‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’ Overshadows Its Small Charms With MCU Overkill

Establishing a defining global franchise must be every big studio’s dream. The standard has been set by the Marvel Cinematic Universe for over a decade now and that comes with its own particular curse. Since releasing a string of record-breaking titles, the MCU has been attempting to recycle its formula the way a chef delivers on a famous recipe. With movies that can be perilous. “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is the latest sign of Marvel struggling to juggle all of its standard elements. It is the newest entry in one of the franchise’s smaller delights, where the comedy worked even better than the world-saving plot. Returning director Peyton Reed is tasked with tapping into the title’s natural charm while simultaneously setting us up further for the next, gargantuan “Avengers”-style showdown. In the end one threatens to cancel out the other.

We’re still in the lingering aftermath of the events from “Avengers: Endgame” and Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has become a bit of a local celebrity. Sure he gets confused sometimes by the local coffee shop owner for Spider-Man, but he still basks in being seen as part of the Avengers, who saved us all from Thanos. He’s even written a book and does public readings. At home Scott lives with girlfriend Hope aka the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), who now runs the company founded by genius dad Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Hank’s wife, Hope’s mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) is back home as well but still processing her 30 years living trapped in the quantum realm. Meanwhile Scott’s daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton), is an adolescent constantly getting into trouble with the police for her activities as a radical activist decrying gentrification. When Cassie develops a device that can send a signal into the Quantum Realm, Janet freaks out and they’re all sucked into the microscopic plain. Not only will the group discover shocker secrets about Janet’s time here, they will face a new menace in galactic warlord Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors), who seeks to, well, conquer many worlds. 

The delight of the first two “Ant-Man” movies was in how they carried the same misfit, breezy spirit of fellow MCU entries such as “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Comedy was skillfully combined with stylish, trippy visuals that felt like “2001: A Space Odyssey” meets “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” There wasn’t too much narrative baggage and Scott made for a likable screw-up. “Quantumania” aims for a larger scale that also feels curiously hollow. Visually it’s still quite trippy with the Quantum Realm designed like a whole other galaxy inhabited by creatures ranging from vegetable heads to a walking blob of gelatin, who is endlessly fascinated by how humans have multiple holes. On an IMAX screen viewers will feel as if they’ve been transported into a petri dish. Ships and buildings are alive, so to fly you need to stick your hands into gooey extensions. Alas, many backgrounds look like your standard Marvel CGI canvases designed by graphic illustration graduates.  While wandering the quantum realm, our heroes also get dressed in new threads that look suspiciously like an attempt at referencing “Star Wars.” In fact, much of the plot is a virtual rehash combo of that galaxy far, far away and the Thanos storyline. 

“Quantumania” is not a “bad” Marvel movie and doesn’t feel as half-formed as last year’s “Thor: Love and Thunder.” It is good moments overwhelmed by a bloated structure. When it sticks to its original “Ant-Man” identity it can still be very funny. It turns out Janet was part of a resistance underground fighting against Kang, prompting Hank to realize she’s keeping secrets. There is a scene with real hilarity involving a former resistance leader, Lord Krylar (Bill Murray), who openly boasts about having been Janet’s lover. Murray is the latest example of Marvel showing off how it can bring in anyone into its universe, yet it really is more of a glorified cameo that leads to nothing other than a good chuckle. William Jackson Harper is thankfully used more often as Quaz, a Quantum inhabitant who can read minds and hates it because “everyone is disgusting.” But unlike “Guardians of the Galaxy,” not enough space is given to build a real sense of camaraderie because the screenplay rushes into attempting to wet our appetite for what is clearly some big, multi-verse epic MCU guru Kevin Feige is feverishly cooking up.

For the task of bringing in that new cosmic conflict, Feige has settled on Kang the Conqueror. Great talents can make recycled personas engaging, which is what Jonathan Majors does with Kang. Marvel is littered with these egomaniacs wanting to burn worlds but Majors brings real pathos to this villain, channeling a real sense of profound anger and pain. He never goes for a booming, cartoonish villain voice but the measured, self-assured tone of a confident, charismatic maniac. With a lesser actor the role would seem like a boring retread. However, a far more entertaining villain is M.O.D.O.K. (Corey Stoll), essentially an armed floating head with small, armored legs and arms made out of Darren Cross, the corporate villain from the first “Ant-Man.” Stoll gets overall better one-liners and revives the comedic spirit of the first movies. Like “Deadpool,” the unsavory is made pitiful and funny through this kind of villain. And, kudos to writer Jeff Loveness for sneaking in a wink at Marx, a big admirer of ants, when Hank gets into a tangent about ants displaying socialist values. 

“Quantumania” is a shorter Marvel entry at only 2 hours and 5 minutes, rushing to its conclusion with the same formula we’ve seen countless times now. Everyone eventually rises up against Kang, a massive CGI battle ensues with plenty of running, flying and exploding. Ant-Man becomes gigantic and smashes many structures and oh look, Cassie also has an ant suit and can indeed also grow to a massive scale. Technically it’s impressive but the payoff is left lacking. The story is left feeling incomplete because we’ve sat through yet another set-up. Flickers remain of the mischievous fun of the first two movies, which in this one feel like relief from the wall-to-wall digital distractions. Rudd also keeps Scott as a gentler misfit just trying to be a good dad. “Ant-Man” has the appeal of a parable about a vastly imperfect dad dealing with his own immaturity. Being a superhero is what forces him to truly grow up. More of that would have made this a worthy sequel. “Quantumania” still delivers spectacle but loses sight of how it’s the little things that count.

Ant-Man: Quantumania” releases Feb. 17 in theaters nationwide.