by Sam Sewell-Peterson
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)
Director: Peyton Reed
Screenwriter: Jeff Loveness
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Kathryn Newton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, William Jackson Harper, Katy M O’Brian, David Dastmalchian, Bill Murray
In 1964, Kang the Conqueror made his debut in Marvel comics, a year after appearing as another character entirely (it’s complicated, but basically Marvel writers later decided an Egyptian Pharaoh villain was another version of the time-travelling terror). After menacing The Avengers and the Fantastic Four for decades on the page in some of the most convoluted and regularly ret-conned stories around, he finally made his live-action debut in the Season 1 finale of ‘Loki’, hiding at the nexus of all realities as He Who Remains, portrayed by Jonathan Majors. His demise was one of the events that cracked open the Marvel Multiverse, and now Majors returns as Kang proper to clash with the MCU’s seemingly most insignificant super-family. Got all that? Good.
The newfound comfortable existence of Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) as a well-liked world-saver plugging his memoir is shaken when Janet Van Dyne’s (Michelle Pfeiffer) time trapped in the Quantum Realm comes back to haunt her. Threat to all reality, Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors), who has been banished to the microverse, brings the Lang/Van Dyne family – including Scott’s partner Hope Van Dyne/Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Scott’s now teenage daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) and Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) – to the Quantum Realm in order to use their size-changing technology to escape his prison.
In Ant Man and the Wasp, during our brief sojourn to the Quantum Realm to rescue Michelle Pfeiffer, a lot was made of the fact that it “melts your mind”, implying something pretty psychedelic and out-there. There are certainly some surreal vistas and weird lifeforms inspired by micro photography, especially when our tiny heroes first plummet into a tinier world, but they could have definitely gone further with the brain-melting, especially in movie with such an attention-grabbing title as Quantumania.
The denizens of the Quantum Realm are an assortment of interesting-looking creatures you might find on the covers of pulp sci-fi magazines in the 1950s, ranging from living broccoli to anthropomorphic glowing goo to Bill Murray. Then there’s the new secondary villain, android M.O.D.O.K, who looks absolutely terrible and completely breaks your suspension of disbelief whenever he’s on screen, though that is partly because they’re trying to do the impossible and adapt his particularly goofy design from the comics faithfully into live-action.
Paul Rudd remains the lovable core of this corner of the MCU, and as well as hearing his thoughts on his fellow Avengers out loud (“I was just happy to meet a raccoon who could talk”) this time Scott Lang is really put through the wringer. There’s a warm chemistry between Scott, Hope and Cassie, here recast as Kathryn Newton (Freaky), who regularly threatens to steal the show with her sheer moxie. It’s also refreshing that Cassie has to learn to effectively use her powers very much through trial and error – the five years she was on her own post-Thanos snapping half the universe away was used productively and she has a gifted scientific mind, but she has never had to test this technology in a fight before. Michelle Pfeiffer is on (admittedly committed) exposition duty for much of the movie, while Michael Douglas keeps a straight face with his hands stuck in a couple of slugs to fly a quantum spaceship.
But this is Kang’s or, more accurately, Jonathan Majors’ movie. This particular saga of the MCU’s ongoing story has taken some time to gain traction, but the arrival of this particular big bad could very well accelerate things. A time-travelling world-conqueror whose many variants from other timelines have caused temporal and inter-dimensional chaos, Kang creates an oppressive regime within the Quantum Realm. He desires to correct the mistakes of his other selves and ultimately escape the tyranny of time itself. Majors is a charisma supernova and is able to convey with a gesture what many of his contemporaries would struggle to evoke with a monologue, not to mention that his physique makes him a credible threat even without his advanced weaponry.
The visual effects work on this movie, M.O.D.O.K aside, is certainly more polished than on Love and Thunder, which makes you think the VFX artists were given more ample time to complete the considerable task that was being asked of them. It’s all very bright and colourful, and the action scenes are dynamic, but shots can feel a bit busy and hard to pick out the details that really matter; a problem that will only be exacerbated in post-converted 3-D, which is disappointingly starting to re-surface with another ridiculously successful Avatar instalment.
The humour in Marvel movies often receives criticism for being incessant and interfering with dramatic moments landing with real impact, and the same could be argued here. Thankfully, Rudd, Newton and even Douglas demonstrate good enough timing to make sure most of the jokes about their family’s crazy science projects and tendency to land in jail really hit home. As fun as the film’s frankly ridiculous final stretch is, for a time it looks like they’re going for something pretty bold and grounded for a change before chickening out last-minute, which is a shame.
The main problem with Quantumania is that it is trying to be two very different movies that don’t really fit together. On the one hand you’ve got a fun, Fantastic Voyage-meets-Star Wars family sci-fi, and on the other you’ve got a deathly serious Kang origin story following a tortured time-travelling mass-murderer that’s like one of the darker ‘Doctor Who‘ stories. Given that he has apparently killed a lot of Avengers in other universes, Kang understandably underestimates Scott, his family and their capabilities to his cost, and it’s this perhaps misplaced faith in his own power and the fact that he’s just a man using technology from the future and not a space god that may ultimately make him more interesting in upcoming films than Thanos was.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is OK, but continues the slightly underwhelming, slow downward trend of the post-Endgame Marvel Cinematic Universe. At least it shows some imaginative flourishes and compellingly sets up the many faces of the next villain big enough to prompt the Avengers to reform and save the universe once more.