The 2015 release of Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man may have been the last time the Marvel Cinematic Universe felt like a scrappy upstart. Edgar Wright’s departure from the project was surprising in part because Marvel Studios was still touting the idea that its success came from picking the right directors and letting them do what they wanted — even if they wanted to pick a more obscure hero to focus on, and even if they wanted to make a film that didn’t have to be a world-beating blockbuster and could just be fun, weird, and anti-establishment.
The previous franchise installment, just a few months earlier, was Joss Whedon’s heady Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the idea that Marvel would follow up with a movie about the guy who talks to ants seemed too bizarre to be corporate. Marvel further brought home the idea of a “little” MCU movie with a slew of cute, viral marketing gimmicks, and the cherry on top was the original Ant-Man “teaser trailer,” billed at the time as the first Ant-Man footage.
Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas are staring into each other’s eyes and snapping their fingers. It isn’t clear where they are or what they’re doing. A rising background tone begins to wail, as their snapping escalates to thigh-slapping, faster and faster. As Rudd flails his clapping hands between his chest and his legs, Douglas looks at the camera as if it’s insulted his mother and barks out: “ANTS!”
But that was eight years ago. In 2023, there are no parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe small enough to be overlooked. The third movie in the Ant-Man subseries, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, is also the first step in a three-year saga. The “little” MCU franchise has been saddled with introducing the load-bearing narrative pillar for the next two phases of the MCU. And in this fight between Ant-Man and Kang the Conqueror, we’re all losing.
Quantumania begins with cheery narration from the peppy, slightly dim version of Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man (Rudd), that Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp fans will find familiar. Scott has finally been reunited with his girlfriend, kick-butt tech CEO Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly); her parents, Hank (Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), the latter of whom was rescued from the Quantum Realm in 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp; and his daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton). (The latter aged to teenagehood while he was stuck beyond time and Hope, Hank, and Janet were all Blipped out of existence due to the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame.) Scott is sad that he missed so much of Cassie’s childhood, but otherwise, his life is great. He’s a famous superhero with a close and loving family, and he just saved the world. His memoir about his own heroism is a feel-good bestseller.
Then, quick as whiplash, Janet’s past is called into question, an experiment goes awry, and everyone gets trapped in the Quantum Realm (again), where Kang seems to have already conquered. Like Ant-Man, the Quantum Realm has evolved as needed by the MCU. Once a void between elemental particles from which no one had ever returned, it became a time-travel McGuffin, and now it’s an entire fantasy adventure universe that exists within the microscopic spaces of our own.
This is a comic concept that has never made any goddamn sense and never will, and therefore remains a reliable vehicle for fun. The Quantum Realm should be the star of Quantumania. Instead, it sums up everything wrong with the movie.
The film’s world-building is more like world-edificing, the narrative equivalent of building a Hollywood set where the buildings are all flat wooden facades with no interiors. The Quantum Realm needs some people, because if Kang is a conqueror, he needs some people to conquer. Those people need attributes. But screenwriter Jeff Loveness never threads all those details into more than a jokey callback. To be a conqueror, Kang needs an army, and Loveness and returning director Peyton Reed craft a fully faceless, interchangeable legion of… It isn’t clear whether they’re living beings from the Quantum Realm or some kind of robots.
Reed takes pains to make everything in Quantumania’s Quantum Realm as unfamiliar as possible, packing the screen with all-CGI characters, impossible vistas, and digital creatures. Conceptually, you can’t fault him for trying, but it seems that quantity won out over quality in distracting ways. In spite of the seven digital-effects studios listed in the credits, the effects often look unfinished.
But the real drawback of sending Ant-Man to a fantasy environment is that — as we have known since Honey, I Shrunk the Kids — the appeal of shrinking hijinks lies in seeing familiar things from a new perspective. Previous Ant-Man movies have played delightful havoc with scale, with Hank Pym’s shrinking-and-supersizing technology being used to create Hot Wheels carriers full of real cars, salt cellars the size of fire hydrants, and a dog-sized ant that plays drums. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania has virtually none of this kind of toying with scale.
Worse, between horizonless skies that look like the textured walls of vast caves and a distinct lack of establishing and wide shots, the space the actors occupy in Quantumania — from their immediate surroundings to the very geography of the land they inhabit — is unreadable. All too often, the only way to tell if characters in a given shot are larger or smaller than “normal” isn’t any visual evidence, but the way they’re talking out loud about how they’re so big right now.
While visual scale clues can make a movie sing, they usually aren’t make-or-break. But this is an Ant-Man flick. If we can’t tell how big or small something is, what are we even doing here?
Unmistakable cracks in the visual effects could be ignored if Quantumania wasn’t leaning so hard into visual spectacle as one of its main features. The film’s chaotic design would function cleanly if the movie’s pace wasn’t so breakneck, if there was more space to explore the Quantum characters and their world, if the main cast was allowed time to just be people every now and then. And if the story was clunky but the look of the movie was confident, assured, and engaging, there would be something to write home about. But in trying to do everything with Quantumania’s story, screen effects, and setting, Reed doesn’t create much of anything.
That includes what has been touted as a must-see big moment for Jonathan Majors and his Kang the Conqueror, briefly introduced as the enigmatic “He Who Remains” in the first season of Loki on Disney Plus. Majors is a solemn on-screen presence. The vertical face “seams” of Jack Kirby’s original character design have been interpreted here as facial scarification, a striking choice that makes Kang look a little like he has tear tracks running down his face at all times. Majors’ committed delivery of unflappable villain bombast feels equal to the Thanos-level threat he’s supposed to be. Unfortunately, his grandiosity and the need to establish him as dangerous enough to carry two entire Marvel Phases pretty much nixes the Ant-Man franchise’s brand of back-and-forth comedy.
The last time the MCU had to truly debut a franchise-wide big bad, Guardians of the Galaxy used Ronan the Accuser — played with full-camp knowingness by Lee Pace — as an intermediary between the Guardians’ wisecracking fuck-ups and the impassive, unstoppable Thanos, preserving the tone of the former and the dignity of the latter. Quantumania ultimately serves neither Ant-Man nor Kang by pitting them against each other, going for big and small at the same time. The thing is, if you’re big from one perspective and small from another, you’re just normal-sized. And that’s the last thing an Ant-Man should be.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania opens in theaters on Feb. 17.