You know that comic panel of Batman slapping Robin? Of course you do. Robin asks what Batman’s parents are getting him for Christmas, Batman screams that his parents are dead, and a thousand meme variations were smacked into existence. Ant-Man and the Wasp director Peyton Reed has a version of it sitting at his monitor where Robin says, “Do it in post!” and slappy Batman shouts, “Do it in camera!”
That’s the production ethos of a sequel seeking to warp our sense of reality without relying on CGI to do the trick. Disorientation is the name of their game, and they’re making full practical use of heroes who can change size and alter the world around them.First off, there’s the story itself. Scott Lang, Hope van Dyne, and Dr. Hank Pym only have one night to pull off a rescue mission to save Janet van Dyne in the Quantum Ream—a mission that was once thought impossible. The resultant breakneck pace might mirror something like Go or Midnight Run, leaving the audience breathless. Perfect for a superhero franchise obsessed with delivering a new spectacle every 10 minutes.
But the biggest object of that commitment to disorientation, and also one of its smallest, is Hank Pym’s new lab. Built on his workbench with help from his ant army, it’s either the size of a factory or a carry-on suitcase depending on what he needs it for.
“It’ll give you a headache…it’s so much,” Pym’s portrayer Michael Douglas said during a set visit Nerdist attended with other outlets. “It’s a stunning set.”
He wasn’t kidding. It’s discombobulating to be inside, like Saint Peter’s Basilica or a too-bright airport mall. The practical set is the largest Marvel has ever built, and it’s dizzying not just because of its stories-high size, but because of its mind-scrambling mix of building materials. There’s a metal bridge supported by clothespins the size of floor lamps. Consoles and pylons are supported by Erector Set pieces you can’t wrap your arms around. You know those rectangular plastic tabs that keep your bread fresh in the bag? They’re as big as laser discs and holding thick electric cables in place.
The mish-mash of Cold War-era and modern tech inside is a nod to Pym’s personality and the era that saw him at the top of his scientific game. The antique radio embedded in his comm console is set to smooth jazz, and there are pipes marked “Acid Waste” running along the corridor that safety inspectors might want to check on. There’s a bonsai tree inside a glass case. A bit of nature, sealed off in an unnatural space. There are a thousand thousand multi-colored buttons.
A dollhouse expanded to a warehouse, Pym builds it with whatever’s lying around before embiggening it all. He has to scrounge for parts because 1) members of his construction crew are tiny (cue the Zoolander GIF) and 2) he’s living life on the run after refusing to register with the government following the Sokovia Accords. As you might guess, the exterior of the lab is a bit less flamboyant.
“How does he hide in plain sight?” production designer Shepherd Frankel began, explaining the extensive creative process that conjured Pym’s portable physics lab. “We started talking about the buildings that you drive by every day that you never notice. The places you go into to get your accounting done, and you’re, like, ‘Wait! Is this my dentist office or my dermatologist? Like, what is this?’ And we thought that’s a very cool way of creating a building that you forget is there, and you’re, like, ‘Was that building always there?'”
In other words, more disorientation.
Characters (and the audience) will step inside the bland, utilitarian mid-century office building to find a Willy Wonka factory of humming scientific goo-gahs. Frankel likened the experience to walking under the blue whale at the Museum of Natural History—”You’re like, ‘I’ve seen pictures of whales but never been close to one. Who am I? What size am I? Is this thing real?'”—or leaning against a statue only to realize what you’re touching is only the toe of a much larger statue. “Almost like creating a little bit of vertigo,” he said. “Scale vertigo.”
Bucking the Marvel trend by focusing more on practical effects on this scale also serves a vital narrative purpose: delineating between the real world and the Quantum Realm, where they will have a second, totally different style of disorientation awaiting. From M.C. Escher to full-on acid trip.
“[The Quantum Realm] is problematic in terms of the fact that it’s essentially infinite,” Reed said. “It can be whatever you want it to be, and so we needed to decide what the Quantum Realm wants to be for our story. I knew one thing: there had to be a device with which they enter the quantum realm. In the first movie, Scott goes down, he adjusts the regulator, and goes down free fall. Here it needed to be bigger.”
So, dominating the second floor is the accordion-like bridge—inspired by Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel—that will take Pym and the crew into the Quantum Realm.
They also built a helicopter-inspired vehicle that they can use to navigate once inside. It’s a vehicle Pym built decades earlier, but he’s never gotten it off the ground. Now, after getting some kind of signal from inside the Quantum Realm that his long lost wife is still alive, Pym is a man “desperately trying to get his science to work.” The Pymcopter (not the official name; call me, Marvel) looks like something the A-Team might fly around in, converted with extra sciencey bits and elements of the first Ant-Man suit.
“The idea is to not make it a branded toy, per se,” Frankel said. “But to make it something that’s being worked on and comes from another time.”
They hadn’t zeroed in on the look of the Quantum Ream when we visited, but it was clear that it would be a centerpiece of the film’s action.
“Peyton really wants to try and bring us deeper into it and have more details about it,” VFX artist Stephane Ceretti said. “The thing that we did in Doctor Strange and that we will keep doing here is that we want things to be all the time fluid and moving and evolving and being alive.”
You can tell from the trailer that every element of the movie (from production design to fight choreography to throwing a Hello Kitty Pez dispenser the size of LeBron James at a motorcycle) is meant to utilize size-changing technology to thrill and confound. Even The Wasp’s costume couldn’t simply be one color. It’s “gilver, which is like a mixture of gold and silver,” Head of Specialty Costumes Ivo Coveney said with a laugh.
“Disorientation” was the watchword throughout the entirety of the set visit. Reed and company want the audience to lose their bearings throughout Ant-Man and the Wasp. The only grounding element of the movie we got a glimpse of was the recurring theme of family. A structure meant to orient the disoriented.
Scott has found stability with his ex-wife and daughter before being pulled back into the spatially inconsistent hero business. Hope is trying to pull her family back together. Hank Pym is trying to save his wife and seeing his daughter reach a greater potential. After growing and shrinking and manipulating space, it’s possible that these three are all adrift, searching for an anchor and a compass.
With Pym’s roll-away lab, the frenetic fight choreography, and frantic pace of the mission, Reed and company are shooting for bewilderment and awe. If they pull it off, you can expect to be smacked in the face over and over throughout Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Images: Disney Marvel, 20th Century Fox Television