The first two Ant-Man films were sweet, very family-friendly films that happened to be utterly pivotal to Avengers: Endgame. For the third installment, director Peyton Reed decided to raise the stakes, to make Scott Lang and the Pym-Van Dyne family’s next outing an epic Quantum Realm adventure, that would introduce one of Marvel’s most exciting villains, Kang the Conqueror. Despite recruiting excellent comic book writer Jeff Loveness (“Groot,” “Judas”) to pen the script, the film’s ambition ultimately exceeds its creators’ grasp, resulting in the MCU’s dullest, most rote film in years.
Crucially, the film is not dark enough to be the reinvention of the series it wants to be, but not fun enough either, leading to an action-packed climax that feels unexciting and unearned. In effect, the film feels more like attending a lecture to prepare for the next Avengers film, Avengers: The Kang Dynasty, than watching the latest Marvel blockbuster, lacking the usual thrills, touching moments, and belly laughs we’ve come to expect. Frustratingly, the basic level of competence in all Marvel projects where it matters – acting, dialogue etc. – means it can’t be enjoyed as something so bad it’s magnificent either.
Reed and Loveness get our protagonists sucked into the Quantum Realm pretty quickly after filling us in on what they’ve been up to since Endgame, but it still feels like 45 mins before any real action, and even longer before we actually meet our antagonist, whom we’re primarily introduced to by way of an extensive flashback, narrated by Michelle Pfeiffer as Janet van Dyne. It’s symptomatic of how the first two acts, by and large, are burdened with exposition for the Quantum Realm, which we learn is a universe living under Kang’s thumb, that Janet essentially abandoned when Hank found her in the second film.
It’s a fascinating idea, albeit one of many that doesn’t feel in continuity with the first two films: why is Janet so fearful of Kang finding her, when she was perfectly fine helping her family return to the Quantum Realm for Ghost’s medical treatment? Why are the healing energies she gained never brought up? Why does Cassie Lang call Hank Pym her grandfather when she must’ve known him for only a couple of years after the Blip? Did Scott and Hope get married between films? These distracting disconnects only help to reinforce the notion the filmmakers weren’t interested in building on the previous movies, but solely in competing with fellow Disney staples Star Wars and Avatar.
The Quantum Realm is certainly an imaginative world, filled with living food, technology, and even buildings, but in spite of the efforts of the VFX artists, who try to make it come alive with lens flares and dust particles, it never feels as real and immersive as James Cameron’s Pandora: it’s as flat as George Lucas’s prequel worlds, through and through. The amount of bluescreen and greenscreen appears to have had an impact on the performances as well: in one scene, Michael Douglas delivers Hank Pym’s astonishment at seeing a man with broccoli for a head with as much excitement as going to the dentist. Kathryn Newton, our new Cassie Lang going forward, struggles the most with the amount of visual effects, compounding the problem of her clearly not being an older Abby Ryder Fortson.
One actor who definitely doesn’t struggle is Jonathan Majors, who is an impeccably icy and regal Conqueror, quietly brimming with rage at the Circle of Hell he’s trapped in. It’s a complete contrast to his performance in Loki, proving what a gift he has been and shall be to Marvel, imbuing every variant of Kang with their own personality. However, he’s ultimately wasted here, as Scott is too wholesome of a lead to truly engage with the temptation this devil offers, which is the gift of more time with his daughter before the events of Endgame. Janet and Kang have a far more interesting dynamic stemming from their history in the Quantum Realm, but unfortunately, she’s not the main character.
What’s frustrating is the potential was there thematically: Scott and Cassie’s relationship is built around his concern that her burgeoning, proactive heroism will damage her life irreversibly the way his exploits have. His sole concern is getting her home safe, whereas Cassie is fully engaged with the plight of the Quantum Realm’s indigenous inhabitants. Does Scott learn to grow beyond his selfishness, and accept his daughter’s independence? Not really: his beef with Kang remains the fact he’s imprisoned her. Perhaps Loveness was trying to avoid making Lang a white savior, but his disinterest in the Quantum Realm people’s rebellion renders them similarly unengaging, which is a shame given how cool Katy M. O’Brian, William Jackson Harper, and David Dastmalchian’s characters actually are on paper.
Let’s talk about MODOK, who is the Vader to Kang’s Emperor: he’s genuinely too offputting and unhinged – built up early on as a “mechanized organism designed only for killing” – to be the funny and pathetically sympathetic character he turns out to be. It might’ve been the uncanny valley effect, as he’s designed to look like a blown up version of the actor (no spoilers) who portrays him, instead of his grotesque comics counterpart, even though his appearance is otherwise unbelievably comics accurate. If MODOK had a far less normal voice and face, then perhaps the effects would’ve been more convincing, and this version of the character might’ve worked – instead, I cringed every time he deactivated his faceplate.
Ultimately, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is possibly the weakest MCU film since Iron Man 2, a lifeless Guardians of the Galaxy wannabe that reminds you sometimes, you can have a group of filmmakers and actors you like, with a million great ideas, and a project still won’t come together for a myriad of reasons. It certainly puts into perspective why Marvel brought on new directors to reinvigorate the Iron Man and Thor franchises – it’s also baffling why Paul Rudd himself didn’t contribute to the screenplay like the previous two films. Hopefully Loveness will have a much more fruitful collaboration with Destin Daniel Cretton on Avengers: The Kang Dynasty, and Reed’s next film will be something he would have a better handle on than Avengers: Secret Wars.