Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania isn’t even the fast food meal we usually expect from the MCU, but a pale carrot on a stick promising more of whatever you like; watching it feels like eating a menu. Marvel’s superhero films have long been accused of being commercials for themselves. At their best, they at least rebel against that label, but this entry would be grateful to have it in light of its odd thoughts on rebellion itself. Directed in Marvel’s typically flat prepackaged “style,” now approaching levels of visual staleness usually reserved for sitcoms, the latest MCU entry is an overstuffed, underseasoned, uncooked mess, even if its half-baked doctrine seems dangerous in its simplicity.
Removing completely the heist comedy patina of the first two Ant-Man entries, Quantumania takes its titular characters down the rabbit hole (or into the wardrobe if you prefer) into the Quantum Realm, where director Peyton Reed uses his imagery to tell us that he’s seen Star Wars and read Dune. Discovering a civilization of characters resembling Fortnite avatar skins (with the same level of characterization), Ant-Man and company attempt to save it from the timeline-hopping Kang the Conqueror. Most of the runtime is spent wandering this world and doling out tiny scoops of backstory featuring Kang (Jonathan Majors) and Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) whenever the script feels like it.
What makes Quantumania so dull is its insistence on being impressionistic rather than substantive. The editing is partially to blame (even Eisenstein would mourn these fragments in scene clothing) but most of the issue occurs on a scene-by-scene basis. Likely due to its overstuffed nature, the movie has several moments that are predicated on the assumption that since the audience has seen this type of scene before (a dark backstory, an awkward dinner with an ex, a rebellion against an oppressive overlord) they need not have any specifics applied to it. It makes sense that the main previous credits of screenwriter Jeff Loveness, a newcomer to the MCU, are episodes of Jimmy Kimmel; this stripped-bare approach to pop writing would fit in a comedy sketch, except that the movie is rarely funny either.
I’m having truthful fun beating this film, but it does have a handful of notable redeeming qualities. As many other reviewers have pointed out, Jonathan Majors as Kang the Conqueror does not let the surrounding incompetence taint his cape. There is depth to his pain and power in his words, implying through nothing but acting the history that earned Kang both. Although some would describe the actor as a rising star (watch for him boxing Michael B. Jordan in Creed III next month), he showcases an understanding of the truth of his scenes that more experienced actors could envy. If the MCU doesn’t swallow him whole I’m sure we’ll see him at the Oscars in a half-decade or so.
Majors’ superpower as Kang is elevating the cast around him with his force of nature villainy. The core of the movie is the relationship between the main hero, Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang, and his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton). Although neither of those actors does anything particular with the nothing of their relationship, placing Kang between them makes the scene or two that all three characters are in together the most fuel the movie has.
There’s also an offbeat dogma to this film that’s worth addressing if you’ll indulge my recapping. Early on in the film, Cassie is established as a rebellious activist who gets in trouble with the police. Scott’s only disapproval of her actions comes from hoping she’d take better care of herself, to which his daughter retorts that Scott hasn’t exactly done much to help anyone since becoming a public figure post-Avengers: Endgame. This conflict comes up again when the pair encounter rebels in the Quantum Realm that briefly describe their ruler, a person the pair have no relationship with up to now, as iron-fisted. Scott again is more concerned with keeping his daughter safe, and Cassie accuses him of not caring. Slowly Scott relents only for harsh consequences to ensue, and later Cassie and Scott will find common ground through this rebellion.
The romanticization of rebellion is overly simplistic to the point of advertisement. There is no reason for the two main characters to rebel alongside the people they just met against the ruler they know nothing of except that they were asked to. Clearly standing on Cassie’s side of nonspecific insurrection (likely as a way to help set her up for the inevitable Young Avengers team producer Kevin Feige seems to be building) the movie packages revolt as something that the younger generation does that should be encouraged, regardless of doctrine. In its own sense dulling way, Quantumania seems to be addressing current generational conflicts but does so by encouraging a sense of nonspecific young rebellion against systems of power in general. In this film, it doesn’t amount to much more than bad writing, but since Quantumania is all about what’s coming next it’s impossible not to look forward to more of this encouragement of defiance. Let’s keep an eye on this.
Through rebellions and realms, the movie is too big in scale and too small in ambition, especially as a sequel to the other two Ant-Man films. Rudd does his best to add detail to his one feeling throughout the film of being out of his depth, but it ends up highlighting how obviously unbalanced the whole thing is. At least the actor plays his part with the knowledge that almost nothing about this movie screams Ant-Man (and even less of it does the Wasp). These characters have been condemned by the MCU’s Quantumania to wander from half-conceptualized action scenes to bare-bones comedic setpieces waiting for more lore, more backstory, more explanations, and more exposition until they reach the pre-ordained conclusion of setting up MCU Phase 5. What used to be fun about these movies was their individual flavors wrapping into one delicious swirl; you can’t make a swirl if you only have vanilla.