Phase 5 is finally here and so is Kang! After the mixed reception of Phase 4 from the critics and fans, does the MCU still have what it takes to excite audiences and set them on a path towards another epic franchise-spanning narrative? With Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the answer is a resounding “potentially!”
Since its debut in 2015, Ant-Man has hardly ever been considered the poster child or flagship franchise for Marvel Studios. The movies have been fun, and Paul Rudd has always been charming as the everyman Scott Lang character, which audiences and critics have generally been warm towards. But the receipts have never amounted to totals close to that of the average Spider-Man, Black Panther, or Iron Man film. And that was always okay. Director Peyton Reed has even referred to his own franchise as “the palette cleanser” for many of the phases, with the original film marking the smaller-scale end to Phase 2, and 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp coming on the heels of a heavy epic like Infinity War.
But Quantumania, the third film in the mini-franchise, is shaking up the status quo for the hero, presenting to us a movie that is as important to setting up the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Loki back in 2021. Kevin Feige, himself, laid out the gameplan for The Multiverse Saga at San Diego Comic Con this past year. And the climax of this saga will be Avengers: The Kang Dynasty. So having Kang the Conqueror, the big bad of this saga, debut in Quantumania elevates this from a run-of-the-mill Ant-Man movie to something bigger for the MCU.
And in theory it does. Quantumania definitely is something brand new for the Ant-Man films, and that in and of itself is grounds for praise. The scope of the movie is rooted in heavier sci-fi fantasy, which many have compared to Star Wars in terms of look and feel. And that’s an apt enough comparison. Reed and team immerse you into this new universe of the Quantum Realm, and introduce so many interesting and fun species and creatures, that it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all, which speaks to the admirable ambition they had on this one. This isn’t the same old “heist in San Francisco with quirky doofuses” film that the first two entries represent. This is something larger, weirder, and more impressive in many ways.
Without going into heavy spoilers, the film starts with Scott Lang (Rudd) riding off the success of his incredible contributions to saving the world from Thanos in Avengers: Endgame. He’s written a best selling book (and likely a podcast according to Ms. Marvel), is in a happy and healthy relationship with Hope (Evangeline Lilly), and is getting a lot more recognition in his day to day life as a genuine Avenger. Unfortunately his success has, in some ways, held him back from (as his book title states) “fighting for the little guy.” While still a kind, decent person, it’s turned him into a bit of a more self-centered individual, which ultimately disappoints his now teenage daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton).
Cassie, intent on keeping up the good fight where her dad won’t, has teamed up with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope to invent a way to explore the Quantum Realm, to discover possibilities that might exist down there, which could help our world. Unfortunately, all this is done without Janet Van Dyne’s (Michelle Pfeiffer) knowledge, and given the secrets she’s held after 30 years trapped there, and her knowledge of the dangers of sending signals to the Quantum Realm, she’s unable to warn them all before they’re sucked into the microscopic world through a portal generated by Cassie, Hank, and Hope’s device. Now trapped in the deepest levels of the Quantum Realm, the Lang/Pym family is forced to survive this uncharted terrain that seems to be ruled by a menacing dictator known as Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors)!
Now let’s start with the obvious question. Is this movie a game changer? No. In fact, I think those who tend to bash on the tropey, CG driven nature of comic book superhero films will be ready to take aim at this movie. But just because it’s not a game changer, doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun. Quantumania is a damn good time! And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with embracing the sweet, pleasant nature of a movie that’s just trying to strive for light-hearted fun. So temper your expectations accordingly.
That said, even if it’s not a game changer, the film will shut down everyone who felt the MCU was aimless throughout the duration of Phase 4. The thousands of “what does all of this mean? there’s no direction or story” tweets that were sent the past two years will finally recognize that this movie is the first step at starting to connect an overarching story. And given the knowledge that The Kang Dynasty and Secret Wars are just around the corner, I’m pleased that we’re beginning to break ground. Quantumania pulls the threads that were started in Loki Season 1, and starts to weave together a story we’ll all be following in these next few phases of the MCU.
Say what you will about Marvel Studios, but they’ve done a good job in trying to get us to familiarize ourselves with the concept of the multiverse and variants in this past Phase. Regardless of the criticisms of Phase 4, we know what variants are, and that they can all exist simultaneously in the same universe because we’ve seen the likes of Loki and Spider-Man: No Way Home. So when Kang discusses the multiverse, and shows a visual of it on screen, and discusses the different versions of himself from other universes, you should be familiar with it already, and grateful to comprehend it all. And regardless of the execution, that’s the groundwork that’s been laid by Marvel Studios. So to have Quantumania start to bring all of those together, I think there may be an audible “ah-ha” moment in the audience as the puzzle (while still being assembled) starts to take form through this movie. It’s the cohesion most have been demanding finally being realized.
The biggest fumble the movie makes, however, is in its first steps to get there. The first act is actually clumsily tapered together, and fairly rushed. Events go from trying to create conflict between Scott, Cassie, and the Pym/Van Dyne part of the family to “we’re in a weird place with weird people” situation almost immediately, with no time to breathe or properly re-establish relationships. This prevents real emotional payoff later on, when that could have been easily remedied. Along the way, you’re teased questions for far too long, and I found myself frustrated and impatient to not be receiving those. Now I will give the first half credit for some of the world building. There’s a lot of creatures and species here that are a lot of fun to see, and to understand how this world works involves a lot of imagination. Some things here even rival Guillermo Del Toro’s “troll market” scene from Hellboy: The Golden Army. But it doesn’t quite compensate for the chaotic nature of how it’s being executed.
The other thing about the story that isn’t as strong is there is another MacGuffin that the heroes and villains are chasing after. Granted it doesn’t decrease the stakes of the film. We are all sitting on pins and needles here to ensure the heroes win. But I can see many complaining about the use of another “chase for an item” scenario in another MCU film.
However, once you get past those initial speed bumps, and Kang is introduced, the answers come, and you become genuinely engrossed in the events happening on screen. From about the second act through to the end, the movie becomes a jolly good time! Pfeiffer’s role here is integral to us getting those answers. And getting to see her take more of an active role in the film – both to expand on the story of her time while she was in the Quantum Realm, but also to kick butt once in a while — is a real treat. And I’d be happy to have her provide exposition for any and all MCU movies going forward. So I was satisfied with the answers Janet provides, even if they take time building up to it.
However, Majors *owns* this movie. As soon as he makes his debut in the film, the movie takes a much darker and more serious tone than we’ve ever seen any Ant-Man film take. At once charismatic and sympathetic, you can’t help but be deceived alongside anyone else who comes into contact with him, unaware that beneath it all is a menacing and sinister demeanor, with malicious intentions in mind. Majors’ performance and the complexity behind Kang makes us absolutely fret for the Ant-family. There’s a sense of power and gravitas in this villain that makes us take notice of him as an alpha-level villain that’s every bit as much of a threat as Thanos; from the things he can do, to the way he fights, to his legion of soldiers, his tech — all of it. The whole game changes because of him. Make no mistake: this is not the same character we saw in Loki. This guy is way more intimidating.
Rudd is always charming, and this performance is no exception. And Newton as the new Cassie actually does fit the role incredibly well. Her chemistry with Rudd has some great heart to it. However, I’ll admit that while Lilly, Douglas, and Bill Murray have some amazing moments to shine, they’re a bit underused.
Lilly is of course the best partner Lang can have, and Hope continues to be a terrific hero in her own right. Hers and Scott’s relationship continues to exist as the healthiest, happiest, most normal relationship in the MCU. So why not have her do more, right? Douglas also has a terrific relationship and chemistry with Pfeiffer, and has one of the best scenes in the movie, but again, he doesn’t have as much to do as an actor of his caliber and a character of his importance should have. And I would have loved to see and learn more about Murray’s character, but his role is little more than a glorified cameo.
Newcomers William Jackson Harper and Katy O’Brian also join the cast as two freedom fighters leading a resistance against Kang in the Quantum Realm. And while O’Brian is given a pretty sizeable role, Harper also basically disappears after some pretty brief moments. But naturally, the focus of this movie needs to be on Scott, Cassie, and (of course) Kang. And what the movie does with these characters is satisfying.
The other thing that will make naysayers happy will be that the humor is much more toned down in this film than previous Ant-Man films. And they balance that out with Scott Lang still being a funny character, having some really funny moments. Though honestly, I personally never understood why people took a film like Thor: Love and Thunder as the status quo for humor in the MCU. Sure the films have a lot of humor in them, but frankly between Multiverse of Madness, Wakanda Forever, and now Quantumania, I think it’s plain to see that the overabundance of humor is more of an exception than a standard, and an overt exaggeration from haters.
One other criticism from naysayers in recent years, however, is valid in the case of this movie: that of Marvel Studios having some VFX issues in the modern era of their films. Quantumania has some decent VFX shots, particularly in the world-building of the Quantum Realm. But in regards to a specific major character in the movie, the VFX did not look good. And one could make the argument that it’s intentional, given the silly, campy nature of the character in the comics. But it really took me out of the movie any time that character was on screen with its face shown.
It’s also my sad duty to report that as a director Reed might be one of the sloppiest franchise filmmakers in the MCU when it comes to rule building and abandoned subplots. He’s helmed three of these movies and breaks the rules he sets up in every chapter of this franchise. Remember when prolonged exposure to Pym Particles and the Quantum Realm led to ultimate insanity? I guess that’s not a thing anymore since everyone in the Quantum Realm is functioning fine without suits or helmets. How about the magic Quantum powers Janet came back with at the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp? I guess that’s not a thing anymore? I sort of wish he addressed these things but it sure as hell won’t be in this movie, sadly. When you go back and marathon all three movies, nothing will frankly make sense. Sigh.
Ultimately though, what he lacks in consistency he at least makes up for in some stellar moments. There are some really particularly awesome clap-worthy and surreal moments that really push the envelope for an Ant-Man movie, and I really found myself enjoying those set pieces. Anytime Scott gets to be Giant Man is always a spectacle. And there’s also a very out-there moment involving how various possibilities can potentially play out. And a great moment involving… well… ants!
At the end of the day, you shouldn’t go in expecting Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania to be the equal of game changing movies like Civil War or Winter Soldier. You should expect it to be what it is — a larger scale installment of a fun franchise starring everyone’s favorite shrinking Avenger, that sets up an exciting future for the MCU. And much of that is attributed to a spectacular big bad in Majors’ Kang! It’s not a perfect movie, but it is trippy, entertaining, and overall, a lot of fun! And it pushes the boundaries of what we’ve come to expect for an Ant-Man movie, with a sense of foreboding and uncertainty that actually does get us excited for what’s next!
Also, those post-credits scenes are amazing! Stay tuned for both!
Overall Score: B