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Quantumania: Diminishing Returns

It’s not a secret that I am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve caught every film and most of the TV shows that Marvel Studios considers canon. For a long time, I’ve pushed aside the arguments made that the franchise is getting old or that the MCU is too prolific. It wasn’t something I personally felt. However, now that the MCU has officially kicked off Phase Five with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, I’m forced to re-examine things and possibly concede that yes, we might need a break.

In the years since he helped save the world in Avengers: Endgame, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has become a successful author thanks to his best-selling memoir. Hope Van Dyne/The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) has taken over Pym Industries, using its technology to help people the world over. Scott’s teenage daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) has developed a machine that can send and receive signals from the Quantum Realm, but when a demonstration goes haywire she, Scott, Hope, and Hope’s parents end up sucked into the Quantum Realm where they must contend with the exiled conqueror Kang (Jonathan Majors), who sees Pym technology as his way out.

The previous Ant-Man films have been a source of respite for the MCU. Largely skewing away from high-stakes drama, leaning into more down-to-earth and practical challenges (at least relative to the rest of the MCU). Ant-Man and the Wasp generally didn’t go up against world-threatening supervillains. You didn’t see an ominous skybeam by act three. It allowed the films to inject a needed dose of levity into the proceedings, and the films executed a well-balanced mix of superhero action and a clever wit that often bordered on the absurd.

Almost as well-balanced as this face-off.

That balance has been well and truly disrupted with Quantumania. The trickster charm that made the previous films so appealing has been drowned in a vat of MCU formula, emerging as just another stepping stone forward for the all-consuming metaplot. The humor is still here, but it doesn’t hit nearly as hard as before, and there are very long stretches of the film that are nothing but random action scenes and heavy drama. It’s by far the darkest and most serious mood the Ant-Man films have had yet.

Is that such a bad thing? Yes and no, but leaning toward yes. On the one hand, it is nice to see Scott Lang and company rise to the occasion of the other Avengers and take on threats far beyond their scope. On the other, it also feels like they’re way out of their league because the MCU’s version of Ant-Man is not a cosmic hero. While the Quantum Realm is a hidden universe underneath our own, it essentially constitutes an alien galaxy, a setting that would seem better suited for heroes like Thor or Captain Marvel. The glimpses we’ve seen of the Quantum Realm before barely resemble the full, industrial world-building on display here.

To be fair, the Quantum Realm does look amazing. It’s a psychedelic kaleidoscope of colors and shapes where buildings are alive and creatures with energy cannons for heads are common. There isn’t really much internal logic to the place, but as it exists outside space and time, that can be forgiven to an extent. Director Peyton Reed definitely has his visuals working, and they pair beautifully with Christophe Beck’s elevated score.

Cassie, I don’t think we’re in Earth-616 anymore.

However, I’m not going to extend the same leniency to the loose, sloppy story. To say the film has pacing issues is a massive understatement. The script by Jeff Loveness has a wildly uneven application of rising action, and in some ways, the film feels like three episodes of a Marvel TV series stitched together at the last minute. A set piece involving Scott being trapped in a “probability storm” and surrounded by hundreds of variants of himself feels like it should be a third act climactic moment, but it’s placed in the second act and followed by a long, drawn-out battle between our heroes, Kang, and an uprising of the people he’s oppressed. At 124 minutes this film is toward the shorter end of MCU run times, but it still feels like a good 15 minutes should have been excised.

And here’s the worst part about that battle: it’s just way, way too hard to care about it. While the film tries to position the political situation in the Quantum Realm in the broader context of the MCU (that is, Kang can’t be allowed to escape or he might conquer the whole timeline), it’s ultimately difficult to give a damn. A number of new characters are introduced that we will likely never see again, many of them adaptations from a highly obscure Marvel Comics supporting cast (and one memorable character who’s completely and totally wasted here). Why are we spending so much time with these extras? It really emphasizes the idea that this film exists only to introduce Kang, since he’s going to be the new Big Bad for the current Multiverse Saga.

And while Kang is a poorly-written character with basic villain motivations, he still comes alive with Jonathan Majors’ performance. We’d previously seen Majors play a variant of Kang called He Who Remains on the Loki TV series, where he was surprisingly genial and pleasantly world-weary. Kang here is a straight up, old-fashioned tyrant, and his personality couldn’t be more different. However, Majors jumps into him with serious dedication, imbuing Kang with a dangerous, almost magnetic charm that’s nowhere in the script. Even in Marvel Comics, Kang isn’t the most iconic or complicated antagonist; he’s basically the Big Bad because of his longevity and because Marvel had only just acquired the rights to Doctor Doom when the film was written. But in Majors’ hands, Kang emerges as a genuine threat, a real, calculated terror that promises to rival the MCU’s Thanos in scope and totality.

Work, king.

Like Majors, our band of heroes does a great job with the material, elevating it far higher than it ever could go on its own. The cast literally keeps the film moving even during the times when the narrative grinds to a complete halt. Paul Rudd continues to be one of the most charismatic actors in the MCU, and here he gets to discover new, darker sides to Scott Lang that were only hinted at before. While Evangeline Lilly gets mostly sidelined here, she still makes Hope Van Dyne a welcome presence, even if she sports one of the most hateful haircuts in superhero film history. (It’s allegedly an homage to The Wasp’s iconic pixie cut in the comics, but I can’t get over how awful it looks on Lilly in live action. I’m petty. Sue me.) Scott spends most of his screen time with Kathryn Newton, and while Newton seems a bit shaky at times, she’s hard to dislike, and she’s very enthusiastic whenever she’s on screen.

The film’s most under-utilized character, however, is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Janet Van Dyne. Pfeiffer is a phenomenal actress. This has been well-documented. She looks absolutely amazing, her legendary beauty making it almost impossible not to get drawn into her. However, she’s given the wholly unpleasant task of shouldering a ton of the film’s exposition and retconning. It turns out Janet got up to a lot of shenanigans during her 30 years in the Quantum Realm that she conveniently never told anyone about. For all of Pfeiffer’s inherent allure, she often seems like carrying the narrative backstory is an unpleasant task for her. It’s a great thing that she’s finally allowed to be a vital character in the MCU, but it’s also unfortunate that she doesn’t seem like she’s having a great time being in this specific spotlight. But even this is better than no Pfeiffer at all, and I have to admit that I paid more attention to the film when she was on screen.

Work, queen.

When all was said and done, I walked away from Quantumania feeling unsatisfied. This definitely an “I’m still f**king hungry” moment. This feels like filler. Empty calories. Something pleasant, even exciting in the moment, but ultimately lacking in substance. If not for a dedicated and highly professional cast, it’s possible this film may have gotten lost inside the relentless cogs of the MCU machine. It feels odd that the thing that gives me hope for the rest of Phase Five is its villain, but this is where we’re at. It’s truly a strange universe, indeed.

FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / C+

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