Let's face it: the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been running on borrowed goodwill for the last few years. As their roster of films and TV series continues to balloon, so too does the homework audiences need to do before delving into a new release; a big ask for even the most dedicated of fans. Miraculously, 'Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania' is so incompetent and hackneyed that any obligation self-respecting filmgoers may feel towards this franchise will dissolve like a victim of Thanos' blip.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, 'The Bob's Burgers Movie') has found himself settled into a semi-successful superhero retirement, being stopped by fans on the street and releasing a memoir on saving the universe as an Avenger. However, he is struggling to relate to his 18-year-old daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton, 'Freaky'), who spent five years away from him during his time in the Quantum Realm. She wants him to help people and find a cause to fight for; Scott would rather spend quality time with her and his partner, Hope (Evangeline Lilly, 'South of Heaven'). Wanting to understand more about what her father and Hope's mother Janet (Michelle Pfieffer, 'French Exit') went through in their time there, Cassie and Hank (Michael Douglas, 'Avengers: Endgame') manage to build a map that allows them to explore the Quantum Realm without actually needing to visit it. However, when the map malfunctions and Scott, Cassie, Hope, Hank and Janet are all sent into the Quantum Realm, their race against time to get back to San Francisco is threatened by Janet's powerful old friend, Kang the Conqueror, who has a score to settle.
The solo 'Ant-Man' films have always been treated as the series' palette cleanser; not only were 2015's 'Ant-Man' and 2018's 'Ant-Man and the Wasp' released directly after major 'Avengers' instalments, their light-hearted nature and relatively low stakes felt like a refreshing antithesis to the giant-beam-in-the-sky, world-ending seriousness of the rest of the MCU. However, as Marvel struggles to rearrange its main roster of superheroes post-'Endgame,' the desperation to hold onto the few heavy-hitters they have left in Thor, Doctor Strange and Ant-Man is palpable. Since the ill-timed release of 'Spider-Man: Far From Home' just three months after 'Endgame,' Marvel haven't quite been in control of the steering wheel, churning out sequel after sequel without much direction on where the next chapters are heading (apparently, 'Quantumania' is the beginning of Phase 5, but literally nothing in the film or previous instalment 'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever' would indicate the beginning of this new Phase). One can feel Marvel panicking that audiences maybe aren't connecting with the new characters, and in trying to bank on the popularity of one of their remaining original Avengers, 'Quantumania' groans under the weight of having to act as an over-epic game-changing instalment to set up the franchise's new Big Bad. The 'Ant-Man' films are not built for this.
On that note, Kang's introduction to the big screen is less than stellar. Having made a memorable first appearance in the Disney+ series 'Loki', Jonathan Majors ('The Harder They Fall') tries his hardest to make his character feel like one of Thanos-level threat. An incredibly weak script and all-too convoluted introduction actively work against him at every turn, but at least he's trying. Rudd, Lilly, Pfieffer and Douglas are all on auto-pilot and have such little chemistry with each other that one wouldn't be surprised if the cast didn't even shoot on the same sound stage. Unfortunately, Kathryn Newton brings nothing to the role of Cassie either (her first MCU appearance after the role was recast), barely moving her face beyond doe-eyed wonder.
From incoherent editing and poorly-lit shots to character designs lazily lifted straight from 'Star Wars', this is point-blank the worst a Marvel film has ever looked.
At the core of 'Quantumania's' faults is a fundamental unwillingness of director Peyton Reed ('Ant-Man and the Wasp') and producer Kevin Feige ('Black Panther: Wakanda Forever') to even remotely shake the table as to how these films are structured or written. One of the film's most fascinating ideas revolves around the regret Scott might feel in falling for Kang's tricks, a hero led astray by promises from someone who has no intention of keeping them. However, the film plays this plot beat so frustratingly straight and doesn't explore the selfish reasons that could lead Scott to trust Kang, which would be a great way to flesh out just how self-absorbed Scott seems to have become in his new celebrity status. It's not like Rudd doesn't have the chops for a meatier arc, and with the exception of the film's pretty well-executed final 30 seconds, continuing to relegate him to punchlines way below his paygrade is insulting. Fascinatingly, 'Quantumania' is both way too serious for an 'Ant-Man' film and nowhere near serious enough for what it's trying to set up. As has become standard for Marvel writing, wry quips are aplenty, and they're almost always paired with horrific comedic timing. Ground zero for this in 'Quantumania' is during a character death, which may have the most cringeworthy attempt at humour that I've seen in a film in recent years. Marvel films don't need to be either exclusively comedic or dramatic to work, but the trick comes in knowing how to balance these tones. When the series itself treats everything like a joke, it's hard not to expect audiences to either.
Equally as disappointing is the film's production design and visuals. From incoherent editing and poorly-lit shots to character designs lazily lifted straight from 'Star Wars', this is point-blank the worst a Marvel film has ever looked. No amount of "but it's meant to look cartoonish like a comic!" defence can make up for the fact that Disney released 'Avatar: The Way of Water' not two months before 'Quantumania'. The chasm in the quality of visual effects between those two films is baffling, and comparing them in disbelief is one of the only enjoyable things about 'Quantumania'. Marvel fans have a reputation for being unnecessarily audible during screenings, but there's no way their laughs at the return of an old 'Ant-Man' villain will be out of anything but mockery. Of course, the near-inhumane conditions Marvel's visual effects departments are expected to work in to make their tight deadlines have been well documented. The 'Quantumania' crew no doubt tried their best with the time they had, but one cannot help but wonder what a Marvel film that took its time - and cared about its craft - could look like. Having grossed nearly US$30 billion over 30 films, Marvel is the biggest cinematic franchise of all time, and it's not unreasonable for audiences to expect a development in quality over 15 years of filmmaking and technology development.
In another multiverse timeline, there's a version of this film that balances its humour and drama, writes interesting arcs for its characters, and ultimately doesn't feel like a chore to sit through (at least 'Thor: Love and Thunder' held audience attention in how unbelievably terrible it was). Unfortunately, that timeline isn't the one we are living in. If superhero fatigue hasn't hit you yet, expect 'Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania' to send you straight into the realm of exhaustion.