With every wave of summer blockbusters that goes by, the more obvious it becomes that Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace is one of the most important movies of the last 40 years. Not just for its pioneering use of (light) digital photography and effects, or for reviving a decades-old franchise, but because George Lucas’ direction provided a model for big action scenes that modern blockbusters still copy to this day. And that’s especially true of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which echoed Phantom Menace’s third act throughout the Infinity Saga films. One exception to that rule is Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which advances things a little by taking its ending from Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones instead.
[Ed. note: This story contains spoilers for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.]
The Phantom Menace wasn’t the first movie to end with three parallel battles fought in three different places (there are even shades of this in Return of the Jedi), but it’s the movie that cemented the format’s slickness in a CG-enabled sci-fi setting. A young Anakin Skywalker lights up Trade Federation ships above Naboo while the Gungans fight to repel the battle droids from the planet’s surface. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn fight the acrobatic Darth Maul. But what makes this finale work for Phantom Menace is that these characters themselves never get lost in the scale of their conflicts.
Lucas’ first prequel is a master class in letting specific characters shine during the action — whether you like those characters or not. Jar Jar Binks takes out an entire army of droids by accident, and young Anakin says stuff like “I’ll try spinning, that’s a good trick!” It’s a constant lighthearted tonal balance that reminds the viewer not to take any of the laser-fire chaos too seriously, and makes for an excellent contrast to the deadly serious (and forever phenomenal) “Duel of Fates” between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul. But even in the fast-paced lightsaber fight there’s time for characters to have their own moments, like Maul stalking back and forth while Qui-Gon quietly meditates or Obi-Wan’s frantic pacing while he can’t help his master.
It’s a genuinely exciting sequence that, when one pulls back, makes almost no concrete sense. We can more or less connect any two of the battles to each other, but never all three, and there’s no real indication that they’re happening anywhere near each other or whether or not that’s important. Neither the ticking clock of the scenario or the consequence of any win or loss really matters because the editing is so slick, and hides the seams so well, that you never actually have time to question anything that’s happening. You’re just along for the ride.
This method of several varieties of intercut action scenes has been Marvel’s go-to template for “epic action” for years now. It’s the exact setup of the original Black Panther’s finale, but versions of it are also in movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers, and Avengers: Infinity War. Basically, any time the MCU has too many cast members and needs to prove that a battle is really big, the series doesn’t look to movies like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers or Saving Private Ryan for inspiration; it always turns back to The Phantom Menace.
The problem is that none of these finales have ever matched Lucas’ prequel for rhythm, visuals, or fun. The specificity of the worlds of Star Wars is replaced by composited-in characters battling on generic canvases. Both Talokan and Wakanda are fascinating cities with interesting and unique architecture and styles, but the ending of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever takes place in the middle of the open ocean, on a flat boat, and somewhat near a desert beach.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania changes things up — even if the results are remarkably similar. The third Ant-Man movie is the start of Marvel’s Phase 5, a new set of Multiverse Saga movies that leads up to two Avengers movies: 2025’s The Kang Dynasty and 2026’s Secret Wars. After a quest through the Quantum Realm in search of a way home, Scott, Hope, Cassie, Hank, and Janet realize that they have to stop Kang from escaping in order to both get home and protect the rest of the world. The small band of heroes is initially outnumbered by Kang’s giant force before they’re joined by some of the other strange-looking multicolored creatures of the Quantum Realm who have decided to fight Kang too. Despite their combined efforts, all hope seems lost until an army of ants charges in with superior numbers and firepower and takes down Kang’s army. Finally, all that’s left is Kang himself, which leads to a climactic battle between Scott and Kang. That is absolutely not what happens in Phantom Menace. It is, on the other hand, a lot like Attack of the Clones.
While the first two Star Wars prequel movies have similarities, Clones is a much more confined battle that mostly follows Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padmé as they try to find a way to escape the arena on Geonosis. Initially outnumbered, the group finds some sudden reinforcements with the arrival of the Jedi Order, a hodgepodge of odd-looking aliens with multicolored lightsabers. Even with the extra help, our heroes eventually start to lose to the overwhelming flood of enemies, until a massive army of clone troopers with superior numbers and firepower arrives to turn the tide. Finally, all that’s left is Count Dooku, who Anakin attempts to deal with on his own — with significantly worse results than Scott in Quantumania.
There are even moments in Quantumania that feel overtly lifted from Clones, pulling out a few extremely similar shots, like Kang’s unexplained clone-ish armies lining up while being circled with ships in an unintelligible CGI fortress — a near perfect match for Clones’ ending.
To compare Quantumania to Attack of the Clones doesn’t do the Marvel threequel any favors. But for all of Episode II’s problems, the battle isn’t really one of them. Sure, some parts are a little blander than they could be and the effects don’t quite hold up, but it’s an exceptionally well-staged set piece that effectively communicates its action, its geography, its stakes, and the distinct personalities of its characters during the chaos.
Attack of the Clones never matches the character-specific highs of Phantom Menace, but it doesn’t lose sight of them or let them blend together either. Padmé finally gets to show herself as a capable fighter when standard diplomacy fails, and we see her and Anakin connect in ways that are more convincing than their Naboo picnics or Tatooine getaways. Mace Windu establishes his dedication to theatrics, Boba Fett gets a moment to witness the death of his father, Dooku continues his eternal quest to survive at any cost, and Yoda makes his most overconfident move yet against Palpatine. Everyone gets something that only they could do, and each moment feels both distinct and like a coherent little moment inside the larger battle.
But Quantumania, like Marvel’s Phantom Menace-like finales before it, lifts the looks of Attack of the Clones without its charms or character. None of the movie’s action beats feel unique to the character performing them, beyond the shrinking and growing, and no one comes up with a plan that seems uniquely in character rather than just dictated by their powers. Quantumania starts with Scott learning his daughter has been arrested at protests multiple times, but by the end of the movie, the characters barely feel like they’ve gone anywhere or changed. Even something as simple as Cassie pulling out her shrunken police car during the climactic battle could have led to a brief moment of character between her and Scott in the middle of the chaotic fight, but we get no such thing.
None of this is to say that Star Wars shouldn’t be emulated, just that if Marvel’s going to do it — as Kevin Feige is open about — the company should feel more pressure to match Lucas’ visionary approach, and should do it a little more completely. For all the problems the prequels have, and for all the CGI negatives they gave blockbusters in the decades since, they are still specific in their execution. They’re driven by their characters and even the most chaotic action is rooted in their perspectives, humor, and personalities. They’re what movies of a certain scale need to be.