Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
2023, PG-13, 125 min. Directed by Peyton Reed. Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathryn Newton, Bill Murray, David Dastmalchian.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 17, 2023
It's a worry that has plagued the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Iron Man: When would the franchise jump the rails? Well, arguably that happened with Phase 4, the post-Infinity Saga stories meant to wrap up the first big arc of the series and launch a new era of heroes. The TV side of things on Disney+, such as Loki and WandaVision, ended up being some of the best-received entries in the massive enterprise, while films like Eternals landed with a damp thud.
So now the question is, can the littlest superhero get the film side of things back on track? The answer, as provided by Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, is a giant-sized yes, as Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly return to not only seemingly wrap up the story of Scott Lang, the petty thief turned Avenger, but also hurl headfirst into Phase 5 and the upcoming multiversal menace of Kang the Conqueror.
Quantumania, the third movie about Rudd's jovial if panicked hero, is really a family affair: He and techno-philanthropist Hope van Dyne (Lilly), his daughter, Cassie (Newton), and van Dyne's reunited parents, Hank Pym (the delightfully eccentric Douglas) and Janet van Dyne (a suitably enigmatic Pfeiffer), are all reunited in San Francisco, even if there are rumblings of dysfunction underneath it all. Superficially, it's with the daddy-daughter issues between Scott and Cassie, who is constantly irked that her hero dad seems to have fallen out of the hero business, but it's really about what happened to Janet in those 30 years in which she was trapped in the subatomic Quantum Realm, and exactly what – or rather, who – she was there with: Kang (Majors, simmering with animosity and ambition), whose machinations bring the whole family into his infinitesimal empire.
Quantumania is, quite frankly, everything that Taika Waititi's dismal run on Thor (the continuity-dismissive Ragnarok and the infuriating Love and Thunder) was not. Director Peyton Reed returns a genuine sense of cosmic wonder that has been lacking from recent Marvel movies, crafting a bizarre and physics-defying Quantum Realm that gorgeously melds the mechanical and the biological in fun, gooey ways ("Drink the slime!"). He introduces a panoply of exotic new species, residents of this subatomic realm that pulsate and fluoresce, scarcely recognizable as life forms but so very alive. Indeed, this version of the Quantum Realm may be the most enthralling and immersive addition to sci-fi habitats since George Lucas first took us to the city-planet of Coruscant, a place that feels like it exists beyond the confines of the frame.
But, most importantly, Quantumania holds two raw emotions: love and terror. Love in the form of the dysfunctional extended Ant-family, an idiosyncratic bunch who you genuinely feel would lay everything on the line for each other. And terror in the brutal, manipulative, murderous intent of Majors as Kang. When the time-traveling dictator was first announced as the new big bad of the MCU, there was a ripple of concern. After all, his backstory in the comics is such a convoluted mishmash of incarnations, variants, and alter egos that it's often unclear if the writers know who he is. But there's a clear focus here, established by scriptwriter Jeff Loveness and building upon Michael Waldron's development of the character in the Loki series for Disney+. That's where we first saw Majors, but not as Kang. There he was He Who Remains, a variant of Kang manipulating the multiverse in his role as the lesser evil. But this Kang is the greater evil, Kang the Conqueror, a perfect fusion of sadism and megalomania, tempered with a taste for manipulation and cruelty. Evil rolls off Majors' performance in waves, making him an apt successor to and utterly distinct from the equally genocidal Thanos: After all, the Mad Titan saw himself as a benevolent force for good, but this Kang has bloody, bloody hands and likes that ferric smell.
And that's exactly why it's such a genius move to place him in pitched battle against the MCU's biggest putz. Rudd's take on Scott Lang has always been rooted in his firm belief that, at some point, he's going to get found out. It's Rudd's easy, slightly panicked charm that makes Quantumania work, just as much as Majors' malice, even if they're clearly imbalanced in powers. The MCU has never been shy about killing off major characters, and as it really embraces the post-Iron Man, post-Captain America, post-Thor era, there's a real feeling that Kang's menacing ways could make it the post-Ant-Man era. Quantumania goes big, but it never forgets that Ant-Man is our guy.