Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania Review – Marvel Goes Big in Phase 5 Kick-Off
Marvel’s tiniest Avenger works on a much larger scale as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania launches the MCU’s next big bad.
With Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe now in the rearview mirror, Marvel Studios has chosen its arguably most peripheral sub-franchise to officially launch its next big supervillain and overarching storyline. The two previous Ant-Man movies have told smaller, localized stories—basically comedic heist thrillers set in San Francisco—with hints at larger mysteries lurking in the subatomic universe known as the Quantum Realm. Honestly, they were refreshing breaks from the MCU’s usual world-threatening narratives.
All that is out the window with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the third entry in the series and the first to kick off an MCU phase instead of capping one. Not only does director Peyton Reed’s movie take place almost exclusively in the Quantum Realm (exploring it much more extensively than ever before), but it also puts Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and company up against the next major Marvel menace: Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors), a power-mad tyrant who can move through all of space and time. He threatens not just “our” reality, but every other one out there.
Does Ant-Man’s promotion to front-line Avenger work? Yes it does. While the movie gets off to a creaky start and incorporates a few elements that don’t quite land, the heart that has made the previous Ant-Man movies so endearing in their own way is still there. It’s exemplified by Lang and what some are already calling the Ant-Family: his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), his partner in crime-fighting and romance, Hope Van Dyne/the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), and the parental figures of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer).
In fact, it’s Pfeiffer’s Janet who provides the trigger for this story, which makes the elder Wasp one of its true main characters (arguably at the expense of Lilly’s Hope, who is present throughout but does not get a noticeable arc of her own). Even the question of what Janet was doing for the 30 years she was trapped in the Quantum Realm is answered right at the top of the film, as she witnesses in a flashback the crash of a ship with a single passenger during her time down there.
That passenger turns out to be Kang, and while he and Janet strike up a quick friendship, we discover through the rest of the movie how that relationship curdled, with Kang becoming a ruthless warlord who quickly dominates the Quantum Realm, along with its many denizens and societies. But never one to be satisfied, he of course has designs on the bigger multiverse that exists above. Despite Janet’s best efforts to put the Quantum Realm behind her after the events of the Ant-Man and the Wasp, the Ant-Family is soon drawn into this same conflict after all three generations are sucked into the subatomic universe. What a shame for Scott, too, since after the exhausting events of Avengers: Endgame, he’d begun enjoying his life as a memoirist and touring author. Alas, battle comes again, and it appears he’s not the only member of the family to be bitten by the superhero bug.
The theme of Quantumania seems to be that there is always another battle to be fought, and one can never truly rest on one’s laurels. These are two sentiments that might actually reflect the mindset of Marvel Studios itself, which has emerged with a few dings from a shaky Phase 4 and hopes to recapture the narrative momentum that propelled the company’s first decade to such astronomical success. Those themes also find their way into the character dynamics of Scott, Cassie, and the rest of the Ant-Family, with the relationship between father and daughter central to the movie and the source of most of its emotional pull. There’s mutual respect and love there, with Newton making an excellent addition to the ensemble, and Rudd now comfortably ensconced in the role of Scott, whose wit and bravery is only matched by his nagging doubts that he’s not up to the level of the other Avengers.
Those doubts are put to the test by Kang, with Jonathan Majors immediately proving that Marvel’s casting gambits remain among the studio’s strongest assets. Majors is nothing less than riveting whenever he’s onscreen, and his portrayal of Kang—whom we met a much more amiable variant of, also played by Majors, at the end of the first season of Loki—is complex, quietly malevolent, and imbued with a great sense of frightening power. His motivations and plans dwarf those of his MCU predecessor, Thanos, and his ability to move across all of space and time makes him nearly godlike in his ambitions and resources.
The first act of Quantumania is its thinnest, at least on a narrative level. Screenwriter Jeff Loveness relies on the old trick of a character, in this case Janet, refusing to talk about her past even when that information is vital to her family/teammates (Pfeiffer is otherwise outstanding as a hero with some badass moves herself). Thus the build-up to Kang is unnecessarily drawn out, and padded even more by a pointless cameo from Bill Murray that really serves no function except to get the legendary comedian into a Marvel movie.
On the other hand, the first act also introduces us to the wonders of the Quantum Realm. While we meet solid supporting (human) characters in freedom fighter Katy M. O’Brian and telepath William Jackson Harper, it’s the delightfully bewildering assortment of non-human lifeforms, including a walking stalk of broccoli and a red glob on legs voiced by Ant-Man vet David Dastmalchian, that make this one of the MCU’s more eye-popping recent entries. There’s also the long-awaited arrival of MODOK, a villain with a surprise twist who also provides some of the film’s funniest moments. The Realm itself is a roiling, psychedelic, cosmic playground right out of the best sci-fi pulp magazine covers of the ’50s and ‘60s.
There are some mind-blowing visual set pieces as well, including one involving a multiplying army of Ant-Men that dive deep into the imagery and lore of classic science fiction, while the central drama has already garnered comparisons to the space opera of Star Wars. And if Disney had never bought Fox, thus bringing the yet-to-debut Fantastic Four home to the MCU, the Ant-Family would make a perfectly acceptable substitute.
Some 15 years and 31 films in, you’re either invested in the MCU or not. Admittedly, it would be hard for someone to walk into Quantumania stone cold, although not impossible (you really only have to see the previous Ant-Man movies and maybe Endgame to truly get the gist). As a fan ourselves, the analogy of the MCU saga being a gigantic TV show holds true, perhaps more so than ever. Some episodes are world-shaking and amazing (Spider-Man: No Way Home), some are middle of the road (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), and some are unwatchable (Thor: Love and Thunder). But you stick with it, even in the rough patches because you enjoy the universe and the characters.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, despite a few lapses, leans toward that upper end of the spectrum. The characters and performances are terrific, the world-building superb, the stakes elevated, and the new elements—especially the arrival of Kang—are compelling. If the movie feels a little perfunctory at times, it’s because we know that it’s setting up perhaps even larger things to come (cue the mid and end credits scenes). In the case of the third Ant-Man movie, bigger does mean better, but not without a few growing pains.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is out in theaters Friday, Feb. 17.