Ant-Man has always been too small for the MCU. It’s his niche, his schtick, the reason his movies have small stakes and even smaller solutions. Previously, they offered a break as the MCU barreled towards its Thanos-driven endgame, but now Ant-Man is being asked to kick off Phase 5 of the wayward universe, a challenge he rises to meet.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania doesn’t put the MCU back on the rails so much as provide a mildly entertaining entry in an increasingly mild universe. The MCU had to pull back after Endgame, but Phase 4’s redirect was such a sputtering effort that it’s hard to know where in the multiverse it’s headed. Small scale character introductions hit charming high points (Shang-Chi) and lethargic low points (Eternals). Stylistic swings like Multiverse of Madness and Love and Thunder divided even the most ardent fans, and the increasing need to keep up with a multitude of television shows in addition to the handful of movies a year felt like a narrative burden that threatened to weigh the whole thing down.
What Quantumania does right is step away from the mess a bit, a fitting strategy for a character who has always been slightly removed from the action. You’ll be perfectly fine if you didn’t see its villain’s introduction in Loki. In fact, you can probably get away with knowing very little about Ant-Man or any of his cohorts. That’s because Quantumania doesn’t pull from the MCU nearly as much as it pulls from Star Wars, an inexplicable but admittedly much more appealing tack to this Star Wars die-hard.
The influence becomes readily apparent when Ant-Man and his family/friends get sucked into the quantum realm. Instead of getting lost in a mind blowing world ruled by quantum mechanics, they find a battle ground between an evil emperor (technically Kang the Conqueror), his faceless army, and a ragtag rebellion. Our heroes fly to quirky bars, meet a variety of humanoid beings, and generally wallow in the aesthetics of every space western since cinema went to a galaxy far, far away. Oh, and the plot is literally about stopping the emperor from getting his fancy ship working.
Disney might want to look into suing itself for copyright violation, although it’s unlikely anyone would remember Quantumania by the time money was exchanged. Like so many Star Wars riffs, the instant pleasures of beloved familiarity are fleeting, and nothing else about the film is strong enough to lift it out of oblivion.
Visual spectacle was abandoned long ago by most of the MCU, which has a well-reported history of not giving VFX artists time to complete their work. Quantumania is one of the shoddier entries by even its low standards, setting Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), Kathryn Newton (his daughter Cassie), and Evangeline Lilly (Wasp) adrift in a world far less convincing than an old fashioned matte painting would’ve provided.
Outside of not looking like they’re in this world, the reason any of them are sucked into the battle between an empire and a rebellion is so nebulous it undercuts most of the film’s narrative drive. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Janet stalls moving the plot forward because she has to hide the info she has from her husband, Hank (Michael Douglas), and the rest of the group for…reasons (this isn’t avoiding spoilers; the movie never explains it). And just when there’s a spark of plot inspiration, careening off into a strange sequence involving a well-earned name-check of Schrödinger’s cat, the bizarreness is resolved by a completely nonsensical evocation of Ant-Man’s weak character motivation: he just wants to get his daughter home safe.
Jonathan Majors’ Kang isn’t filled out any better. His mysterious introduction in Loki was one of the more memorable moments the MCU has generated in years, but they seemingly forgot to fill in the blanks of his backstory, abilities, and desires. Majors, like the rest of the cast, does an admirable job of conveying what this particular narrative needs to tick, which in a Star Wars riff is as simple as light side = good / dark side = bad, but he’s never as compelling or menacing as he was during his brief television appearance.
And that’s what truly holds Quantumania back. It’s not the Star Wars influences, which aren’t remotely novel but are fun, nor is the trademark small scale of Ant-Man as detrimental since the MCU has drifted into smaller stakes. The issue is that it doesn’t push the MCU in a firm direction, which won’t motivate people to stay up to date on all the films and TV series it wants you to sink your time into.
On the flip side, though, that’s not really Quantumania’s job. It’s a tiny piece in a massive multiverse, and within the mess that has become, it’s a frivolous but entertaining entry. Those who mourn the MCU’s pre-Endgame narrative interwovenness will likely continue to be disenchanted. Those who mourn the MCU’s muscling out of a lone film’s dip into another world, though, will be better suited to enjoy Quantumania and all its unmoored, immediate pleasures.
Release: in theaters February 17th
Director: Peyton Reed
Writers: Jeff Loveness
Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, Kathryn Newton