The moment we first heard about what Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was about and who would be in it, red flags started going up.
Consider two central reasons behind the appeal of this particular series and these particular characters. For one, the first movie — and the second one, to a lesser extent — was a heist thriller. The very notion of a superhero heist movie is still a relative novelty, and it plays well into Marvel’s winning strategy of blending the superhero film with other genres. For another crucial point, Ant-Man’s ability to shrink and grow himself and anything around him allows for all sorts of possibilities unique to the character. So much of what made the first two movies so much fun was in the sight gags and set pieces involving everyday objects grown and shrunk and otherwise used in comical and creative ways.
And now we have a film in which Scott Lang, Hope van Dyne, Cassie Lang, Janet van Dyne, and Hank Pym all get sucked into the freaky Quantum Realm, and now they have to find a way back home. So now they’re in completely alien surroundings, without any objects or people even remotely comparable to anything in the real world, and the objective is survival and getting back home without anything to steal. You can start to see the problem, yeah?
That said, it’s not like the film completely abandons everything that made the character work. To start with, Paul Rudd’s charm is still in full effect. For another thing, the movie continues to lean HARD into Scott Lang’s status as the Everyman of the Avengers — Scott isn’t a genius, he doesn’t have any superpowers of his own, and he’s not even all that wealthy. Granted, he’s now apparently married to Hope van Dyne (a returning Evangeline Lilly, much to everyone’s chagrin) and she’s apparently done well for herself spinning the family business into massive success, but that’s still her money and he’d be essentially broke without her.
The bottom line is that Scott is still just an ex-con and a devoted father. Alas, we have to explore that angle without any mention of Luis, Dave, or Kurt (though David Dastmalchian does contribute a voice-over performance for a Quantum Realm character). I’m disappointed to report that Maggie doesn’t show up either — I’ve said for years that Greer is one of the most underappreciated character actors currently working and pretty much any movie is made better with her in it.
Also, Kathryn Newton looks so much like Judy Greer’s daughter, it’s uncanny. We NEED to see these two onscreen together sooner than later.
Speaking of which, how are things with Cassie Lang (now played by Newton, the third actor in the role)? Well, we learn that she’s got a rap sheet of her own now — not for any crimes, but because she keeps going to protests. Yeah, it turns out that a lot of people wound up homeless as a result of the Blip, and the cops don’t like people rising up in protest on their behalf. (Yeah, a freaking Marvel movie goes there. Kudos.)
Anyway, it’s still a bit of a sore point that Scott was absent from Cassie’s life through so many of her formative years. In particular, Cassie doesn’t like how her father is resting on his laurels while shilling books and podcasts and merchandising. Sure, it means that Scott can parlay his Everyman status into a widespread uplifting message that anyone can be a hero, and it means he has more time and money to provide for his daughter. On the other hand, it also means that Scott has all this power he’s not using to actually fight crime and help people.
That said, Cassie has apparently taken superbly well to her new stepfamily, so there’s that. More importantly, Cassie spent the Blip reading up on Hank Pym’s journals and making herself such an engineering genius that she already has her own suit and she built the gizmo that accidentally sends everyone to the Quantum Realm.
…Sure, why not?
Rudd and Lilly are both more or less keeping up their expected level of quality, and I appreciate how neither one of them is blatantly kneecapped to make the other one look good. (Stupid second movie…) Cassie Lang still has a long way to go before she’s ready for the big leagues, but Newton earns the right to be here and she makes a compelling case for keeping Cassie around. Michael Douglas sells every ridiculous line like the legend he is.
The weak link among the main characters is easily Michelle Pfeiffer, but that’s not necessarily her fault. The problem here is Janet already knows so much about the Quantum Realm and what’s going on over there and everything she did in her 30 years stranded there. And she never told anyone else about it. Even after all that time in between movies, even during THIS movie, Janet withholds imperative need-to-know information until the last possible minute. Hell, she withholds that information until AFTER the last possible minute if she can get away with it.
Yes, it makes a kind of sense that Janet wouldn’t want to relive that kind of trauma or embarrassment. Yes, I get that 30 years of history is a lot of ground to cover and Janet would rather move on. But that excuse only goes so far when so much is at stake, and Pfeiffer can’t sell those excuses for as long as she has to.
Speaking of which, let’s move on to the villains. Jonathan Majors plays a particularly psychotic iteration of Kang (it’s a long story covered in the first season of “Loki”, particularly the season finale), one who’s taken it on himself to annihilate entire timelines for the sake of culling the weak. Thus Kang was banished to the Quantum Realm — a totally separate universe removed from time and space as we know it — the one prison that could plausibly hold him.
The bad news is, Kang only needs a handful of Pym Particles to escape the Quantum Realm and continue his multiversal reign of terror. What’s worse, if our heroes cross him or kill him, they might scuttle their best chance of getting home in the process. You can see the dilemma. I might add that Jonathan Majors delivers on the promise made with the first season finale of “Loki”, and watching him play multiple versions of the same godlike megalomaniac is a real treat.
Then we have a returning Corey Stoll in the role of Darren Cross. Yes, it turns out that when Scott shrunk down Yellowjacket at the end of the first movie, Darren was horribly disfigured and crash-landed in the Quantum Realm. Long story short, Kang found him and gifted him with cybernetics, making him a Mechanical Organism Designed Only for Killing.
I have mixed feelings about this. Gotta be honest, I’m a little disappointed that this iteration of MODOK has nothing to do with AIM, his origins only barely resemble that of the source material, and he won’t be anywhere near the Avengers-level threat he should be. On the other hand, a comics-accurate portrayal was probably taken off the table after Iron Man 3 so thoroughly wasted AIM. Moreover, kudos must be given to Stoll and the rest of the filmmakers for leaning so hard into how utterly ludicrous the character is.
But then we have the Quantum Realm itself, and this is where we really start running into problems. Trouble enough that Bill Murray is here as a glorified speaking cameo. Trouble enough that David Dastmalchian, Katy O’Brien, and William Jackson Harper are more or less wasted playing plot devices as opposed to actual characters.
No, the big problem here is that the Quantum Realm is basically a bunch of Weird Shit Happening. It was like Strange World all over again: Bizarre creatures popping out of nowhere to keep the plot moving with the power of arbitrary Weird Shit. Despite all the filmmakers’ best efforts, the Quantum Realm doesn’t feel like a huge lived-in world, it just feels like the filmmakers threw all the wackiest and most outlandish ideas they could possibly think of at the screen.
It feels like Marvel is going for a “Guardians of the Galaxy” vibe with so many different species of alien life forms coexisting. The trouble there is that 1) there is only one James Gunn, and trying to imitate him can only lead to folly, and 2) the concept of a huge galaxy filled with hundreds of alien species and hubs of communication between them is a well-worn sci-fi trope that anyone can get a handle on. Here, it’s like the filmmakers are trying to use that same concept as a shorthand to help us understand the notion of a parallel universe that exists within ours beneath the subatomic level. Sorry, but it’s not working.
All of that said, all this formless arbitrary bullshit still isn’t as bad as Strange World. To start with, our main characters actually come from Earth (or the MCU version of Earth, which we’ve come to know and understand over three dozen films and TV shows), so the fish-out-of-water concept makes sense. We can relate to the main characters’ reactions to all the Weird Shit happening around them and sympathize with their drive to get back home. Perhaps more importantly, Quantumania was clearly built around a coherent theme, parlaying Ant-Man’s Everyman appeal and recurring status as the literal and figurative “little guy” into a sending a message of courage and integrity against abuse from an oppressive tyrant (see also — Thor: Love and Thunder).
In point of fact, where nothing about Strange World made any kind of sense, there’s a lot about Quantumania that makes perfect sense on paper. Let’s recap, shall we?
- Scott Lang is a devoted father who doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life locked up, so he takes a different career path that allows him to focus on that.
- Hope van Dyne takes charge of the family business, using Pym Particles in a way that benefits humanity.
- Cassie Lang had to live and grow through five years without her father, and now she’s coming of age in a post-Blip world. It’s a legitimate question — with huge implications for the title characters — as to who Cassie is after all of that.
- Cassie was deeply traumatized by her initial encounter with Yellowjacket, and now she gets to kick off her superhero career by facing that same supervillain (albeit in a different form).
- Janet van Dyne was horribly traumatized by her unwitting exile to the Quantum Realm, and she’s not ready to relive that. But again, we need to explore what happened to her for the sake of the larger story and the main characters.
- The Quantum Realm has been hanging over this series ever since it was first introduced as a plot device in the first movie, maybe we should finally go into detail about exactly what it is and how it works.
- We need to introduce Kang as an Avengers-level threat. Let’s establish him as someone so dangerous that he had to be banished to the Quantum Realm for the sake of the multiverse.
- Kang wants to escape the Quantum Realm, and so do our heroes. This could be the basis of a conflict to power the plot.
- In the meantime, Kang the Conqueror would do what he does best and take over the Quantum Realm as a brutal tyrant. This could be a conflict to power the themes.
It goes on and on like this. Break down Quantumania and each individual piece makes perfect sense in a vacuum. The problem is that many of these pieces are either undeveloped (we barely even see the new Pym van Dyne Foundation) or glued together with sticky sloppy bullshit. The flora and fauna of the Quantum Realm are all CGI horseshit from start to finish (I’ll grant that Bill Murray isn’t CGI, but it’s like Murray barely even knows what he’s doing here), the big “probability storm” action set piece doesn’t even try to make any kind of coherent sense, and Hank Pym’s big contribution to the third act is improbably laughable to the point where it’s a borderline deus ex machina.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania comes down to sensible ideas marred by terrible execution. After so many movies hyping up the Quantum Realm, it’s upsetting that THIS is the best they could do with the concept. Of all the various exotic locales and cultures of the MCU (Wakanda, Talokan, Ta Lo, the Kree, the Skrulls, wherever Captain Marvel or Thor or the Guardians are getting into trouble, the entire goddamn multiverse…), I’m genuinely disappointed that the Quantum Realm is the frontier I least want or need to explore further, and the one I most regret going into in the first place.
As with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I can respect and appreciate a film that tries to pack so much into a lean two-hour runtime, but even ten more minutes might’ve gone a long way toward smoothing out the plot and clarifying the more outlandish concepts. As it is, the film is a mess, but it’s not a complete waste. There are some funny moments, it’s charming, and even the most transparently bullshit action set pieces are at least fun to watch. More than anything, I appreciate how the film advances the overarching post-Endgame theme of superheroes inspiring civilians to stand up and do the right thing, I’m excited to see more of Jonathan Majors as the big bad, and I’d be delighted to see Cassie Lang grow into a superhero worthy of the Young Avengers.
In summary, what we’ve got here is mid-tier Marvel: An entry less notable as a film in itself and more notable for its implications regarding the future of the MCU. Welcome to Phase Five, everyone.