Press releases for each new entry in the world’s most expensive television-show-masquerading-as-a-film-series always come with a warning: Critics are not to reveal cameos, detailed plot points, spoilers, or character developments in their reviews, which leaves very little to go on by way of producing a piece of film criticism worth reading. Since we live in an increasingly spoiler-phobic culture, one which has an ever-expanding list of criteria as to what even constitutes a spoiler, the most we in the press can really do is say whether or not the latest MCU entry is any good. Thumbs up emoji vs thumbs down emoji. It’s a pain to be so limited, but if that’s the bed that has been made for me, I will sleep in it as requested.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is not good (thumbs down emoji). But here’s the rub: it’s not bad either. It just is. It’s exactly what we have all come to expect from the ever-churning Disney/Marvel machine and its safe-for-mass-consumption products. Sometimes they are good, other times they are bad, but for the most part they are just decent enough to keep us all hopping over to the theater for the next one, or at least pressing play when they become available for streaming a month or two later. It’s the Chipotle-fication of superhero cinema: Quick and easy, tasty enough, but without any potential to be truly great.
Quantumania picks up where we last left off, I think. Ant-Man (Paul “I’m finally starting to show a little bit of my age, but only a little and I’m still a hunk” Rudd) has spent his post-Snap time writing a memoir and getting used to the fact that his daughter is now played by a completely different person (Kathryn Newton). Everyone loves him, including his old boss at the Dairy Queen (or is it Baskin Robbins? Oh, I don’t care), and it seems that his family is finally starting to feel whole, even if he still has trouble communicating with his daughter. One night after dinner, in which a tiny pizza is expanded into a full sized pizza, the entire family is sucked into the quantum realm due to things that I am not allowed to tell you. Once there, the plucky group of actors who are way better than this material get involved with the many mini-cultures that live in this microscopic universe of CGI gobbledygook, all of whom are at war against a shared enemy. I’m not sure I am allowed to say who it is, but you know.
The prior Ant-Man films were the most expressly comedic in the MCU, and it’s their light tone that made them feel special amidst the more drama-heavy adventures of the rest of the Avengers. Unfortunately, the style of comedy employed in the Ant-Man series thus far just doesn’t translate to the big (little) cosmic (quantum) scale. It is remarkable, given the natural comic talent of Rudd and some of his supporting players, that so much of it falls flat. It’s not even like the gags land as groaners — they just don’t land at all (the absence of Michael Peña’s Luis is heavily felt). The size-play, for lack of better terminology, classically made for a lot of fun perspective shifts, and was a playful visual tool for the heist movie-adjacent stories to which it was applied, but now that Ant-Man and friends are relegated to the quantum realm, the size shift stuff doesn’t really come into play, short of being a method through which our titular hero is able to punch really hard. Remember when the transformation sequences in the latter Transformers movies were reduced to a quick gnashing of pixels, thus eliminating the whole reason Transformers even existed? It feels like that. In trying to push the multiversal expansion of the already unwieldy MCU, we’ve lost a lot of the wonder that gives each individual hero their identity. Scott Lang might as well be any of the other Avengers, in that his defining characteristic is that he can punch hard, withstand damage, and be charming.
Visually, Quantumania introduces a handful of fun ideas, but they are all executed in that special, bland way that can only be created in a green box in Georgia by underpaid effects workers. There’s a wealth of detail rendered, but its artless application leaves everything looking and feeling like nonsense.
The typical deflection of MCU criticism goes like this: “You have to think of it in terms of being a piece of a larger story rather than its own thing.” Honestly, fair enough. The MCU is an ongoing experiment, and if the identity of the films moving forward is more of a large scale serialization than a parade of individual stories, so be it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — there are plenty of non-serialized films to be had — But if that’s the direction the MCU is going to go, they have to commit. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania fails both as a singular film and as a piece of the larger puzzle. By the end, the larger universe’s narrative has been progressed only insofar as what we all already knew going into it: Kang is the new big bad guy, here to fill Thanos’ large purple shoes.
I hope I’m allowed to say that.
Michelle Pfieffer and Jonathan Majors innocent.
Directed by Peyton Reed
Written by Jeff Loveness, Jack Kirby
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Michael Douglas
Rated PG-13, 125 minutes