SAN ANTONIO — “Multiverse of Madness.” “Wakanda Forever.” “Quantumania.” As it breaches the 30-film mark, one need only look at the names of recent Marvel Cinematic Universe entries to suspect the franchise is undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. How mad and eternal and manic can these movies really afford to be when the most important for us to consider in any given scene or movie or phase is how it will affect things in the next one?
“Quantumania,” the third “Ant-Man” film and by far the least enjoyable of them, is being regarded as the post-”Avengers: Endgame” effort that charts Marvel Studios' hopes of one day replicating that gargantuan blockbuster’s feat of ultrasaturation. Just look at that tagline, which acts like a marketing-tugged Trojan horse to audiences: We’ve had our fun. Time to get back to business. After a pandemic period of fashionably isolated MCU films that seemed to cross-pollinate more with Disney+ shows like “WandaVision” and “Loki” than with each other, “Quantumania” is ostensibly out to set a chess board where checkmate means sizing our heroes up to someone as big, bad and mean as Thanos.
To that end, “Quantumania” (directed by “Ant-Man” subfranchise trustee Peyton Reed) introduces Jonathan Majors as Kang the Conqueror, whose eponymous pastime is most immediately borne out in generically destructive laserbeams deployed as casually as Disney announcing another dozen projects. He’s overtaken the subatomic quantum realm that is apparently so small it’s ripped from space and time altogether.
Sounds dramatic and all, but that doesn’t do much to invest us when armies eventually meet and sludgy CGI cities come tumbling down. While diehards who tuned in to “Loki” are somewhat familiar with Kang, prior knowledge of him isn’t necessary to understand what he’s up to here… namely because, despite the magnetism of the actor playing him and the literal titles of future MCU projects, there isn’t much we’re compelled to understand other than 1) Kang is mighty strong and 2) Kang is mighty vengeful.
But why? How did he go from exile to overlord? What’s motivating him to conquer worlds and timelines? No insights are offered, which only makes Majors’s performance all the more impressive in its potency. It’s only February, but between “Quantumania,” the upcoming “Creed” threequel and the Sundance standout “Magazine Dreams” for which he’s receiving early Oscar buzz, 2023 is shaping up to be a banner year for Majors. A screen presence of remarkable nuance and creeping volatility, it only makes sense that he was enlisted for what’s expected to be a lengthy MCU tenure.
If only Majors's debut managed to fill the dead air around him. Through 31 films and counting, the MCU has proven its tendency to further tighten the creative leash on directors the more their movies have a role to play in the overarching universe (one of the franchise's greatest what-ifs stems from Edgar Wright exiting the first “Ant-Man” film years ago). So it goes that “Quantumania” is a dispiriting departure from what made superhero Scott Lang’s two prior outings so winning in the shadow of a larger Infinity Saga that chased down cosmic genocide with quips between Doctor Strange and Tony Stark. Plagued by an inability or unwillingness to find a sweet spot between silly and sincere, this supposed franchise resetter is itself in major need of a reset.
Like other recent MCU adventures, “Quantumania” is a family affair whose threadbare plot is set into motion when powerful technology or magic is trifled with. Here it’s a gizmo that acts up and sucks up Scott (Paul Rudd) and his daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton), into the forbidden quantum realm, a subatomic setting that is actually quite cosmic: Spidery nebulas hang in the distance and colorful CGI blobs glide through massive landscapes that lack depth, dimension or clarity.
It’s also devoid of a reason for us to care about the supposed oppression dished out by Kang. He nearly made it out years ago thanks to the help of Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer, who has participated in superhero projects much more interesting than this), who discovered in ludicrously timely and inexplicable fashion what this supposed castaway would do if he escaped. She hasn't told anyone that story, and too much of "Quantumania" hinges on the flattened drama of secrets inevitably divulged.
Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly are also back for the ride as Hank Pym and the Wasp, but rarely are they asked to do more than offer themselves up as gag fodder or provide a telling glance. Narrative payoff is instead reserved for the native, sentient hunk of goo that longs for something so ludicrous to type that I dare not do so here.
Much of the excuse for a story that connects “Quantumania’s” scant attempts at invention – most memorably a fiasco that sees millions of Rudds piling up like a living anthill – is revealed in retroactive fashion between scraps of eye-rolling humor and weakling father-daughter conundrums. This is hardly the first time those attributes have been prescribed to a Marvel movie, but in “Quantumania” (written by Jeff Loveness) the only thing rarer than anything resembling our surface world is evidence of a production attempting to compromise its comedic aims with its cataclysmic ones. The movie – so visually ugly that I half-wondered if came down to a projection issue – can’t resist the urge to parody itself. It keeps you guessing about whether the next line of dialogue will be a one-liner or an ultimatum. Yet whatever is uttered rarely fits the situation at hand.
It’s a troubling thing for a franchise to be this much at an impasse when everyone involved insists, fingers apparently crossed behind their backs, that they’re finally forging ahead. “Quantumania” wants to size itself up to a standard-bearer like “Star Wars” but can’t disguise its ant-sized effort. Most frustrating is what amounts to a near-literal confession in the final minutes that, for all the expectation that Kang will be a major villain going forward, “Quantumania” doesn’t chart the franchise roadmap so much as uncrumple it from Kevin Feige’s back pocket. It could’ve been an email. Or a brief mention at a Disney shareholders call.
"Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" is in theaters now. It's rated PG-13 for violence/action and language. Runtime: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer
Directed by Peyton Reed and written by Jeff Loveness