Little Hero, Big Problems

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

What do we expect from Ant-Man and the WaspFirst developed by Hank Pym, the "Pym Particle" allows Pym (and a variety of successors) to transform themselves, shrinking (and growing) to amazing sizes. Joined by Pym's wife (and later his daughter), the Wasp is Ant-Man's ally and cohort in fighting crime.. That might seem like an odd question to ask as he's a fictional character and we shouldn't really have expectations for fictional characters, and yet it was a question I found myself asking as I watched the third film in the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ant-Man series, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. This is a film that has been absolutely shredded by reviewers, given one of the lowest scores for any MCU film in the franchise (both on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic). It's absolutely reviled right now, a film likened to The Eternals, which is a fate no film wants to face.

Despite this, knowing the film people apparently watched when I went in, I found I didn't hate this third Ant-Man film. It's not without its flaws, like just about every film Marvel has put out in the last five years, but it was a decently enjoyable romp with plenty of fun moments to be found within. It's goofy, it's silly, and it's weird, and all of that would seem to fall well within Ant-Man's wheel house. So what did people expect going in? Apparently not an Ant-Man movie because that was what was primarily delivered.

The film opens with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, once again), living his best life. Don't know if you heard, but he helped save the world (back in Avengers: Endgame) and, finally, he's getting a bit of the respect he deserves. He has a good life, a woman that loves him -- Hope van Dyne / Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) -- and a family he can rely on. Life does have it's issues, like the fact that his daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton), keeps getting into the trouble with the law. Not as a thief, like her dad used to be, but because she keeps protesting and fighting the system. She wants to be a hero, like her dad.

In an attempt to help out, Cassie had the idea to go searching the Quantum Realm. This was the place where her step-grandmother, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), was lost for decades and where her dad ended up trapped in time for five years. Had she been able to map and communicate the Quantum Realm she might have been able to save them. So she made a device that could do just that, and she shows it off to her whole family. Unfortunately the ping sent by the device into the Quantum Realm is received, and it gives a foe down deep in that realm something to latch onto. Suddenly a portal down into the realm opens, and the whole Lang and Van Dyne family -- Scott, Hope, Cassie, Janet, and original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) -- down into the Quantum Realm. There they'll have to face the biggest little threat they've ever seen: Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors).

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is the first film of the MCU's Phase V, and it's job, as much as being an entertaining Ant-Man film, is to set the tone for the projects to come. If we were to liken this to the previous set of Phases that made up "The Infinity Saga", Phase IV was our introduction to many of the characters we would see going forward, while Phase V would really start to focus on the machinations of the hinted at villain and show how his plans are inevitable, his threat only growing. In that regard, Kang does feel like a decent fit for this "Multiverse Saga". He's a megalomaniacal figure with a lot of power who could be hard to beat, especially if we had a version of him who was at full strength and wasn't trapped in a weird pocket dimension smaller than an atom.

We have to take a beat here and discuss the Quantum Realm as this is just such a goofy idea. As presented in the previous films, the heroes of the Ant-Man movies can shrink and grow, going down to bug sizes (and smaller) or becoming kaiju-big. The first movie theorized a smaller, sub-atomic world and said that Janet became trapped down there, while the second film managed to retrieve her. Somehow there was some kind of alien world that existed far below the size of atoms that could be explored.

Now, scientifically this is a lot of mumbo jumbo. There are particles smaller than atoms, and the building blocks of atoms, and smaller than those even, but at a certain point there just can't be a world that's so small it can exist the way its depicted here in the film. This is one of those moments where you have to shut off your brain and accept, "hey, this is like weird superhero science magic. Just roll with it." Which, fair. Except when you have heroes who can shrink and grow, whose reason for being in the Quantum Realm is that they were shrunk down really small. If they could get down their, either on their own or because someone else dragged them down, wouldn't the easiest way to get out be to simply shrink themselves all the way back up? They have the tech for it (they continue to use shrinking and growing powers while in the realm, all at relative sizes) so what's preventing them from doing just that the second they get sucked down?

By that same token, if there's a villain (Kang) living down in the Quantum Realm who has found a way, once he's latched onto a signal from the upper world, to shrink people down and suck them into the Realm, doesn't that mean he could, by the transitive properties, grow back up via that same tech? And wasn't there some rule that when you shrank down super small you could no longer breathe the air (which is why Ant-Man, Wasp, and all the rest had to wear masks with rebreathers). Seems like there's a lot of the in-universe science that doesn't really make sense from film to film.

Getting that nit-picking out of the way, the film is at least internally consistent with its ideas. So there's a magical universe that exists beneath our own, like a pocket dimension that you can reach not through a tear in the fabric of space-time but via shrinking down really small. And that universe is, well, weird looking. The film doesn't really explore it in any great detail -- we get a couple of locations, a few small groups discovered, but it's hardly a nuanced and detailed look at the Quantum Realm. The film plays fast and loose with the locale, just using it to really tell a tale of Ant-Man vs. Kang, but you really get the vibe that we'll only see the Quantum Realm in this flick and never again, so Marvel didn't really care if a full world was built on this tiny concept.

Is that a big deal? Well, many reviewers commented that the film draws heavily from other sci-fi works to populate out its characters and world here. Yes, there are some passing similarities to, say, Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same.; you have a band of rebels, an evil empire, a charismatic figure leading the bad guys, a seemingly friendly agent who ends up "pulling a Lando" and betraying the heroes. I wouldn't compare this film to Star Wars, per se, so much as just point out that the shallow development for the Quantum Realm means the writer, Jeff Loveness, has to rely on sci-fi tropes to convey this world quickly. I'd say the film's world has as much in common with, say, Farscape and Flash Gordon as Star Wars. In essence all these properties are playing in the same shared pool of tropes, and Quantumania just wades in as well.

I think this does weaken the concept of the realm some. We're told it's this strange and unusual world, that Janet was lucky to have survived down there, and that it's so foreign you'd never be able to understand it. And yet, in reality now, the Quantum Realm is just a bunch of green screen sets, some screen saver-style backgrounds, and a few sci-fi tropes we've seen before. That kind of reduces the whole concept a bit too much. I do wonder if Marvel bit off more than they could chew with this film, over promising and under delivering on the Realm. Like, were they so committed to this concept it just had to happen? Feels like if they wanted to launch Kang here there could have been better ways to do it than have the actors wander around on green screen the whole time. Maybe Kang owns a bodega in Queens and Scott runs into him, kicking off the whole movie. That has as much bearing on the scope of the real world as this tiny pocket dimension we'll likely never see again.

And if we're going to rouse about the look of the film, the backgrounds really aren't the worst part, by a large margin. There's actually plenty of good uses of CGI in the film, but this is balanced out by one of the worst pieces of visual effects I've seen in quite some time: MODOK. I won't spoil who is in the MODOK suit (as that's a pretty decent spoiler all on its own), but suffice it to say that when the helmet lifts and the villain is revealed, it's just such an egregious looking monstrosity you have to wonder how Marvel felt it was releasable in their film. It looks like they took a recorder performance by their actor of choice and then did a stretch-and-fill maneuver to put that face inside the MODOK suit. It just looks so horrible that, among all the various things I've picked at above, this was the one thing that truly took me out of the movie.

Speaking of the villains, though, it does raise the question if Kang should have been in this film. Some reviewers feel that Ant-Man was the wrong venue to launch the big bad of this "Multiverse Saga". To that I do have to point out that he wasn't launched here but back in the first season of Loki. This was his second appearance, and it was a different version of the character (as Kang is multiversal), so saying this film had the pressure to launch him is an unfair assessment. It is fair to say that Marvel should have used Kang in, at least, some cameos throughout Phase IV to give that phase more narrative connectedness, but that fault, or the blame for it, shouldn't be placed on Quantumania. They had a villain that fit the story as it was conceived, and here it does work well.

Plus, frankly, it is amusing that the big, bad emperor of the Quantum Realm, the guy with big plans and a bigger ego, is defeated by "the little guy". Like, I actually get what the writer was going for and I like the pitch. This is Kang! He's the big bad! He's coming for all the Marvel heroes. He'll kill the AvengersMarvel's answer to DC's Justice League, this team features many of Marvel's biggest superheroes working together to protect the world and avenge its evils.. And yet he's bested by that bug guy (no, not SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002.). There's a fun, ironic vibe to that whole concept. Plus, of course, he's not really defeated. This version yes, but the multiversal traveling lord will be back with many of his other incarnations. That's cool.

As far as Ant-Man himself, I do think the film could have given him more time. This film is a great vehicle for Janet and her back story. She gets to rise up as the first Wasp and show her true heroics. The same goes for Cassie who really wants to step up and be a bigger hero than even her dad. She gets her own super-suit and proves that when she takes on the moniker of Stature (or maybe Stinger, depending on the continuity they go with here) her character will be primed and ready to roll. I like her growth here and I do hope that if a Young Avengers project ever happens she gets to play a part in it.

Is it weird that Ant-Man isn't a big presence in his own film. He is there, and so is Wasp II, but neither of them really get to shine like you'd like. Hell, Hank (Ant-Man I) is a bigger presences, and he gets to have some fun doing dumb shit with ants. But while Scott helped save the world, the film doesn't really seem to need him much in saving this world from this bad guy. Scott is here because it's his film, but you it really does feel like the film could have been called Quantumania, feat. the Ant Crew. That's a more accurate title for the story we get.

That said, when it comes to Kang, this film does a solid job of making him into a heavy. He's a big, glowering presence, but he gets to show a range of emotions beyond that. There's a bond he forms with Janet in their past that is conveyed so well, humanizing this version of Kang at least a little. This is the kind of intro I wish Thanos had gotten during his time as a heavy as that would have added more depth to his character. Kang has appeared twice and we've gotten a couple of really interesting versions of him. Sure, those are two from a multitude of Kangs we'll eventually see, but this character, and Majors's performance, really set a high bar for the villains of the MCU.

The movie is uneven at times, yes, but that can be said of so many Marvel projects of late. It is, however, also fun, funny, and full of a lot of adventure. While it doesn't break any new ground when it comes to sci-fi storytelling, and it has a few things my brain struggled to ignore based on past continuity, it was a generally quite enjoyable superhero romp. I don't know what people expect from an Ant-Man film but I got what I wanted. It's silly, it's fun, and it does have just enough going on to keep me entertained while it was running.

Will I go back and watch it time and again? I doubt that, but then I also haven't really done that with either Ant-Man or Ant-Man and Wasp. I think there's simple popcorn pleasure to be had from the Ant-Man films, Quantumania included. Expecting anything more makes one wonder just what film you actually thought you were going to see. When you go to see Ant-Man don't get mad when you get an Ant-Man adventure.