brief amount of time in a Smiths cover band called Louder than Bombs. Years ago, we were playing a show at Spaceland in Silverlake and we did our Smith cover band cover and some guy came over after the show was like, “Oh man, you guys were really good. It’s amazing, man, between you and Sweet and Tender Hooligans. It’s so great to have these Smiths cover bands.” I was like, “Wait a second, Sweet and Tender Hooligans, who are they?” He’s like, “Oh, you’ve never seen them?”
So I went and saw Sweet and Tender Hooligans who were a [Latinx] Smith’s cover band. They obviously blew our cover band away, and it was only then that I realized that Morrissey had this really specific following in L.A. because of the style of singing, and then later in his career when he started specifically writing towards it. It’s something that I’ve known for a long time and it just felt like it was so up Luis’ alley, all this sort of arcane knowledge that Luis has, and the idea that maybe his grandmother has a restaurant with a jukebox that only plays Morrissey — it struck as a funny, really specific true-to-life detail that makes Luis, Luis. So that’s really how it ended up there.