Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania(2/16/2023)

In the trailer for the new Ant-Man movie there’s a joke in which the titular hero is in a coffee shop and the owner recognizes him and thanks him for being a hero… and then proceeds to misidentify him as Spider-Man.  This is perhaps a rather telling joke because Ant-Man has plainly always been something of a second tier Marvel character despite his status as an O.G. Avenger.  And by extension the Ant-Man movies are among the least beloved solo hero movies of the first three phases of the MCU, and I don’t think I’m alone in that opinion.  The first two movies are the twenty fourth and twenty second highest grossing entries of the franchise, above only some of the earliest movies from before the whole endevour snowballed and a couple of last year’s pandemic affected releases like Eternals.  That first Ant-Man in particular dropped at a point where the MCU was in a bit of a rut and also it kind of lives in the shadow of the “what could have been” scenario had Edgar Wright been allowed to make his version of the film.  Things did improve for the sequel, Ant-Man and The Wasp, however.  That was probably among the shallowest and most frivolous entries of the MCU (which is saying something) but it had a great car chase in the middle of it and a fun set of villains and was just generally a great example of MCU entertainment.  They seem to have taken a bit of a different approach with the new third entry however, as it seems to be advertised as something of a turning point that will formally introduce non-Disney+ viewers to the main nemesis of the next two phases, making this a bit more high stakes than the last two movies in the series.

Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania begins several years after the events of Avengers: Endgame and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) seems to have rested on his laurels a bit rather than actively pursuing super hero duties.  He’s written a memoir called “Look Out for the Little Guy” and spends his days promoting it but his (thanks to “the snap” now teenage) daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) is a bit more reckless and has recently been arrested while participating in a protest at a homeless encampment.  Additionally she’s been doing some experiments on the quantum realm and has been trying to map it out by sending signals directly into it, but once she tells Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) about this she’s shocked and implores her to stop, but it’s too late.  The machine starts acting strangely and suddenly sucks all five of the people in the room into a portal stranding them in the quantum realm in two separate locations.  Hank Pym (Michael Dougless), Hope (Evangeline Lilly), and Janet find themselves off in one region while Scott and Cassie are elsewere, and to the surprise of everyone but Janet they start running into people who’ve been living in the realm, revealing that it’s much more complicated than we previously thought.  However, they also come to learn that this realm is also home to Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) a super villain who Janet seems to have encountered previously.

You may have picked up on it in that plot description but this movie is kind of filled to the brim with a bunch of convoluted pseudoscience about realms and dimensions, which would be okay with me if there was a followable internal logic to it but there kind of isn’t, it really kind of feels like they’re making it up as they go.  That’s a problem because these kinds of things are starting to dominate the MCU more broadly going forward with a concept that involves both a multiverse, time travel, space travel, magic, religious afterlives, and this quantum realm all intersecting in ways that may or may not make a lot of sense.  And if someone like me who’re really earnestly trying to follow all this and put it together is confused by it I can’t imagine how the “normies” are going to take it.  That having been said, I do think this may be the kind of thing that people “turning their brains off at the door” may find less troubling as they just let themselves go along with the ride.

And there are things to enjoy here for those who are just going for the ride.  The Ant-Man movies have long been among the more comedic MCU entries and Paul Rudd remains pretty charming in the role here.  Evangeline Lilly’s The Wasp on the other hand is kind of downgraded here despite still being in the title as she’s kind of just a member of the ensemble along with Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer.  Instead this feels more like a story about Ant-Man and his daughter, who does not appear to have taken up an official superhero name but is I believe called “Stinger” in the comic books and does appear to be among the next generation of Avengers that Marvel is trying to develop.  And that relationship dynamic isn’t terrible, it mirrors a pretty real phenomenon in which parents need to explain to their socially conscious children that in life you can’t realistically be fighting injustice 24 hours a day but dialed up into the realm of super powered extremes.   I’d also say that Kang the Conqueror is a pretty successful villain, or at least that if he was a villain I thought would just be confined to this one movie and it’s story arc I’d be pretty happy with him.  This is a different Kang variant than the one we encountered in the season finale of “Loki” and is played more straightforwardly like a sort of Napoleon in exile rather than the more irreverent character we saw in that show and Johnathan Major plays him well.

What the film is less successful at doing is establishing Kang as a franchise spanning threat along the lines of Thanos.  To be fair I wasn’t exactly convinced about Thanos in his first couple appearances either, but they rather intentionally gave him relatively little screen time whereas I can already start to see myself getting sick of Kang in a movie or two.  Maybe it’s not fair to be judging things that far ahead, but the MCU kind of invites that sort of thing given how they roll these movies out so I think its fair game.  The bigger problem here though is actually the quantum realm itself, which I just generally don’t think is as fun or compelling as the film wanted it to be.  Look, building entire science fiction worlds is hard.  James Cameron spend decades conceiving every aspect of Pandora and then record setting sums of money trying to realize it.  By comparison one of these Marvel movies that get cranked out every couple of years are going to have a hard time stacking up.  They have comic books to draw on so every once in a while they’re going to be able to pull off something like Wakanda but for every one of those you have something that’s less realized than that like Talokan, which wants to give you the same sense of awe but is just not all there.  There are ways around this of course; the science fiction universe of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies is probably a bit more half-baked than it first appears largely because you’re too caught up in the main characters to care too much but that’s not really the case here.  The film tries way too hard to be a showcase for the Quantum Realm as if it were Oz or something but it doesn’t really hold together; random weirdness seems to be its defining feature and Peyton Reed keeps giving us weird off-putting stuff like a henchman that’s seemingly intentionally dumb looking.

Honestly it’s kind of odd that they chose Ant-Man as the character to use for such a consequential movie in the overall lore of the MCU, he’s… just not the go-to character for serious developments like that.  The Loki spin-off TV series was also kind of a strange place to take care of business like this so I’m not sure where their strategic thinking is in all this.  Beyond that, I don’t know, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this movie but I also think I’m a lot more forgiving of the MCU and tolerant of its convoluted nonsense than a lot of people are.  This one in particular really doesn’t feel like it will be able to hold up under much scrutiny and it’s also just crowded and over-stuffed with characters at this point.  So if you’re part of the MCU faithful you shouldn’t skip this one, in fact you kind of can’t given its place in the overall story.  If you’re a normie?  Well, you might like this, especially if you’re willing to put up some tunnel vision to ignore some of the bullshit.  What this isn’t is something resembling a respectable piece of stand alone cinema.  There are other recent MCU films like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness or the Black Panther movies that feel like they have some vision beyond Disney’s overall project, but this isn’t one of them.  It’s a movie you watch to very specifically scratch that MCU itch and very little else and if you don’t have that itch, well then this one probably isn’t for you.
*** out of Five


Knock at the Cabin(2/5/2023)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

So, I’ve recently somewhat re-evaluated the career of director M. Night Shyamalan, a guy who’s taken me on quite a journey.  You can read all about it with my most recent “Closure” article or listen to my most recent appearance on the Cinema in Seconds podcast if you want more details, but in brief the guy’s first three movies were really important to me when I was first getting into film but after his precipitous decline in quality after about the year 2004 I kind of shunned him and felt a certain sense of betrayal out of the direction his career took.  But in the last couple of years I’ve maybe come to a point where I want to give Shyamalan a bit more credit both for his longevity as an independent minded auteur in Hollywood and just as someone who’s weird eccentricities are maybe worth considering when they show in his work even if some of the movies themselves aren’t entirely well served by them.  This felt like a good time to start getting a new outlook on Shyamalan because he does seem to be on a bit of a career resurgence following the success of his movie Split and other projects like Glass and Old which seemed to find an audience even if they weren’t quite up to snuff in the ways that his earliest movies were.  And also I wanted to catch up with this reconsideration in the lead-up to his newest film, a thriller called Knock at the Cabin which seems like a pretty good vehicle both for his skills as a craftsman and his various religious preoccupations.

As the title implies, Knock at the Cabin is largely set in a remote cabin in the woods where a small family has been staying for a little while.   The family consists of two gay men, the meek lapsed catholic Eric (Jonathan Groff) and the more hot tempered Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their young adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui).  The three are enjoying themselves until one day four people led by the physically imposing Leonard (Dave Bautista) suddenly break into their house and hold them hostage.  These four do not appear to be very practiced at breaking and entering and seem to be composed of people from various walks of life and multiple regions of the country including a nurse named Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a waitress named Adriane (Abby Quinn), and an ex-con who goes by Redmond (Rupert Grint).  The four don’t seem to hold any malice towards the family and once their tied up they explain their motives: the four of them have all received visions that the world is going to end unless the four of them go on this mission and convince the family living at that cabin to make the ultimate sacrifice by having two of the three murder the other to avert the apocalypse that will end life on earth.  Obviously believing this to be insane, the family must find a way to escape from these fanatics before it’s too late.

So, I’ll just come out and say that this is almost certainly M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie since as far back as The Village.  Now, that’s really not the highest bar to clear as pretty much everything the guy made between 2006 and 2015 was a disaster and most of what he’s made since then has been middling at best.  I’m also not going to say that this means this is a complete return to form either as I certainly don’t think it’s close to being as good as his “big three” of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs but I don’t want to downplay it either because he has finally made a movie that I’m willing to recommend (for what it is) without too many reservations.  A big advantage this likely had over some of his earlier productions is that he wrote the screenplay with two collaborators and also he’s adapting a novel this time, “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul G. Tremblay, which likely gave him a framework where he can establish his characters without giving them weird tics and also just generally have other people around to hold him back from indulging some of his stranger instincts that tend to be stilting on screen.

This is, however, absolutely a Shyamalan movie and mostly in good ways.  At its base level the film is a pretty nicely crafted thriller that establishes its characters well, gets you to care about them, and root for them through their plight.  Everything’s paced well; Shyamalan gets in some decent shots and stages his sequences quite effectively.  I don’t want to over sell this, it’s certainly not doing anything wildly out of the ordinary really and I do worry that I’m letting my low expectations for later day Shyamalan boost it a bit too much but it worked for me.  It’s also very much a Shyamalan film in that it rests on some overtly religious themes that are, uh, a little hard for me (a Dawkins-esque atheist) to get behind.  Shyamalan is not, as far as I can tell a practicing Christian.  He seems to be one of those “spiritual but not religious” types who think all religions are valid expressions of some unknowable deity.  He was once attached to make Life of Pi and while I’m glad Ang Lee was the one to ultimately make that film, it’s not hard to see its take on “god” would appeal to Shyamalan greatly.  However, he is a western filmmaker so usually when he makes these movies Christianity and specifically Catholicism is the medium of choice to explore “god.”  I’m not completely closed minded about this kind of thing: I basically embraced his film Signs, even though it’s a movie that’s kind of counter to most of my principles, but your movie better be damn good for me to go along with something like that.

Knock at the Cabin is a movie that very closely resembles Signs when it comes to religion as both are movies that are premised around god very much being real and are finally solved by the film’s central skeptic admitting that the signs of this are all there and overcoming his doubts to trust in the reality of the situation and take action accordingly.  Not exactly a message I love, but the movie certainly delivers it with some conviction.  There’s also something of a Book of Revelation cruelty to the god in question here, which does add some negative connotations to the religiosity here, and it’s also probably not a coincidence that the film put a highly sympathetic gay couple at its center in order make it clear that it’s not pushing the most intolerant kinds of Christianity.  If you can go along with that I think there’s a lot to like here.  There are a couple bits of Shyamalan-ian weirdness here and there (like the odd weapons the villains are wielding and a couple bits of questionable dialogue) but by and large the director avoids embarrassing himself like he has in some previous projects.  So, yeah, hopefully this is a sign of good things in the future for the director.  That said, “the director avoids embarrassing himself” is not exactly a quote for the poster and I do wonder if I’d be as nice to this if not for all the director’s baggage and expectations setting.
*** out of Five