Movie Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
The latest instalment in the Marvel franchise never takes flight despite its hard-working cast, led by Paul Rudd and a new villain played by Jonathan Majors.
"Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is a bad movie, but it’s bad in a way that Marvel movies rarely are. Up until now, the films of the MCU have for the most part managed to strike up a decent blend of sentiment, jokey humour, and superhero derring-do. When they succeed, it’s because most of these elements are firing at full blast. When they fail, it’s usually because they pushed too hard in one direction or another — the movies are either too sentimental, comic or cluttered with unimpressive action scenes. I’ve loved and hated my share of these films, but I’ve never been quite so stupefied by one the way I was by Quantumania.
Save for a relatively brief, breezy opening section set in the Marvel present, where Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has written a memoir about his eventful life as Ant-Man and his experiences saving the world in the wake of the Thanos Snap and the ensuing battles, the vast majority of Quantumania takes place in the Quantum Realm, that deadly microworld that you fall into if you shrink so much that you find yourself slipping between subatomic particles. As you may remember, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) was rescued from that land in the previous Ant-Man film. Now, she reveals that she wasn’t alone down there — that a whole universe of beings exists in the Quantum Realm, elaborate and diverse alien tribes in seemingly constant conflict. Among them, we learn, is Kang (Jonathan Majors), an enigmatic traveller whom Janet initially befriended, thinking he was a wayward soul who had accidentally wound up in this dimension. It turned out, however, that Kang was a dangerous, imperious, all-powerful being who had been exiled to the Quantum Realm from his own world.
Our heroes’ journeys through the Quantum Realm are presented in a totally listless fashion, with the performances failing to convey either the wonderment or terror that the characters should presumably be feeling. Everyone just kind of wanders through this movie. Pfeiffer, Majors and Douglas are the truer stars of this show, and each brings something valuable to the mix. For the most part, Majors strikes important poses while glowering imperiously. But he brings some complicated, wounded intensity to his role, and while his sotto-voce delivery sometimes edges into near-parodic Shakespearean overstatement, he effortlessly holds your attention, as do the sublimely chill Douglas and Pfeiffer. Douglas has even less to work with than Pfeiffer, who turns out to be the movie’s M.V.P., but they’re both wonderful to watch even when doing nothing much at all, which of course is its own kind of superpower.
The first Ant-Man, one of the high points of the whole Marvel cinematic project, was distinguished by its goofy humour and smaller-scale story. At a time when MCU films seemed to be leaning further toward overarching storylines and portentous mythology (all in an effort to build up to the final Avengers pictures, at least one of which was terrific), it came like a breath of fresh air. The smaller scale has all but vanished this time. Look, I’m getting bored just typing all this up. More concerningly, it looks like the filmmakers themselves were bored putting it on screen.
When Janet told us there were people down there, she wasn’t kidding: There are rebel tribes, and smugglers, intricate new aliens, queasy alliances, new spaceships, and cantinas. Maybe director Peyton Reed and his collaborators thought they were making a Star Wars movie; the protagonists’ adventures in the Quantum Realm at times look like they were meant to be a knockoff version of George Lucas’s space operas, albeit in compressed form. Or maybe they all just watched Taika Waititi’s “Thor Ragnarok” once. But good luck finding any of Lucas’s earnestness or imagination, or Waititi’s irreverent prankster sensibility, here. Quantumania makes you appreciate even more the achievement of something like the Avatar films. There, too, we have mostly ornate, visual-effects-created environments, but they’ve been thoroughly imagined and fully thought through; there’s a vision to them, a consistency and inner logic to go with the awe, which helps with immersion. The Quantum Realm, by contrast, looks like armies of artists and technicians just tossed in whatever struck their fancy. Maybe this patchwork quality was intentional, but as expressed onscreen, it’s very disappointing. Overall, I’m sure it’ll make lots of money, but “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” might be the first time I’ve ever found myself genuinely sorry for the people who make one of these movies. It feels like a cry for help.