As a wise Avenger once wrote, there’s always room to grow. Does bigger necessarily equate to better, though?
That’s the question posed indirectly by “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” Marvel’s latest big-screen extravaganza out in theaters Friday. It’s by far Ant-Man’s most high-profile solo adventure to date, with Scott Lang and company being taken out of their usual low-stakes films and thrust into a story designed to launch the next phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe storytelling.
How Ant-Man fairs on a larger stage is a mixed bag. Story-wise, it’s basically a “Star Wars” redux on acid. The Quantum Realm itself is CGI-heavy to the point of distraction. And yet, “Quantumania” does still contain some visual cleverness, fun ant-family dynamics and, most crucially, a formidable foil in Jonathan Majors’ Kang.
And yes, M.O.D.O.K. is there too. The less said about him, the better.
After helping to save the world in “Avengers: Endgame,” Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has mostly retired to a life of book readings and making up for lost time with his now-teenage daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton). She’s grown up to be a do-gooder with a rebellious streak, as well as a budding scientist who was able to create a device capable of sending a signal to the Quantum Realm, aka a very tiny dimension where the rules of space and time no longer apply.
Things go haywire with that gadget, and the entire ant-family — Scott, Cassie, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) — end up getting trapped in the Quantum Realm. They soon become embroiled in a quantum revolution against Kang the Conqueror, who just wants to get out of there so he can continue annihilating timeline after timeline.
The previous installments in the “Ant-Man” franchise leaned heavily on gonzo humor, most of which was provided by Scott and his former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña). While there’s plenty of wackiness in “Quantumania,” it’s definitely the least overtly funny entry in the franchise and the one that takes its titular hero more seriously than either “Ant-Man” or “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” Luis is nowhere to be found, and his presence is missed.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few new faces who seemingly exist just to keep things light. William Jackson Harper is charming as ever in a small role as mind-reader Quaz, along with David Dastmalchian’s voice work as the good-natured and gelatinous Veb. Heck, freakin’ Bill Murray shows up at one point as Lord Krylar, an ex-freedom fighter with ties to Janet’s time as a prisoner of the Quantum Realm.
All the performers do their best to add some texture to a world that looks artificial even for a Marvel movie. It’s not as if locales like Asgard or even Wakanda ever looked particularly realistic. But the Quantum Realm is a green-screened mishmash of colors that somehow look simultaneously bright and muted. The few folks who caught Disney’s latest animated film “Strange World” in theaters may feel like the House of Mouse is beginning to steal from itself with how the Quantum Realm is rendered.
Actually, the same can be said for the film’s story structure, which is eerily similar to 2019’s “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” To be clear, “Quantumania” is much more successful at what it set out to accomplish than the deeply flawed “Rise of Skywalker.” But there were multiple points throughout its narrative where it felt like a rehash of “Star Wars” tropes, which some may find too cynical of a barrier to overcome.
All that said, there’s still an inherent joy in watching Ant-Man and the gang figure their way out of tricky situations through inventive forms of growing and shrinking themselves and the quantum world around them. Director Peyton Reed has proven over three “Ant-Man” movies that he’s a master of scale, and “Quantumania” features his most interesting uses of size to date despite every character being infinitesimally small almost the whole time.
The chemistry among the core ant-family is the main reason “Quantumania” even vaguely functions as a standalone movie rather just than a cog in the greater Marvel machine. Rudd continues to do great work as a guy who still can’t believe he’s an Avenger. His Scott Lang just wants to keep his daughter out of jail and his relationships intact. Very few actors can do effortless comedy as well as Rudd, but he’s at his most impressive when he sells what he’ll do to Kang if he touches a hair on Cassie’s head.
Speaking of which, Newton holds her own with her much more seasoned co-stars as the smart but naive Cassie. Lilly’s Wasp doesn’t have much to do besides act incredulous toward her mother, but she gets a few standout moments. Even when Douglas and Pfeiffer are delivering some truly nonsensical exposition, they still manage to elevate the material with their well-honed senses of gravitas and comic timing.
Then there’s Majors, who’s a force to be reckoned with as Kang. He’s physically imposing and clearly has a psychological hold over the citizens of the Quantum Realm that only someone with the idealism of an Avenger can break. It’s no secret that Kang’s going to maintain a presence in the MCU for the foreseeable future. This was a rocky start in terms of positioning him as a Thanos-esque threat, but at least Majors more than acquitted himself in the part.
“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is a squarely middle-of-the-road MCU installment. It has its moment and is buoyed by an overqualified cast, but it’s held back by a derivative story and wonky visuals. There was plenty of growth on display, but not all of it made for a more satisfying romp.
P.S. Let’s all agree now to never talk about whatever that attempt at adapting M.O.D.O.K. was again. Cool? Cool.