Since debuting in 2015, Ant-Man and his titular film franchise have occupied an interesting space within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though towered over (so to speak) by tech moguls, super soldiers, aliens, and literal gods, Scott Lang has played a pivotal role in most of the Avengers’ memorable moments; excluding Infinity War but participating in Civil War and being responsible for all of Endgame. Yet his own films, Ant-Man and its sequel, have both been entertaining-if-forgettable pit stops with only occasional hints toward the MCU. With Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania the series seeks to amplify (so to speak) its role in the franchise while diminishing (so to speak… I’ll stop that now) the charm which carried the previous two films. In attempting to make the film more memorable, the film is also less entertaining.
Following a brief introductory scene of the film’s central conflict, Quantumania begins well enough as the opening keys of the theme from Welcome Back, Kotter (a song so familiar even those who have never seen the show know it) play under a lighthearted narration as a contented Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) scrolls down the sidewalk on one of the few sunny days in San Francisco. No longer under house arrest, Scott greets glowing looks of recognition and photo requests with a smile, a wave, and a generally cheerful attitude before leading into a reading of his auto-biography. I digress but as someone who once lived in San Francisco, I have absolutely no nostalgia for the city or its constant rain and fog, but it was still delightful to see City Lights given such prominent placement in a Marvel blockbuster. It’s in these scenes where we see what a third Ant-Man film could have been: complacent former-criminal-turned-superhero Lang attempting to have a normal life until his partner Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) renew his heroic spark. Instead, the film barely has enough time to establish its identity before the whole crew along with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) is pulled into the Quantum Realm.
What follows is a spectacle of science-fantasy psychedelia that feels less like an installment in the Ant-Man series than something from early Star Wars films or, more appropriately, Guardians of the Galaxy. Again, the group’s trip and subsequent separation begins very well with colorful environments for the characters to get lost in, unicellular beings now looming predators, and a quirky charm which includes a gelatinous creature obsessed with holes and William Jackson Harper as the universe’s most regretful psychic. While the environments and its denizens aren’t very unique or imaginative, with science fiction’s typical dependence on alien’s with human-like physiology (upright, bipedal, symmetrical, noticeable limbs and head), our initial travels in the Quantum Realm are breezy and fun, complete with a Mos Eisley-esque cantina and a Bill Murray cameo, even as constant hints of the “him” we know from the opening sequence (and the final episode of Loki) lend an ominous and inevitable tone. Director Peyton Reed does a fine job in capturing the strangeness of the Quantum Realm but it’s hard not once again regretting the loss of original Ant-Man director Edgar Wright. Of course there’s no guarantee that Wright would’ve stuck around until the third film, or that the Ant-Man series would reach this point had he remained in charge, but with that director’s creative history and trippy visuals perhaps the Quantum Realm could’ve been better realized. Instead, what we get is like the film and the entire Ant-Man series itself. It’s fine. Just fine. Trouble is, Quantumania is not trying to be fine. It’s trying to be much more than just fine. It’s trying to be the groundwork for the next several years of Marvel films. It’s trying to be a major installment in the overall narrative. It’s trying to be huge (so to sp… nevermind).
The film’s importance comes in who we already know will be Marvel’s new big bad guy: Jonathan Majors as Kang the Conqueror. Though played by the same actor this version, or variant, of Kang is vastly different and neither as oddly compelling nor disturbing as the fearful, unhinged He Who Remains that debuted on Disney+ in Loki. As this variant, Majors has a definite presence on screen, commanding and confident, yet his ill-defined grab bag of omnipotence and role as villain serving a supposed greater good threaten to make him derivative of Thanos. A mid-credits scene later deludes the character, further confusing Kang’s motivation as portrayed in Quantumania. In his first two appearances Majors has demonstrated his talent for the role (and on magazine covers his commitment to it) so hopefully the nature of the character allows him to be more than Thanos as non-CGI. He’s good in Quantumania, and Majors pulls off the part as written, yet there’s a lingering suspicion this first film appearance should have amounted to more. Meanwhile the rest of the cast, like the film itself, is also fine. Much of what that cast is made to do, is not fine.
Being an Ant-Man and the Wasp film one would think that Scott and Hope would take the lead, instead much of the narrative focuses on Pfeiffer’s Janet Van Dyne being the person with the most experience in the microscopic world. Van Dyne’s role in Marvel Comics dates back to the 1960’s so it’s good that she’s finally getting some prominence in the films, yet the character portrayed here holds little resemblance with her namesake. This lack of cohesion underscores the major problem with Quantumania. Other than its refreshingly charming opening, very little of the film plays into its own strengths. Paul Rudd spends much of the time either off screen or performing generic superheroics. The previously meticulous Marvel world building is shallow and muddled with new rules seemingly made up as the film goes on and more and more distracting questions popping up – where did these people come from? were they all banished here? if so, why aren’t there any Kree or Scrulls or Shi’ar – this would’ve been a great chance to introduce Deathbird – or Brood or Phalanx? how do characters who haven’t been to Earth since the first movie know Scott is an Avenger? how much time has passed in the real world? can’t our heroes just use their apparent infinite supply of Pym Particles to escape anytime they want? why do creatures who are “from” the Quantum Realm refer to it as “down here”? There’s no banter. There’s no heist. There isn’t even a Luis appearance. What is the point of an Ant-Man film without a Luis appearance?
At its most successful the MCU crafted narratives which fit the characters. No one other than Captain America could’ve led Civil War. No one other than Peter Quill could be our view into Guardians of the Galaxy. No one other than Tony Stark could introduce this version of the universe. Even no one other than Scott Lang could have provided the catalyst for Endgame. Scott Lang, and Ant-Man, is not the right place for Quantumania. Like Eternals before it, Quantumania would be better off as the beginning of an independent, original franchise. It’s a fun piece of science-fantasy that could exist entirely without the Marvel branding.
As is, the film is fine. Just fine. Yet it isn’t so fine as a third Ant-Man film, and even worse as a kick-off for Marvel’s next phase. As the start of MCU Phase Five, Quantumania feels like a not-so-entertaining-but-still-forgettable pit stop of promises that go unfulfilled. It’s an issue of a long-running comic series created only to introduce a new character that will appear in a different comic series. Its cameos aren’t as satisfying as they should be. Its other new villain, MODOK, is suitably underwhelming. Hell, even its post-credits scene comes and goes before amounting to anything.
Since his debut, Ant-Man and his film series have felt like an afterthought in the greater MCU. The films were never meant to be world builders or pivot points. Their only ties to the overall narrative were one appearance by a then-Avengers B-teamer and a post credits scene. Sadly, this modest success seems ruined in trying to make an Ant-Man movie larger. So to speak.