Directed by Peyton Reed | Written by Jeff Loveness | 125 min | ▲▲▲△△
In the past couple of years the vastly successful experiment that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe has lost its way. After the high points of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the new movies haven’t had the narrative coherence, urgency, nor the fun of the earlier entries, despite the introduction of compelling new characters and the contribution of brilliant, Oscar-winning filmmakers. They’ve gradually but steadily disappointed — with the exception of a certain wall-crawling sequel — to a low point in 2022 with two misfires, Dr Strange In The Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love & Thunder.
Funny thing, at the same time the ever expanding Disney+ series work has been terrific. These shows, canonically a part of the MCU, including WandaVision, Loki, Moon Knight, and She-Hulk, have been a real pleasure. The narrative risks available on the small screen have made them the ones to watch while on the big screen the rot has set in.
So I’m pleased to say that while the new Ant-Man and the Wasp film, the 31st Marvel movie since 2008, doesn’t feel like a fresh start, it is a lot more fun than the franchise has been lately. It’s a playful, visually imaginative kids movie, something that has more in common with Star Wars than it does the first or second Ant-Man movies.
The opening reintroduces us to San Franciscan Scott Lang (the ageless Paul Rudd) with the sharp use of the theme from Welcome Back Kotter.
Scott’s a genuine celebrity. The former thief has written a book about his adventures with the Avengers and it gets him free coffee at his local cafe. Scott’s home life is in pretty good shape too, with sweetheart Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), her mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) and scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) all doing well. His talented daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton), has designed a transmitter to try and map the Quantum Realm, the dimension where Janet was trapped for decades. This device ends up being bad news as the whole family is sucked into this microscopic, psychedelic universe and then separated there.
This is where things go all John Carter, and the Lang/Van Dyne/Pyms get thrust into a war between the rebellious denizens of this strange land and its overlord, an exiled temporal tyrant named Kang (Jonathan Majors), who was introduced in the Loki series. It turns out Janet has a history with Kang, something she’s never talked about. Her guilt is a serious storytelling element here — I just wish she and Hank or Hope had more time to work that out, even one more scene where they explore the impact of her silence on their relationship. That said, Pfeiffer is solid, and it’s nice that the movie actually gives someone with her talent more to do.
The SFX at work here are typically impressive — as far as wall-to-wall CGI slurry goes — though overall the Quantum Realm is a little dark. I didn’t see this movie in 3D so I can only imagine how gloomy it must look in that format. What makes it work are all the weird critters we meet, slug-like beasties and jellyfish-like individuals so disappointed to be living without orifices — one of the many solid gags here. This Ant-Man film does a good job remembering that he’s the superhero next door, the one who makes fun of all the weird, cosmic stuff that comes up in these movies, and there’s plenty here to goof on.
It’s too bad Hope is still painfully underwritten, and her chemistry with Scott is unconvincing, but the family dynamic is wholesome and sincere. Maybe that’s because writer John Loveness has experience as a writer on Rick & Morty, which has a good sense of dysfunctional, hilarious family dynamics though generally had a lot more wit about the consequences of time-shifting and quantum transit.
The script is fond of explaining every stake, with Lang constantly saying his daughter’s name like we’ve forgotten she’s frequently in danger. This kind of obviousness makes this whole movie feel like it’s aimed at kids, and, y’know, it absolutely is. Even with a few “Holy Shits,” this all feels very G-rated.
And that’s fine. Quantumania is funny and light and entertaining, and what it really gets right is the antagonist. Majors brings a serious gravitas to his role, plausibly moving from soft-spoken thoughtfulness to intense rage, accordingly provides a real feeling of threat. Without him on board, the picture doesn’t work. Cameos from Bill Murray and the return of a villain from one of the previous movies — they’re in a brand new, hilariously creepy chassis, one that’ll be familiar to fans of the comics — all of that is a good time, but none of it feels essential without the intensity of Kang hanging over the proceedings.
The obvious narrative problems in tales of the multiverse — like the way nothing really matters if every individual has infinite iterations across time — haven’t been solved in this movie. At least now we have a better sense of Kang’s power and the possible implications of his presence in what will certainly be many upcoming pictures. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania gave me some optimism for the Marvel ship turning away from the icebergs.