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Sunday, March 03, 2024
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Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and Cassandra Lang (Kathryn Newton) in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania".

‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’ is the MCU at its worst

There’s a scene in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” where our hero Scott Lang is caught in a “probability storm.” Thousands to millions of Ant-Man clones pop into existence around him, representing every possible choice he could make at each moment. Despite being the manifest of infinite possibilities, the clones invariably have one thing to say upon appearing: “What the hell?”

If the creative team was trying to make a fourth-wall-breaking joke in this scene about the film’s probable critical reaction, then they succeeded spectacularly. Because no matter how much I think about this movie, “What the hell?” is my response every time.

Much of the “Quantumania” plot can be gleaned from the title. Lang is going about his daily post-universe-saving life when his daughter Cassie’s science experiment goes awry. The malfunction sends the two, along with Hope van Dyne (the Wasp), and her parents Hank and Janet, to the Quantum Realm, a hidden universe that can be accessed by shrinking down below the size of atoms. There, the family encounters all flavors of subatomic oddities including an ooze-imbibing alien race, living gelatinous buildings and creatures that look like humanoid broccoli.

But the Langs and van Dynes are far from alone. Much of the Quantum Realm is now under the merciless rule of Kang the Conqueror, one of many multiversal Kang variants who was exiled there by other Kangs. It turns out that this Kang has a history with Janet from her 30 years in the Quantum Realm, and our heroes are Kang’s best chance to escape his other-worldly prison and resume terrorizing other timelines.

I can encapsulate many of the film’s flaws by saying it feels like a Saturday morning cartoon — and not a particularly good one. In one sense, this is literal, as the film’s visuals are such an explosion of CGI that the movie may as well have been animated. In another, the film appears so concerned with making sure every single moment is entertaining on paper that it fails to approach anything worthwhile.

The weakest link of “Quantumania” is the writing. The film never provides viewers with a solid grasp of what is at stake if this Kang escapes, nor does it ground the movie in character-based emotional stakes beyond shallow cliché. It even fails to capitalize on stakes suggested in the trailer. 

While it is revealed that Kang attempted to bribe Janet with the chance to go back in time to when her daughter was young, he only ever offers to send Scott back to the present despite the time he missed with Cassie due to a prison stint and the Blip. What’s more, the beats of the third act are painfully predictable and the ending trivializes the entire movie that came before it. 

Given that this is the final product, it’s getting harder to see Marvel as anything but a soulless corporate machine which knows that even if it makes a bad movie, it’ll make hundreds of millions of dollars anyway. And this isn’t coming from a nose-curling, Scorsese-praising cynic who hates superheroes and fun. I hold the dubious achievement of having watched everything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — even the DVD one-shots, Ed Norton as the Hulk and the eight-episode affront that is “Inhumans.” There are very few Marvel products I wouldn’t say I liked.

Even the worst movies in the early phases functioned as passable standalone entertainment. The default formula — a paint-by-numbers hero’s journey, one or more of a CGI army, a same-vs-same fight, and a big beam in the sky for the climax and a teaser of the next movie at the end to keep you hooked — produced movies that were enjoyable, if sometimes uninspired. Phases 1-3 cared about telling discrete stories, and the interconnected cinematic universe of it all was just a way to make the stories bigger and bigger.

When I saw Marvel start to take more creative risks in Phase 4 and stray from the sacred formula, I was hoping these movies would actually be better than the formulaic films that came before. Instead, the quality of the MCU is all over the place, and the defense of weaker fare is that it sets up unseen future projects. It pains me to see the argument that “Quantumania” never needed to be that good, since the real point was introducing Kang.

To make matters worse, the film fails there too. “Quantumania” has the rare honor of suffering from too little exposition, alienating casual and die-hard audiences alike. For viewers who never saw Kang introduced in the final episode of “Loki,” the significance of Kang and his variants is near-totally lost. Meanwhile, if you’ve met He Who Remains, then “Quantumania” offers nothing new. We already know an inexorable wave of evil Kang variants is on the way and a war between multiverses is coming, and the main takeaway of this film is exactly that.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about “Quantumania” is that it’s inoffensive. The performances by the core cast are perfectly solid given the material  — I disagree with some viewers’ maligning of Kathryn Newton — and Jonathan Majors steals the show as a villain I’m sure I’ll love in the future.

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The film wasn't a painful watch, and my criticism lies in it being consistently not good rather than actively bad. But when the most enjoyable part of my theater experience was involuntarily laughing out loud whenever M.O.D.O.K. came on-screen with Corey Stoll’s stretched-out CGI face, it’s hard not to lose some optimism about the MCU and its future.

And it didn’t even have Luis.

Grade: D

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