In the vast and infinite incompetence, er, wisdom of Kevin Feige, the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are now canonically and collectively referred to as “The Infinity Saga.” Phase Four, which began with Black Widow and will continue through Phase Six, is called “The Multiverse Saga.” Now, the idea of several parallel universes with their own sets of rules can be endlessly compelling. Just see the front-runner for Best Picture if you need proof. But for Feige, and whatever writers and directors he bribes into the MCU fold, the real “fun” is just to do whatever the fuck you please with no regard for story, character, production values, or overall quality, because he knows he’s got the fanbase by the balls, and if you don’t want to put up with his bullshit, Disney is content to disinvite you from the party because you’re not “cool” enough. Just see (or rather, don’t, ever) Marvel’s answer to the front-runner for Best Picture if you need proof of that.
The sad trend continues with the first entry from Phase Five, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. The title alone is a piece of work, as Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp, aka Hope van Dyne, is barely in the film long enough to justify her inclusion (normally I’d be in favor of this, as Lilly is just an overall mediocre actor at best, but if you’re going to have her as the co-lead, at least give her something to do), and the subtitle is only retroactively qualified during the credits as you see the words, “Ant” and “Man” pushed apart by the “U” in the center, then flanked by “QU” and “IA” to look stylistically cute. That bit of fuckery, by far, is the most creative part of this movie.
But setting the normal complaints aside — shitty CGI, uninspired characterization, one-note villains, wasted cameos, and ant puns (don’t worry, I’ll get to them all shortly) — the real problem with this film is the fact that it truly does appear that Feige’s modus operandi for this “saga” is to abandon any sense of consistency in the name of the “randomness” of the multiverse. As such, the tone of the story is all over the goddamn place, and it’s clear the movie has no idea what type of movie it wants to be, other than a ripoff of Star Wars, of course.
You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Over the course of this derivative plot we have the following: An evil villain who brags about his indestructible empire and all the insignificant rebellions he’s stamped out, a secondary villain bent on revenge because of his mutilation at the hands of the heroes who ultimately turns good, a rescue of a beautiful woman from a detention cell by people who (thanks to their shrinking ability) are a little short to be Stormtroopers, a climactic battle at a military base conveniently designed like a basic 3D shape that can destroy entire worlds, the Quantum Realm equivalent of both Ewoks and Sand People, and a scene in a cantina where our leads go to meet a brash, roguish pilot who might be able to help them. We even have a subplot where Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) ants have evolved to the point of being microscopic super-intelligent lifeforms that can grant superpowers. WE LITERALLY TURNED THE ANTS INTO MIDI-CHLORIANS, JESUS TAP DANCING CHRIST!
But again, the real sin is the extreme shifts in tone. The movie begins with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd doing his level best to make this even remotely salvageable, and to his credit succeeding far more than I’d have expected) narrating the crazy circumstances of his life (later revealed to be him reading from his own memoirs) set to the theme song from Welcome Back, Kotter. It’s silly, quirky, and just the right amount of stupid funny that we’ve come to expect from the Ant-Man films. After a family dinner with his now teenage daughter, Cassie (played by 26-year-old Kathryn Newton, which is sure to confuse many lonely fanboys in ways I don’t want to think about), who has recently been arrested for a third time during a protest, it’s revealed that she spent the five years after The Blip studying quantum physics, intrigued by the “family business,” so to speak. After everyone returned and Thanos was defeated, Hank and Hope encouraged her even further, and she’s created a device that can send a communications signal into the Quantum Realm. Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) warns her to turn it off, but before anything can happen, they’re all sucked inside and separated.
See, it turns out that Janet has been quite taciturn about her 30 years inside the Quantum Realm (which, based on the time dilation Scott experienced should have only felt like 30 hours, but it’s not like these movies give one whit about stuff they establish anymore), because while she was down there she met Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors), a world-ending genocidal warrior who was banished there by other versions of himself because he destroyed entire universes and timelines. By sending that signal, Cassie just alerted Kang to Janet’s presence and a means for escape, which she had previously denied him when she learned of his true nature. She even started the rebellion against him. Now, if they don’t stop him, Kang will take our universe for his own, subjugating and murdering trillions.
Thus, we have our central issue. You can’t have it both ways. Either the movie needs to be funny or serious, because as Feige has demonstrated time and time again (with only occasional exceptions) the two can’t mix in this format. There’s a reason why the original six Avengers (Cap, Nat, Tony, Hawkeye, Thor, and Banner) were the ones to survive The Blip. They’re the serious ones. They’re the ones who deal with the highest life or death stakes. Yes, they employ some degree of humor as they go — especially Cap and Tony — but their main purpose is to handle the existential threats.
Just about everyone else, including Scott, is there for comic relief. When they participate in the big movies, it’s for a brief laugh or a cool moment of audience glee because they’re closer to us as regular people than the others. When they get their own movie — Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man as well as Ant-Man — it’s as a palate cleanser, a lighthearted adventure with more jokes than dangers, and they largely remain self-contained.
That’s the whole point. Ant-Man is supposed to be fun. That’s what made the last two movies largely enjoyable. The sense of humor and the relatively minor threats are meant to create an atmosphere of disposable entertainment. To then have him take on a beast of a man who can wipe out entire universes on a whim doesn’t mesh.
But even with that in mind, it’s possible to give the story the benefit of the doubt if it can fully commit to the idea. Previous precedent has shown that Scott and his crew are not the ones to deal with cataclysmic consequences, but if you set the stakes and keep to them, we as an audience can basically get on board. It worked for the Thor movies in reverse, with the first two being super serious before Taika Waititi took the series in a much more comedic direction, so there’s no law saying we can’t convert Ant-Man to a section of the MCU with much more dire implications. You just have to be willing to see it through once the decision is made.
However, this film refuses to even make the choice. It’s one thing to change tone from one movie to the next, but this flick can’t even stay in its own lane from scene to scene. I cannot buy the catastrophic menace that Kang might represent as he threatens to kill Cassie when it’s preceded by scenes of Scott drinking goo from a slime creature (David Dastmalchian) in order to understand it (and who wonders why humans have holes and he doesn’t), and followed by a scene of Scott splitting into multiple versions of himself that includes him still working at Baskin-Robbins.
If you want to be a comedy, be one. It would help immensely if you didn’t cut Michael Peña, Randall Park, and Judy Greer completely out of the film (Park has a two-second cameo during the opening montage, but that’s it), but Paul Rudd can carry the laughs on his own if need be. If you want to be dark and brooding with far-reaching consequences, I’d argue that this set of characters isn’t the way to go, but if you’re willing to go all-in, we’ll go with you. But you can’t do both. You can’t threaten to end worlds and in the same breath make a fart joke. All that does is give your viewers emotional whiplash, and it just pisses us off.
And now, for the rest of the bullshit. The scenery is just a CGI glut of nonsense, where the entire background is done like the Star Wars streaming shows, only lazier, where the actors stand in front of screens that have these cartoon settings behind them. It looks like if Strange World was shot with 75% less light. Bill Murray shows up as Lord Krylar, a one-scene role even more embarrassing than Benicio del Toro as “The Collector.” Kang himself offers very little threat, goes out like a complete chump, and Majors’ performance is basically to talk. one. word. per. sentence. at. a. time. while. trying. to. sound. like. Laurence. fucking. Fishburne. as. Morpheus. Seriously, William Shatner could take notes. The entire story hinges on the fact that Janet hasn’t told anyone about her time in the Quantum Realm (because the writers hadn’t decided what happened to her yet), to the point that Hope spends 90% of her screen time bitching about it, until Bill Murray says the same thing and Hope calls him a liar, because despite the fact that Hope, Hank, and Janet are all advanced physicists, they’re also quite stupid, you see. The previous films explored how positive co-parenting can be for divorced parents, and in this one we not only have no involvement for Cassie’s mom and stepdad, half of her early scenes with Scott are trying to guilt trip him for attempting to be a loving parent. In one of the dumbest ideas the MCU has had lately (and that is saying something) Corey Stoll returns as Darren Cross, the villain from the first movie, only his Quantum Realm “death” last time has been retconned into him being warped into M.O.D.O.K. That’s not a spoiler either, as his involvement was revealed back in July, and he was briefly seen in the final trailer. Idiotic characterization aside, the design on him is just frighteningly bad. This movie had an estimated budget of $130 million, and THAT is the best they could come up with? Good God!
But all of that could almost be forgiven if the movie had just picked a path and stuck to it. There are positive elements at play along the margins, so much so that despite my complaints, this probably won’t be one of the worst movies of the year. Most of the jokes do land, so long as they’re not being used as a buffer to pretend that we’re supposed to have any concern for what Kang is actually doing. If the film was willing to just be a fun adventure like the last two, with much lower stakes, it probably would have worked. On the flip side, the idea of Scott teaching Cassie the finer points of shrink suit-based combat is endearing, and a murderer with infinite versions of himself that could put Thanos’ death toll to shame can very easily be made into a real and exciting threat. So if the movie wanted to be a legitimate action drama, even with these more humorous characters, it could have worked. But it can’t be both. Even Kang realizes this in the final fight scene, noting that someone like him should not be so easily beatable by someone who “talks to ants.”
By far the most frustrating thing about the MCU post-Thanos has been Kevin Feige’s penchant for cross-promotion and merchandising (the second of two credit scenes is essentially a two-minute ad for Season 2 of Loki) than telling a good, compelling story. At the heart of it all, these movies adapt comic book characters and plots, so just tell the fucking story rather than pandering to and patronizing us. Feige seems to think a random Easter Egg on a shelf has more importance than a coherent plot and consistent characterization. Sadly, until people stop going to these movies, his approach continues to be proven right. There is some hope, however. While the screening I saw had more audience members younger than the MCU itself (telling you in no uncertain terms that the real target audience isn’t Marvel fans, but people who literally don’t know any better), there were a good half-dozen people who just straight up walked out halfway through.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Does the MCU have a chance to ever be consistently good again? How many people should be fired from Hollywood forever just from the M.O.D.O.K. design? Let me know!