Appropriately for his power set, the MCU’s Ant-Man films work best when they go small. Let the Avengers fight off alien invasions and robot apocalypses, let Doctor Strange fend off extra-dimensional threats, and let the Guardians of the Galaxy, well, guard galaxies—Scott Lang just needs to steal things, break in (or out) of places and try, try, try to be a better dad.
Going small not only made sense for the character and the general “heist” template adopted by Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp, it also served as a much needed change of pace in the MCU’s slate, with the first coming between Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War and the second sandwiched between Infinity War and Endgame.
For better or worse (and mostly for worse), Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania goes large. In a case of cinematic superposition, a franchise built to go small, to ride on more personal stakes and the casual chemistry of Ruddian charm and likable group dynamics, must now also fully introduce not only an entire universe/microverse but the next Thanos-level threat much of the MCU will be centered around in the coming decade. Frankly, it’s a lot to ask of an insect-themed hero.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments to appreciate. The initial scenes in the quantum realm have a certain “$200 million budget” vigor that evokes the often trippy alien landscapes found in the pages of the Fantastic Four, Thor and Doctor Strange. At a minimum, it felt like the budget line for creating new aliens was double or even triple that allowed in a Guardians of the Galaxy film. That said, the relentless green screen of it all, coupled with often clunky, predictable dialogue, drains much of the interpersonal charm and chemistry that helped buoy the previous films. In its place, we’re left with sheepish excusing (Paul Rudd), disapproving looks and mutterings (Kathryn Newton’s Cassie Lang) and buckets of “No time to tell you!” (Michelle Pfeiffer’s Janet Van Dyne), the latter of which seems a scriptwriting substitute for actual suspense and revelation. Thankfully, as Kang the Conqueror, Johnathan Majors seems mostly immune. Anyone who has watched Loki has already had a taste of how Majors intertwines compassion with fierceness and mercilessness in his portrayal of Kang. A true comic book supervillain needs to be able to chew scenery even when saying nothing at all (or speaking quietly), and Majors’ Kang does just that. In that aspect, at least, the latest installment surpasses its predecessors.
And then there’s everyone’s favorite Mechanical Organism Designed Only for Killing, M.O.D.O.K.
Outside of any debates of the relative merit or missteps present in Quantumania’s world building, narrative pacing and dialogue, with M.O.D.O.K., director Peyton Reed, writer Jack Loveness and company just whiff. Let’s be clear: M.O.D.O.K. is an absurd creation. The enormous head, the teeny-tiny limbs, the acronym straining so desperately to be menacing—this artifact of Kirby, Lee and 1960s Marvel presents an obvious target for mockery. It’s how the character got its own Robot Chicken-flavored, Patton Oswalt-fueled show on Hulu and one of reasons a version of it was tabbed as a principal foe in the fourth-wall shenanigans of Gwenpool. But that type of metatextual mocking is poison within the stakes-heavy plot of Quantumania, where the script seems to want the character to be both feared and (strained) comic relief. The challenge isn’t to elicit snickers and eyerolls, but to actually, somehow, make the audience grudgingly acknowledge this henchman is a threat. (Let the meta commentary go where it will.) Making matters worse, the special effects for M.O.D.O.K.’s unmasked visage are really bad. I know I should be more precise, but I’m not sure what happened beyond the certainty that there was a moment when someone looked at the end result, at this “let’s just sort of stretch Corey Stoll’s face like so…” approach and said, “That’s good enough.” (I can’t imagine any response more enthusiastic than that. Perhaps there was a sigh?) It wasn’t. It isn’t. It won’t have time to age badly—it arrived bad, pre-aged.
And then it all gets shoved into the MCU Third Act Sausage Grinder, yielding a familiar mush of green-screened heroes battling swarms of identical henchmen in numbers as limitless—or conspicuously absent—as they need to be. It’s all an amazing technical achievement in its own right—the sheer length of the end credit listing of companies and people involved is in many ways as impressive as any special effect on the screen. But it’s also an achievement modern blockbusters in general and the MCU in particular have rendered commonplace.
Ultimately, like many of the MCU movies since Endgame, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania feels less like it’s a small part of a bigger plan and more as if it’s being forced to work against its own interests to serve a grand design. The MCU is undeniably a bigger place than it was when Thanos lost his game of gauntlet keepaway. But in the midst of multiplying timelines, exploding multiverses, and newly revealed quantum realms, Kevin Feige and company shouldn’t overlook the small things.
Director: Peyton Reed
Writers: Jeff Loveness
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Kathryn Newton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, William Jackson Harper, Katy M. O’Brian, David Dastmalchian, Bill Murray
Release Date: February 17, 2023
Michael Burgin reviews movies from time to time.