Marvel’s most fleet-footed subfranchise disintegrates in the face of more empty franchise-building, a committed Jonathan Majors aside.
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe got bigger and bigger and bigger, it was downright refreshing to see something as fittingly small and low-stakes as the Ant-Man films break up all the universe-ending tension. It was nice; after watching the Avengers punch through an exhausting sea of robotic baddies and set up a bunch of Infinity Stone dross, along came Paul Rudd as a smirking, kinda-dumb thief who lucked his way into a shrinking suit he used on a tech heist. After Thanos snapped half the universe away, we flashed back to good ol’ Scott Lang on a caper to bring his mentor Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) wife Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) back from the Quantum Realm. They were lighter, more carefree, a much-needed sitcom wing of the MCU.
But times are different, baby; with Marvel entering its fifth Phase, it’s time to introduce the Big Bad for the next couple of cycles — Jonathan Majors‘ scowling, glowering Kang the Conquerer, last seen taunting Loki and Sylvie in the last episode of Loki‘s first season. And what better way to do it than…. plopping him in the middle of a silly Ant-Man movie? That’s just one of many problems at the heart of Quantumania, a film that warps the most effervescent leg of the MCU into another cog in the franchise-building machine.
The stakes start out reasonably familiar: In a post-Endgame world, Scott’s found a modest level of fame as a public-facing Avenger, with the Langs and Van Dynes now fully integrated as a family. But when Scott’s teenage daughter, Cassie (now played by Kathryn Newton, who brings a modest level of charm to the proceedings), but a new device she’s invented ends up sucking Scott, Hope (Evangeline Lilly, who gets little to do here besides being one half of the titular role), Janet, Hank, and Cassie down into the Quantum Realm.
We’ve seen bits and bobs here and there in the first two Ant-Man movies, but here it’s expanded into a vast, colorful realm filled with jelly-like beasts of burden, living spaceships, and a universe of humanoid and alien beings. (And yet, under Bill Pope‘s cinematography, it still manages to look like brown sludge; I guess even he can’t escape the doldrums of Marvel’s effects department.)
Still, the Ant-Fam don’t get long to marvel at the sights before they’re split up and have to find their way back to each other. Along the way, they learn that there’s a reason Janet never told them about the full, rich universe the Quantum Realm has to offer: there’s an exiled baddie down there known as Kang the Conquerer (Majors), whom she barely stopped from escaping to the big world last time. And they’ve got to stop him before he tries again — especially now that there’s a fresh new crop of Pym Particles to help him escape his microscopic prison.
And that’s it, really, with two hours of actors reading off cue cards while standing awkwardly against green-screened spectacle they (nor we) can’t possibly relate to. The beats are exceedingly rote, the Quantum Realm becoming a pastiche of Star Wars and Mad Max, all hero’s journey bromides about linking yourself to grander causes and making sacrifices to save the ones you love. But none of that matters, because no one ever really has to sacrifice — Ant-Man’s gotta stick around for the sequel, the bad guy has several more movies to be in. A quantum multiverse of infinite possibilities means that no one’s ever really gone so nothing means anything. And when it’s all delivered through the miasma of samey CGI art design (some innovative blips and blops aside), that emptiness is delivered loud and clear.
That airiness comes through in the performances, too: Rudd feels misdirected, Scott’s journey less an arc than a straight line punctuated by a couple of confused quips. Douglas, at one point one of our most exciting movie stars, grumbles his way through one line after another about his character’s love for ants. And poor Lilly, Hope the victim of a) a third horrible haircut and b) writers who recognized the Wasp as an equal partner to Scott but giving her little to do in the actual adventure (and even less shared screentime with her costar). Newton escapes relatively unscathed, but it’s Pfeiffer and Majors who blissfully get the most acting meat to chew on, particularly in an extended, tenderly tragic flashback of the two of them saving each other in the Quantum Realm before their relationship fractures.
If this review feels a bit listless, it’s because the movie is too — no one seems to want to be there, except maybe Majors, who channels the physicality and playful scorn he leveraged so nicely in Sundance’s Magazine Dreams a month ago into a Kang who can sometimes feel complicated by the burden of omniscience. Too bad the rest of the time he’s just stomping around in a purple cape, waving his hands and screaming as energy beams come out of his hands. Even the much-ballyhooed Marvel cameos feel like a letdown, including one major new addition that both underserves the cult-favorite character it introduces and turns a previous Ant-Man baddie into a limp punchline. (There’s a one-scene wonder of a cameo that’ll remind you of Thor: Ragnarok, and I kinda wish I’d been watching that movie instead.)
In trying to be a bit more like the Cosmic Marvel adventures of Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok, this new Ant-Man loses the grounded charm that made those movies… if not exactly good, then at least a neat novelty within the gargantuan scope of the MCU. But director Peyton Reed has to serve too many masters: the Paul Rudd quirk, some Rick and Morty-esque comic fantasia, and a dark, dramatic story setting up a villain we’re supposed to be spooked by for several films to come. If Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is a portent of the franchise’s future, Marvel is in real trouble.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania shrinks into theaters February 17th.