The New Ant-Man and the Creaky, Cringey Marvel Machine
No hero, it seems, is invulnerable to the franchise’s bleakest obsession yet: gobs and gobs of CGI.
Marvel movies have never been excessively attached to the real world, given their affinity for Norse gods, alien warriors, flying wizards, and the like. Still, some of these films had at least a vague sense of tactility, and perhaps the most grounded hero was plucky little Ant-Man, played by Paul Rudd, the perfect smirking everyman of the 21st century. Ant-Man’s power is that he can get very small (though sometimes he’ll switch it up and get very large). He lives in San Francisco with his family and busies himself with fighting petty theft or sabotage at the local lab. The main villain of his last film, the charming Ant-Man and the Wasp, was a criminal restaurateur named Sonny, whose superpower was that he owned a handgun.
For Ant-Man’s newest exploit, which has the sprightly title Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, he’s punching up to a slightly higher weight class. Peyton Reed’s film sees the hero battle a grumpy time lord named Kang (Jonathan Majors), who exists on every plane of reality and in every parallel universe, and seemingly aspires to be villainous in all of them. He’s been exiled to the Quantum Realm, a subatomic dominion of swirling purple clouds and strange gooey creatures. And so into that land Ant-Man must delve, taking on Kang for reasons that will surely be made clearer in another sequel due out in the next few years.
Pardon me for sounding a little exhausted. No Marvel hero is invulnerable to the franchise’s latest, bleakest obsession: worlds created almost entirely through computer-generated imagery, overlaid on green-screen backdrops that the actors wander in front of while casting awed glances at some outlandish horizon. Doctor Strange recently spent time in the “multiverse of madness,” and Thor blundered into the ghastly “shadow realm” in his last entry; these days, even the films set largely on Earth look pixelated. For its part, Quantumania is mostly unconcerned with our humble planet, where it spends only a few opening minutes reminding us that Scott Lang a.k.a. Ant-Man is happily partnered with Hope van Dyne a.k.a. the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), raising his daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton), and palling around with Hope’s heroic parents, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Then that ensemble is sucked into a portal to the Quantum Realm. Janet had previously been trapped there for 30 years, and the whole gang soon learns of her entanglements with Kang, who has become the realm’s despotic ruler. Kang, as played by Majors, already popped up in the Disney+ television series Loki, but you’re forgiven if you didn’t make it through all of that; only the bravest still have the stamina to consume every bit of Marvel-branded content. Kang’s introduction in this film is so portentous that the franchise is obviously rolling him out as their next big cross-series villain. Much like his predecessor, Thanos, he’s given to monologues that are long, thudding, and irritatingly ambiguous.
Kang’s problem is that he has a large velvet chair that lets him travel through time (I’m not kidding); this power has tied him into existential knots and possibly genocidal rage. He’s dubbed himself a “conqueror,” but the only thing Majors really manages to conquer is the realm of gravitas, projecting such complete and utter seriousness that I was practically begging him to drop a wisecrack. The prior two Ant-Man films, both of which were also directed by Reed, are delightful because they are light-on-their-feet capers, possessed of real wit and not just the meta winks at the camera that count for laughs in most superhero movies. That cleverness, combined with the special-effect goofiness of people and objects getting big and small, powered the series—and it’s basically been junked here, replaced by a bunch of celestial showdowns between Kang and Ant-Man.
Anytime Quantumania allows itself to get a little silly, it’s in much better shape. The script, by Jeff Loveness, a Rick and Morty writer, often has the antic energy of that show, using the “parallel world” conceit to depict whimsical species, including a goo creature who longs to grow orifices and a frustrated telepath (played by William Jackson Harper) who would appreciate it if everyone would please stop thinking about so many disgusting things. Although I missed Ant-Man hanging out in the criminal underworld of San Francisco, he gets a few minutes here and there to joke around with subatomic extraterrestrials, and Rudd rises to the challenge with his usual aplomb. But by and large, the story is in service of the larger Marvel engine, an increasingly creaky machine that nevertheless keeps grinding away, dropping superstar performers into CGI glop because the show simply must go on.