During the previous Christmas, my family decided to adopt a new tradition. Instead of eating turkey, which we can’t abide, or singing Christmas carols in subzero temperatures, which is a good way to joyously get hypothermia, we decided to give each other books on Christmas Eve. This concept hails from one of those Scandinavian-ish countries, and everybody is meant to give/receive a book, settle down with a drink, and peacefully enjoy the evening.*
The tome I received was “All of the Marvels,” by Douglas Wolk. It’s an excellent book in which Wolk recounts his experience reading every single comic published by Marvel Comics. So what did he learn? First, he strenuously recommends that nobody should ever read every single comic published by Marvel Comics. As a casual comics reader, I agree with that statement. While there are some honest-to-Galactus classics, you have to wade through a lot of crap to get to them.
The second lesson is to embrace confusion. Wolk notes that if you pick up a random issue of Avengers, there’s likely to be a degree of, “Wait…who are these people? What are they talking about? What in the hell is going on?” That’s to be expected, considering that the longest fictional narrative in human history is found in the pages of Marvel Comics. It’s been going since the early 1960s, and there comes a point where readers have to just roll with it.
I think it’s fair to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is reaching a similar stage. That’s not exactly a scorching hot take, since it’s a franchise that encompasses TV series, specials, short films, and viral marketing pieces. Oh, and a metric ass-ton of movies. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania marks the 31st film in the MCU and the official beginning of Phase 5. Does any of that mean anything? Not really. Is it good? For the most part, as long as you can roll with the confusion.
After the events of The Blip and the defeat of the Mad Titan Thanos, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has settled into low-key celebrity status. As the astonishing Ant-Man, he’s a beloved hero and fairly successful author. He’s got a healthy relationship with Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), also known as the Wasp. Scott’s mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) mostly tolerates him, and Scott doesn’t have to scoop ice cream any longer. Life is good for him.
Mostly good, anyway. Scott’s teenage daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) has gotten arrested. Again. She has a habit of confrontational activism. She wants to change the world for the better, and she wishes her father would step up and do the same. What’s an Ant-Man to do in a situation like that?
Things get more complicated when Cassie invents a device that can make contact with the Quantum Realm, a subatomic collection of universes small enough to escape our notice. That’s bad. Why? Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) spent thirty years trapped there before being rescued by Hank, Hope, and Scott. She’s not exactly eager to return, since she has an intimate understanding of the flora, fauna, inhabitants and a dark secret that she’d like to keep buried.
Things get really complicated when Cassie’s doohickey sucks all of them into the Quantum Realm. That’s bad. Why? First of all, they’re separated and menaced by a wide variety of subatomic critters. Worse than that is the fact that they’re plunged into the middle of a civil war. On one side are a rag-tag group of freedom fighters. On the other side is a conqueror, Kang (Jonathan Majors), a man with the means to control the timestream nearly within his grasp.
Remember earlier when I mentioned The Blip and Thanos? It’s possible that you have no idea what I was referencing. The bad news is, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania has zero interest in getting you up to speed. It isn’t interested in reminding you how these people know each other, and it doesn’t give a tinker’s damn if you know what an Avenger is. That’s why the Good Lord invented Wikipedia.
Nearly immediately, director Peyton Reed stomps on the gas, plunging our itsy-bitsy heroes into chases, fistfights, battle sequences and other assorted setpieces. Reed’s previous MCU entries, Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp, were considered to be light palate cleansers between meatier films like Black Panther. He clearly wanted to flex his blockbuster muscle and show he can compete. The problem is, he’s made a film with a hell of a lot of setpieces and action and not a lot of character moments. I support artists making the kind of art they want to make. When it comes to the action, Reed does creditable work. He’s so good at showing his characters as people stuck in wild situations and portraying the relationships they have, and I wished there was more of that here.
Reed is also hindered by the wildly overstuffed script by Jeff Loveness. I wouldn’t say his script is terrible, and he does good work with brief characterization amid the set pieces and a zingy sense of humor. The problem is that along with all of that, we also have flashbacks to Janet’s time in the Quantum Realm, flashbacks explaining what Kang’s deal is, the reveal of the big-headed villain M.O.D.O.K., and setups for future installments of the MCU. While I’m okay with a degree of that, there’s so much going on here that the narrative frequently screeches to a halt.
The other problem with the screenplay is the frequent sidelining of one of the title characters. If you’re going to call your movie Ant-Man and the Wasp, it’s probably a good idea to give the Wasp a solid character arc and cool things to do. Instead, the film focuses on a) the changing relationship between Scott and Cassie and b) the repercussions of Janet keeping secrets regarding her time in the Quantum Realm. If the script had focused more on Janet and Hope’s tenuous relationship and used them to push the narrative, it would have solved more than a few problems.**
Watch virtually any MCU film and you’ll notice that the actors generally put forth their best efforts. That continues to be the case with Quantumania. As Scott, Paul Rudd continues to be a fun and laid-back hero, until his daughter’s life is in danger. That’s when he gets intimidating…or as intimidating as Rudd is able to get. As amusing as it is to see him threaten the hulking Jonathan Majors, I believed that he believed it, and that gives the normally mellow Rudd an interesting edge. Michelle Pfeiffer is our other protagonist, and she acquits herself nicely as a woman holding a plethora of secrets. No big surprise that Pfeiffer can sell the physicality of the role while making Janet a layered character. Neither Michael Douglas nor Evangeline Lilly have much to do this time around, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s a real shame that Lilly doesn’t have more to sink her teeth into.
You’ll also notice that there’s usually one standout performer. Here, it’s Jonathan Majors as Kang. He plays the Conqueror as a man of formidable focus, so much so that it feels a little out of place to have this level of intensity in an Ant-Man movie. I liked that as it makes Kang feel dangerous, like a legitimate threat. There are plans for Majors to be the next big bad in the MCU. If used right, he could be an all-timer.
Somewhere in this great land of ours, some poor schmuck is going to buy a ticket to Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania without having seen the previous 30 films in the MCU. There’s a possibility they’ll be baffled, enraged even by the spectacle. My fingers and toes remain crossed that they’ll make themselves comfortable for a fun and uneven film, and that when things get confusing, they’ll embrace it.
*And not do as I did, which is yell at my kid, “Get off your goddamn phone! It’s Christmas!” ***
**I hear you saying, “But then Scott would be sidelined in his own movie!” Not necessarily. Hope supported the story of Scott connecting with his daughter in the first two films, and it would become a clever inverse of the original to have more of a focus on Hope and Janet.
***The kid here, I was putting on music before I started reading which is apparently not allowed.