What exactly is Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania doing?
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 traveler 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.
Look, I’m getting bored just typing all this up. More concerningly, it looks like the filmmakers themselves were bored putting it onscreen. When Janet told us there were people down there, she wasn’t kidding: There are rebel tribes, and smugglers, and intricate new aliens, and queasy alliances, and 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. Our heroes’ journeys through the Quantum Realm are presented in 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 — through its elaborate, colorful, cluttered psychedelic-album-cover-style environments. They occasionally crack jokes or cross their arms. Nothing seems to match. If you told me that the actors had been shot before the filmmakers decided what they would be looking at or interacting with, I’d believe you.
Even Majors, a fine actor who can usually muster up intensity with seemingly little effort, doesn’t seem to know what to do with Kang. Most of his performance involves walking around and softly muttering his dialogue. You keep waiting for the menace or the grandiosity or the vengefulness to ratchet up — we’re told that Kang is a terrifying, nearly omnipotent being who needs to be prevented from ever escaping the Quantum Realm, lest he destroy the universe — but aside from a few unconvincing, late-inning battle sequences, there really doesn’t seem to be much to Kang. Yes, he can make people levitate and shoot lasers out of his hands, but really, does that feel particularly special in the Marvel world?
So the film fails on a basic, meat-and-potatoes comic-book-movie level. It doesn’t even manage to clearly explain the magic doodad (there’s always a magic doodad) our heroes have to recover this time. More importantly, it fails to make you feel anything, which is odd since part of the story involves Ant-Man’s desperate attempts to save his daughter, as ostensibly relatable and immediate a character motivation as one can imagine. But it’s all executed with such little commitment (by otherwise talented actors) that the end result is numb alienation, which is probably not a thing you’re supposed to want from a superhero flick. The action is tired, the universe unconvincing, and nobody onscreen looks like they want to be there. They don’t even look like they know where there is.
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 a dog’s breakfast of fantasy elements.
The first Ant-Man, one of the high points of the whole Marvel cinematic project, was distinguished by its goofy humor and smaller-scale story. At a time when MCU films seemed to be leaning further toward overarching story lines 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, but some element of the humor remains, albeit in the strangest possible way. Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), the villain of the first film, is reincarnated by Kang as MODOK, a giant, distorted, pathetic head inside a diving-bell-like contraption, with tiny, weak limbs. He looks like a Minion and Max Headroom had a baby. I won’t lie; I did laugh whenever he was onscreen. I’d probably watch a MODOK spinoff series.
But it’s hard to decide if Quantumania needs more of this kind of joke, or less. There are a few other stabs at cheeky humor, including a gelatinous creature that gets very excited at the thought of having holes. (It’s funny the first two times it eagerly says “holes,” but eventually you start to live in fear of another “holes” line.) The problem isn’t that such bits aren’t funny — they sometimes are — but that they reveal a noxious carelessness beneath the slipshod filmmaking. This is not humor designed to enhance what you’re seeing, or even to cleverly undercut it. There’s a lifeless bitterness to it all, like a dumb, nothing-matters joke you might make while working a tedious, demeaning job you can’t wait to leave. 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.