Warning: There are some minor spoilers ahead for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania!
There are sights in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania‘s sub-atomic Quantum Realm that equal anything on James Cameron’s Pandora. From the slug-like livestock cultivated by micro-humans to great fungal forests and beings of pure liquid, it’s a fantasia sprung straight from the imaginative covers of old sci-fi novels, with a visual imagination unparalleled by anything in the MCU thus far. And ironically, given that Ant-Man is typically seen as a comedy sub-franchise, Quantumania takes these alien realms much more seriously than the Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor.
Aside from the gloriously wacky absurdity of M.O.D.O.K. (more on him in a moment), this is a world full of jeopardy and relativity few laughs at its own expense. If only it had a better story to tell.
Director Peyton Reed manages to conceal the story’s predictability for a while simply by keeping his lead characters in the dark for as long as he can. Once that’s over, however, it becomes a relatively straightforward tyrant vs. rebels narrative, with very little in the story that surprises, even as the visuals often do. Some brief setup in San Francisco establishes that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is happy to rest on his heroic laurels after saving the world. His daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton), thinks Scott is a bit of a sellout. She fights the power against police brutality, winding up in jail a time or two after misusing the science tools of her surrogate grandfather, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas).
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When she tries to use her science to map the Quantum Realm, the whole family gets sucked in, with Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) issuing cryptic warnings about threats down there she never talked about before. They all involve Kang (Jonathan Majors), another individual who was trapped down there for very different reasons.
Marvel movies usually stand alone pretty well, but it really would help to watch the final episode of Loki season 1 to get a heads-up here. Majors has talked a lot about his character in interviews, but the movie itself doesn’t tell us much. He plays him as a man holding back lots of secrets and rage, but it’s apparent that Majors knows way more than the audience ever does. Or will for several more movies.
A frequent complain made online about the Avatar movies goes something like this: “Well, they look really great, but the story’s predictable and bad.” Quantumania may make viewers appreciate just how well James Cameron does marry story to spectacle, because there’s so much less to relate to here. Newton makes a good teen Cassie, and shows the kind of infectious enthusiasm for heroics that’s becoming common to the younger superhero girls of the MCU. But because Cassie has been recast so many times, there’s no automatic emotional baggage in her scenes with Scott.
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Pfeiffer and Douglas work well as an old married couple, but the movie could have done a lot more with, for example, the fact that Hank Pym usually creates his own enemies through his character flaws, and this time gets to do better. The only major conflict with palpable stakes is preventing Kang from hurting Cassie in order to force Scott to do his bidding. It’s not quite as relatable as some of the familial issues in the prior two films. Especially since Kang’s villainy is something we’re supposed to take on faith. His misdeeds have mostly taken place off-screen. And Cassie never truly feels endangered.
The trailers and star interviews to date suggested Kang would have a particular advantage over Scott. That he could tangibly offer him the chance to go back in time and get all the years with Cassie growing up that he missed. If this was ever in the film, it’s unfortunately been cut, except in mild inference. He makes an offer like that to Janet, regarding her missing Hope’s childhood years, but with Scott, he’s all threats. And he should be smart enough to figure out that Scott doesn’t do well with those.
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Throwing a nicely anarchic wrench into the works, however, is M.O.D.O.K., presented as a homicidal, childlike, cyborg Humpty Dumpty who looks as he should underneath all the augmentations. If you haven’t followed the discourse about which actor is semi-surprisingly playing the role, there are no spoilers here. Regardless, it’s a solidly entertaining take, even as the character’s MCU origins prove drastically different from the comics. He’s ridiculous, charismatic, and leaves audiences wanting more. Bill Murray’s role as Krylar, meanwhile, amounts to one extended scene.
After the many dark and out-of-focus effects shots in Wakanda Forever, Quantumania feels like a feast for the eyes. If it were a meal, it would have magnificent plating and the fanciest sauce, but cut into it, and deep down it’s just a Big Mac underneath. There’s nothing terrible about that — Big Macs are tasty, predictable, and shouldn’t disappoint because you know exactly what you’re getting. Only when the presentation is so magnificent that you forget the lowered expectations, will there be a letdown.
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Marvel Studios’ big advantage over the competition used to be the care they took to match a solid story with the big special effects. With James Gunn’s DC ready to rise, they should be more diligent lest they lose it.
Grade: 3 out of 5
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania opens in theaters on Friday, February 17.
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