The unspoken motto of the “Ant-Man” movies is “think small,” which has paradoxically made it stand apart from other sectors of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which tend towards the grandiose. “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” plays around with that idea by shrinking Ant-Man/Scott Lange (Paul Rudd) and the other major characters to a subatomic size ten minutes into the story and dispatching them to the Quantum Realm, which looks like James Cameron’s Pandora reimagined as the cover of a 1970s jazz fusion album, and keeping them there for the rest of the film as they battle an exiled supervillain named Kang (Jonathan Majors). The result is simultaneously the biggest and smallest of the Ant-Man films, a neat trick.
Is it a must-see? No—the middle hour is fun in that patented easygoing “Ant-Man” way. Returning director Peyton Reed and screenwriter Jeff Loveness let the characters wander around the Quantum Realm, which is like a psychedelic sci-fi cartoon version of those jungles in 1930s serials where a clueless Western explorer would misinterpret a gesture and anger a local tribe, or get dunked in a river by an elephant, or be grossed out by the prospect of eating snake meat until they had a bite and realized it tastes kinda like chicken.
Here, the tribe includes a guy with a flashlight for a head and one with a transparent, gelatinous body who is obsessed with how many “holes” humans have (the comedic peak of Rudd’s performance is the pause he takes while Scott counts in his head), and a telepath (William Jackson Harper) who is cursed to constantly hear the bizarre and/or filthy thoughts that race through others’ minds. Instead of elephants, there are houses that look as if Fred Flintstone’s home mated with the Pillsbury Dough Boy, and that are alive and can walk and defend themselves in war. There are also gelatinous bugs and other critters, shrubs and trees modeled on fungi and lichens, and a mitochondrial thing scaled like Godzilla.
They’re all seemingly modeled on photos of “small worlds” of varying magnification levels. That the designers have grouped these microscopic and subatomic things because they’re “small” is part of the fun. It’s like something a kid threw together for a science fair, hoping that sheer charm would compensate for not having any actual science content. Too bad that, for all its amusing jokes, the world onscreen mostly looks like a Marvel screen-saver. Bill Pope, who shot the “Matrix” films and multiple Sam Raimi and Edgar Wright movies, is the cinematographer here, but not so you’d notice. There’s not much for a cinematographer (or director—even Ryan Coogler has seemed tamped down by Marvel) to do to show individual personality on these projects when so much of the running time is pre-visualized by effects companies; and when Marvel studios boss Kevin Feige, who seems determined to keep art to a minimum for fear of gumming up the content machine, wields an aesthetic veto pen.
As for Kang: he’s what genre buffs call a “ret-con.” The filmmakers need him to be a fearsome and all-powerful villain (he’s essentially Thanos in a new wrapper: a genocidal madman) and to be introduced in this movie so that he could quickly be positioned as the Big Bad for the next Avengers team-up. But they also have to explain why Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), former wife of original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who was trapped in the Quantum Realm for 30 years, never mentioned Kang to anybody.
The answer is not persuasive, despite Pfeiffer selling the heck out of it. But this is a comic-book movie, so you have to roll with it. Pfeiffer, at least, gets a lot to do in pushing the plot forward and papering over cracks in the storytelling. Meanwhile, unfortunately, Evangeline Lilly’s Hope, aka The Wasp, just seems to kind of be there. She’s present and involved, but doesn’t make much of an impression. (Narratively, of course, she’s been eclipsed by Cassie: the last one was more the Pyms’ movie, and this one’s mainly about Scott and Cassie, who is now a teen with her own super-suit, and played by Kathryn Newton. But they still managed to give Michael Douglas plenty of good bits.)
Kang is a poorly written character—he’s bad, he’s mad, he’s a genius, he wants to escape the Quantum Realm, and that’s pretty much it. There’s only so much that the cast or filmmakers can do to make him seem terrifying. The film doesn’t have the nerve (or perhaps the studio’s permission?) to wipe the smile off the audience’s face in the manner of, say, the last act of “Avengers: Infinity War” or the middle hour of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” There’s a brief scene where Kang convinces Scott to use his thief abilities to steal this movie’s equivalent of the Ring of Power or Infinity Stone or Mother Box by threatening to murder Cassie in front of him, then make Scott re-experience her death for all eternity. But we know it’s not the sort of movie where that could ever happen, nor one where any major character we care about will suffer too greatly.
And so Kang’s menace is conveyed through an uncharacteristically hammy performance by Majors. He seems to be channeling post-1970s Marlon Brando performances where Brando was being fed lines through an earpiece or reading them off notecards taped to other actors’ costumes. Sometimes he’ll pause forever between words in a line while staring ahead, or look up, or to the side, as if the next thought might be lurking there. Like Brando, he’s fussing around in ways that seem to work at cross-purposes with the movie, but it’s in service of trying to make something out of nothing. One element that does intrigue: Kang seems deeply, furiously sad, in a way that echoes one of the most powerful lines from “The Sopranos,” “Depression is anger turned inward.”
Eventually, the movie succumbs to the MCU formula and devotes its last act to a lot of overly busy CGI battles, with things crashing into other things and exploding and disintegrating while people yell about having to save the universe. Sometimes the movie overdoes the self-awareness in that unfortunate MCU way—such as by having a character confirm that a weird thing just happened by saying, “That was weird,” or announce that another character is cool, both of which happen here. But the film’s low-stress, low-stakes attitude saves it.
Serenely untroubled by pressures to break box office records or win Oscars, the Ant-Man films seem content to be clever entertainments with heart, but not so much that they become cloying. From the size jokes to the running gags to the casting of Rudd, who has spent his career behaving as if he’s a random regular guy who stumbled into stardom and finds it all quite silly, the series manages to be light but not inconsequential, whether a given scene is sentimental (anything involving Scott and Cassie) or cheerfully deranged (the climatic fight at the end of the first movie atop a Thomas the Tank Engine train set). Ant-Man is officially a member of the MCU’s starting lineup, the Avengers, but feels like a replacement player who gets a text when Thor calls in sick. This new movie validates Scott’s not-quite-insecurity (he’s not deep enough to be existentially tormented) by having him get mistaken for other superheroes. He takes it in stride. Two films ago, he got fired from Baskin-Robbins, and before that, he was in jail. Happiness, like size, is a matter of perspective.
In theaters Friday, February 17.