Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania Takes a Deep Dive Into the Quantum Realm

Without really meaning to, the character of Ant-Man has become something of a major player in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After starring in two films that were largely disconnected from the rest of the very much connected Marvel movies, Paul Rudd’s electrical engineer-turned-heist specialist Scott Lang got to play a major role in saving the known universe in Avengers: Endgame, thanks to spending an extended period in the Quantum Realm and realizing that time works differently in that subatomic other-world. 

Payton Reed is only the second director who has done a full trilogy of films in a single Marvel franchise; the other was Jon Watts, who did the last three Spider-Man movies. So in the latest Payton Reed-directed installment, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, we take our first deep dive into the Quantum Realm, a place we’ve only gotten glimpses of in previous films. It's also the first time that an Ant-Man movie feels like it has genuine consequences and stakes, and isn’t only a place to house jokes about how small or large Lang can get. By being set largely in a place where anything seems possible, Reed, screenwriter Jeff Loveness, and the creative team get to go a bit nuts with creature design, world building, and expanding upon a villain, Kang the Conqueror (the gripping Jonathan Majors), whose variant we met on Disney+’s Loki series. All of that said, what we actually end up with is sludgy, vague, and surprisingly dull in spots. In fact, were it not for the likes of Rudd, Majors and Michelle Pfeiffer’s finally front-and-center performance as the original Wasp, Janet van Dyne, one could almost accuse the movie of lacking a soul.

I don’t normally like to start with the negatives, but the film’s primary problem jumped out at me right from the top. As much as I’ve enjoyed Kathryn Newton in other films, her take as the now-grown and very intelligent Cassie Lang, Scott’s daughter, is flat-out annoying. The entirety of her character development is that when her father tells her not to do something, she does it with reckless abandon and then browbeats him for being a square and never trying to help other people (reminder, he saved the universe). She’s a complete mystery to us because we still don’t know how she lived when half the universe’s population was blipped out of existence for five years. Since the events of Endgame, what has she been doing, and how did she get so smart at such a young age? It’s clear she has befriended the others in Scott’s tight-knit group, including the newest Wasp, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), and Janet’s husband, the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), but what have they taught her while Scott was off writing a book about his Ant-Man years or starting a podcast detailing the Avengers’ battles against Thanos?

This is the first Ant-Man film in which Pfeiffer really gets to shine, and in some cases, takes center stage in a story about Cassie screwing up and launching all of them back into the Quantum Realm, where Janet spent 30 years of her life, when everyone believed she had died. She has made a point not to talk much about her time there, and because of that, her friends and family have no idea what’s actually dangerous in the realm and what is simply unknown and scary but actually pretty cool. Chief among the things to fear is Kang, a multiverse-hopping being, of whom this particular variant is determined to destroy any other timeline featuring a variant that threatens his existence. He even indicates that he’s fought and killed the Avengers in other timelines, so many times, in fact, that he can’t even recall if Ant-Man was ever among his victims.

As it turns out, Janet and Kang have a history, one that may not paint Janet in the best light because she not only defied Kang and spoiled his last chance to escape the Quantum Realm, but her leaving the realm in the last film left a lot of its residents without someone looking out for them, giving Kang the space he needed to truly dominate. We meet a host of characters who both serve Kang (the living weapon MODOK, a power broker named Lord Krylar, played with the appropriate amount of panache by Bill Murray), as well as those who defy him (Katy O’Brian’s supremely cool Jentorra, William Jackson Harper’s Quaz, and even a faceless being named Veb, voiced by franchise veteran David Dastmalchian). None of these newer characters are built up in terms of character development, and a few are supremely robbed of anything resembling a well-rounded arc.

Slightly more impressive is the world building in Quantumania. I know I’m not the first to make this comparison, but so much of the creature and landscape design of the Quantum Realm reminded me of last year’s Disney animated film Strange World that you can’t help but wonder if some of the some architects worked on both. The creativity on display is impressive enough that you might be tempted to re-watch the movie at some point with the sound turned down. As typically murky as the Quantum Realm looks (Marvel does like its muddy visuals), you can still see the detail that went into its wildlife and plant life.

There’s no getting around that Majors as Kang is meant to be the highlight of Quantumania, since Kang (or versions of him) are meant to take us through the next couple of phases of the MCU. Any issues I had with Kang here are not because of the man playing him. Majors has an intensity that is undeniable and utterly captivating; we lock into him because we have no clue what he’s about to do next. We’re a little scared of him, but more than that, we’re fascinated by his electricity. So it doesn’t seem possible that heroes like Ant-Man and the Wasp could stand in his way. There’s a lengthy climactic fight scene between Kang and Ant-Man that is basically just Lang getting his stuffing knocked out of him. It’s almost funny until you consider that killing an Avenger means nothing to Kang.

More than anything Quantumania is meant to set up so much of what comes next, and that might be the thing it does best, which I fully realize pisses people off, and I get it. People want to see an Ant-Man and the Wasp movie, not just a launch pad into two or three years’ worth of future stories. But every story has to start somewhere, so why not here? I only wish the film had focused more on what Cassie Lang was going to bring to the MCU as well because a great deal of knowledge could be gained by other heroes from someone who has actually taken on Kang and lived to tell the tale, assuming she does live. You don’t have to sacrifice story to push fantastic visuals for the foreground, but I’m not sure this film quite learned that lesson.

The film opens in theaters Thursday.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.