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