The kind of spectacular run of success that Marvel Studios has enjoyed over the last decade is something quite miraculous and not very common in Hollywood. The studio built up it’s brand from the launch of Iron Man in 2008 and saw the world come together in anticipation for every new film they put out. With the connective thread found in each individual film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe became the most ambitious narrative ever undertaken in movie history, with each Avengers movie acting as a touchstone in the overall saga. Built over what they called their phases, Marvel built towards a grand finale with their two part Phase 3 finishers called Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). There was little doubt that Marvel had succeeded in their goals as Endgame for a time became the highest grossing film worldwide in history. And with the story they had been building over those ten years finally complete, Marvel could now definitively call the entirety of that era The Infinity Saga, taking it’s name from the Infinity Stones that had been central to the connective narrative in all the movies. So, with the Infinity Saga complete, what story was next for Marvel to tackle. It seems like Marvel had the idea in mind of where to go next, as there were hints dropped about a mysterious new element that would soon come into play in the MCU; something called The Multiverse. Starting with Phase 4, Marvel was set to take it’s universe into an exciting new direction with the concept of the multiverse central to it’s overall narrative. Some of the Phase 4 movies have tackled it head on, like Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), while others have remained more earthbound in their narratives, like Black Widow (2021) and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022). Regardless of which films tackle it or not, this is the multiverse is going to be the centerpiece of Marvel’s master plan for the next few years, and hopefully they are able to get audiences on board like they did with the Infinity Saga.
However, Marvel is also going through an awkward phase, perhaps related to their expansion into streaming over the last couple years. The Multiverse Saga is not just making it’s presence on the big screen, but on the platform Disney+ as well, with several series airing on there that tie in with the movies. Shows like Wandavision, Loki, Ms. Marvel, and others have just as many connective threads tied into the Multiverse Saga as the movies do, and in some ways it’s making the overall flow of the storyline a little too complicated for the average viewer to follow along with. In Phases 1-3 of the MCU, you might have gotten as many as three films a year from the studio. Now, it’s up to four films plus just as many mini-series on Disney+ all within the same calendar year. Phase 4 alone had 15 individual titles, which is 3x that of Phase 1. That’s a lot of story to wrap your heads around if you’re trying to keep track of where the MCU is heading. And for some audiences, it’s too much. In the last couple of years through the roll out of Phase 4, a feeling of fatigue has set it. The once mighty Marvel machine is now starting to show signs of fragility. The box office, while still decent (especially in the middle of a pandemic recovery) is off from previous franchise highs. Not only that, but critical reception has slipped as well, with Marvel films like Eternals (2021) receiving for the first time a net negative rating for the studio. Phase 4 culminated last year with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and the overall feeling amongst Marvel fans is that the studio had lost a bit of it’s luster over the course of Phase 4, despite some high points along the way. It’s a tough position to be in as Marvel now looks to begin Phase 5 in earnest. And to launch their next Phase, they are turning to a character that in some fans minds is seen as one of the lesser Avengers; Ant-Man, who returns to the screen in his third solo outing, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
Quantumania takes place a couple of years after the events of Endgame, with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) enjoying his celebrity status as an Avenger. He has published a memoir about his experience helping the Avengers reverse the effects of the “Blip” and saving the world from Thanos, and has been receiving honors across his hometown of San Francisco. At the same time, he also is trying to repair a strained relationship with his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), who had to grow up for 5 years during the Blip without her family. Unbeknownst to Scott, Cassie has been spending more time with Scott’s partner Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) aka The Wasp and hope’s father Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man. Cassie finally reveals what she has been working on in secret with her two mentors, which is a special device that can probe into the sub-atomic Quantum Realm. While Scott is certainly proud of Cassie’s invention, the same feeling is not shared by Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hope’s mother who had been rescued from the Quantum Realm after being trapped there for decades. Unfortunately, Janet’s concerns were warranted as the probing device malfunctions and begins to shrink everything around it down to sub-atomic size, including everyone in the room. The family finds themselves separated and stranded in the strange universe within a universe that is the Quantum Realm. Scott and Cassie find themselves captured by sub-atomic beings that call the Realm home, led by freedom fighters Jentorra (Katy M. O’Brian) and Quaz (William Jackson Harper). Meanwhile, Hope, Janet and Hank try to find their own way back home. For Janet, the goal is to get home quickly without being seen, because there is someone in the Quantum Realm who she is terrified of running into again; the fearsome dictator of the Quantum Realm, Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors).
Quantumania is the third film in the standalone Ant-Man franchise in the MCU. But, apart from it’s predecessors, this film has far more influence on the greater narrative that’s being told in the MCU. The first two Ant-Man’s were smaller scale adventures that only tied into the MCU storyline through the mid and post credits scenes. This film on the other hand is launching the next Phase of the MCU, so it’s overall story is significantly more involved in the narrative built thus far and where it’s going next. The same team from the other films returns for this third entry, with director Peyton Reed once again directing. And while the new direction of this franchise is brave new territory for everyone involved, it’s also something that works against the effectiveness of the movie overall. Peyton Reed as a director had carved out this niche for the Ant-Man branch of the MCU as being more light-hearted and comical; a welcome break from the more heavy films in the MCU line-up. That tone is significantly changed in Quantumania, which is far more science fiction heavy than the previous Ant-Man movies. The MCU has certainly delved into the weird and alien before, with the Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises, but shifting in that direction for Ant-Man is a big swing, and it’s one that I don’t think a filmmaker like Reed is comfortable working in. A common complaint that has been rising about Marvel in Phase 4 has been that all their titles are beginning to become formulaic and carbon copies of each other. This seems to be what’s happened with Ant-Man as well, as it’s ditched it’s fun romp through the city formula that served it well before in favor of looking more like the space operas of other franchises. And that shift overall becomes awkward and unfocused when executed by a team that thus far has been comfortable working with a different style of movie.
There are still things to like about the movie, don’t get me wrong. There are certainly individual scenes throughout that work very well on their own. But all the ingredients put together leads to a meal that in some way feels very undercooked. Peyton Reed is called upon to do so much universe building in this film, and it leaves him so little time to do the things he’s actually good at in this franchise which is comedic action. The movie itself is very awkwardly paced, moving the story from set-piece to set-piece without every allowing the narrative to find it’s bearings. You can sense a good version of this story within the film desperately trying to find it’s way out, but is continually denied by the break neck speed of the plot. Perhaps the movie’s greatest sin is how it treats it’s central villain. Kang the Conqueror is simultaneously the best part of this movie as well as it’s part. There’s no doubt that a lot of people are going to be talking about Jonathan Majors performance as Kang in this film. In just a handful of scenes he commands a foreboding and sinister presence. Marvel definitely knew what they were doing when they cast him in the role, because this is a very demanding role that requires an actor that can literally play multiple variations of the same person and do so with the same intensity each time. We first met a version of Kang in the Loki Disney+ series (also played by Majors), but this version is the Conqueror, the one that is feared above all the others, and Jonathan Majors does a magnificent job of capturing that terrifying power in his performance. The only problem is Kang is very much misplaced in this movie. The movie cannot quite figure out to use Kang as an adversary in this film. Ant-Man is clearly out-matched in terms of power, so the film has to find ways to nerf Kang to make him less of a threat, and this very much robs the villain of his menacing nature. Kang is supposed to be the next Thanos, and first impressions are everything, so if this is our first taste of what’s to come with Kang the Conqueror in the future of the MCU, it doesn’t exactly heighten our excitement.
There are definitely a few other things that help to keep Quantumania from becoming a complete misfire for Marvel. One is the cast of characters. With each new film in the franchise, as well as his guest appearances alongside the Avengers, Paul Rudd continues to reinforce his place as the perfect choice to play the role of Ant-Man in the MCU. He is endlessly charming, and that continues to shine in Quantumania. Even as the movie begins to lack the comical spark that defined past entries, Rudd is still able to find laughs in the best moments of the movie. There is a spectacular scene midway where Ant-Man ends up in a realm where he keeps cloning himself exponentially until there are literally millions of him, and even here Rudd is able to find clever ways to make the interactions with himself hilarious. The movie also does a good job tackling the father/daughter relationship between Scott and Cassie. The character of Cassie is significantly aged up from the last installment, Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), due to the five year jump in the MCU from the Blip, and Kathryn Newton takes over the role. While the years have certainly hardened the character, we still see some of the same spirited persona within the character, and Newton does a good job of playing up the childlike enthusiasm of the character. The other characters have less to do, which is especially true of Evangeline Lily’s Wasp, who only seems to be in this movie because her name is in the title. Michelle Pfeiffer’s role is expanded, and she does a good job of helping to delve into more of Janet’s past; particularly the trauma that she carries with her. Of all the characters in the film, Janet seems to be the one who has the strongest arc, as she has to confront the guilt of her past (particularly when it relates to Kang) and overcome it. The secondary characters are for the most part underdeveloped, but actors like Katy O’Brian and William Jackson Harper make the most of their time on screen. One character in the movie who I think is going to divide audiences is M.O.D.O.K. Marvel fans are either going to love or hate what they did to this iconic villain from the comic books. For me, the character took some getting used to, but at the same time, I feel like this was likely the best we would ever get to having a live action version of this character in the MCU. M.O.D.O.K., the giant faced, tiny limbed villain has always been weird looking in all variations of media throughout the years, so the fact that Marvel even attempted to make him work here at all was risky, and despite the weirdness of it all, he’s a character that still makes an impression and even gets a well earned laugh or two.
There’s also something to be said about the look of the Quantum Realm itself. You would think that Marvel has already exhausted it’s share of different world to explore within it’s universe, but the Quantum Realm is visually interesting enough to stand on it’s own. One of the interesting aspects of how the Quantum Realm is used in this film is that the movie does a good job of making the sub-atomic feel vast. It’s supposed to feel like a universe on it’s own contained within an even more vast universe, and it’s how the visual spaces are used within the movie that helps to emphasize the different laws of nature that this Realm lives by. Kang’s stronghold for instance exists within a curved space that appears to extend up and around like the interior of a sphere while still maintaining the urban sprawl of it’s metropolis. The same alien elements of the Quantum Realm continue through the floating islands of rock that dot the landscape under a sky filled with swirling wormholes. While the story itself is unfocused, the movie does keep the visuals interesting throughout. A lot of the re-watchability factor of this movie may come down to catching all the details of the world-building, of which there are many little things worth catching. Even the creatures are imaginative and different from anything that we’ve seen in other Marvel properties, or any film for that matter. There’s one character that looks like it has a glass jar for a head with a light source inside. That and other creatures found throughout the movie really help to give more character to the movie, even if a lot of it is superficial and offers little to the overall plot. I saw the movie on a full sized IMAX screen, which helped to make the imaginative visuals stand out even more. Despite all the faults of the movie, the overall visual presentation is definitely on par with Marvel at it’s best.
Truth be told, the Ant-Man franchise has never really been among my favorites in the greater MCU. I do love Paul Rudd as the titular super hero, but I feel like he has been best used outside of his own franchise in movies like Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). The first Ant-Man (2015) was a troubled production that saw it’s original director (the visionary Edgar Wright) removed over creative differences and the finished film feeling in the end like it was compromised; choosing to play it safe as a super hero origin story. Ant-Man and the Wasp is probably the most cohesive film in the series, but it’s one that feels lacking in urgency and meaning; remembered more for it’s shocking cliffhanger mid-credits scene. Quantumania is definitely the messiest of the three films in the franchise; unfocused and underwhelming on the story end, but at the same time daring in it’s big swings. I think what ultimately made me upset about the movie is the missed opportunity it had with Kang as the villain. The movie’s whole purpose it seems is to introduce us to the next Avengers level threat in the MCU, and it in many ways undermines the importance of that mission by diminishing the character’s power. Kang never really comes off as scary as he should be, and I feel that’s where Quantumania fails the most as a movie. That being said, when the movie does deliver something good, like the visuals and the father/daughter storyline between Scott and Cassie, it really hits the mark. My hope is that when Kang re-emerges in the MCU plot thread that he’ll be far more menacing than he is here and live up to the promise of the character that we know him to be from his history in the comics. For a third chapter entry in a franchise that honestly has been one of my least favorite in the MCU, Quantumania could have been a lot worse, and I do give it credit for trying something new. But, given that Marvel’s Phase 5 is starting off with this underwhelming sequel as it’s launch pad, it’s already putting Marvel’s already shaky status into further uncertainty, and hopefully it’s not a sign that Marvel’s mojo has been drained completely. Thankfully, next up for them is the promising Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, director James Gunn’s Marvel swan song before he takes over DC. Quantumania is a decent enough adventure in it’s own way, but for it’s place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s memory is likely going to remain quite small in the long run.