Reading reviews about Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania gives me the impression that a lot of critics have negative reviews pre-written, much like celebrity obituaries. Ironically, they complain about the corporate-driven sameness and lack of imagination in every installment, in a way that’s so repetitious and over-familiar that I’m getting deja vu that I’ve made this exact same complaint in previous blog posts about MCU projects.
Somehow, they never seem to mention that it’s corporate-driven content that keeps them submitting reviews for movies that they’re predisposed to dislike. Imagine going back to a pre-Siskel & Ebert/Pauline Kael world, where critics only had to write about things if they had an interesting observation to make!
To be fair: Quantumania does have plenty of signs of Creeping Marvel Fatigue. It never reaches the level of “why exactly does this movie exist, again?” that Eternals did, but it does lapse into the feeling that it’s going through the motions. They’re grand, sweeping, extremely expensive motions, granted, but still.
The first time I saw it was on the last night of a Disney cruise. It was a late night showing, and we had to pack and get ready to leave early the next morning, so we had to leave about halfway through. But honestly, I was ready to go at that point. Kang was in the middle of delivering a threatening speech, and his dramatic pauses between lines felt interminable. This was a movie that I’d been pretty hyped for, but all of the spectacle it kept throwing at me just felt kind of flat and inert.
For the record, I enjoyed it a lot more when I watched it again, well-rested and able to actually finish it. (And, honestly, not already over-stimulated from several days on a cruise ship). And the movie does pick up significantly after a lull in the middle. I was particularly impressed at how the movie keeps piling on sudden entrances and dramatic reversals and saved-at-the-last-minute conclusions, but they don’t feel un-earned.
Even so, the movie feels not tedious, but diminished. That’s not an Ant-Man pun, either. It feels like everybody’s making the right decisions in the moment — from writers, to designers, to actors, to CG artists — but it doesn’t quite have the right level of impact. For instance, when I say that I felt like everything ground to a halt with Kang’s speeches, that’s not to say that I think Jonathan Majors was making bad choices — after all, he’s got the job of playing infinite versions of the same person and finding ways to make enough of them distinct while also making sure to show off his physique — but that it falls a little flat when in the midst of everything else.1I should mention that I’m in the minority, too, since his performance keeps getting called out as the saving grace of the movie.
I’m avoiding spoilers here, but Quantumania has a cameo scene from an actor who usually has Paul Rudd levels of charisma, and the ability to make any material work. But I feel like the scene just kind of happens. There’s just not much of a spark of energy behind it.
That same feeling carried through over and over. There were interesting costume designs, clearly inspired by Moebius and brought to live action! There’s Chidi Anagonye — I love that guy! There’s a funny goo alien, who’s got perfect voice acting, charming animation, and genuinely funny dialogue! There are living buildings and broccoli aliens and clever one-liners and lots of semi-organic spaceships and Michelle Pfeiffer being a comic-book-movie bad-ass yet again. It’s all extremely well-done, but none of it gets the chance to feel all that unique or original or marvelous.
Except for MODOK. The Ant-Man movies are, by design, the MCU’s goofy comedies,2Unlike Taika Waititi’s Thor movies, which are the absurdist fantasy comedies, or Guardians of the Galaxy, which are the sci-fi comedies so this movie needed something like MODOK to retain any sense of identity. Otherwise, that identity would’ve been completely subsumed by franchise obligations, setting up the next phase and the future of the MCU. It’s an inherently goofy concept, and one that Marvel’s already poked fun at, multiple times.
But in Quantumania, it really feels like somebody felt passionately about including him in the movie — he’s completely unnecessary to the plot, and his tie to the first Ant-Man is clever but inessential — and fought to keep him in. As a result, it feels like one of the few things in the movie that somebody actually felt strongly about. As opposed to doing a good job fulfilling an assignment.
It also made me realize something that I never really appreciated about the MCU, even after all this time: what is it that makes this long-running franchise novel? I’d always assumed that it’s because it does such a good job of translating comic book superhero aesthetics and sensibilities into live action — bringing all of this history of imaginative, unrepressed storytelling to an even wider audience, with bigger budgets and higher production values. But just the first 20 minutes of Quantumania is already packed with more spectacular vistas and weird comic book ideas (which the audience is just expected to go along with, with little explanation) than most of the rest of the Marvel movies combined. The fantastic goofiness and weird spectacle of comic books is fully entrenched in live action at this point.
But while watching Quantumania, I realized that the “magic” of the MCU for me isn’t simply in bringing over the source material to live action, but in the adaptation. Seeing Iron-Man’s suit doesn’t do much for me, but seeing him in a romantic comedy that also has explosions is exciting. Seeing characters that I had no attachment to thrown together in a Joss Whedon-style action comedy3Back when I still loved Joss Whedon-style action comedies is exciting. I have no real attachment to the X-Men, but guessing at the different ways that WandaVision and Ms Marvel will introduce them to the MCU is exciting. It should’ve been obvious from my lack of interest in the live-action Disney remakes, but the appeal isn’t in seeing stuff “brought to life,” but in seeing how it’s reinterpreted and made new.
So if you know that the character MODOK exists, and the MCU exists, you might’ve had the question, “how do you bring a character that’s this inherently silly into a more grounded live-action universe?” And the answer, obviously, is, “You can’t. So just run with it.” Quantumania runs with it, and is all the better for it.
His weird face is stretched-out and wrong, and it’s not a mistake, it’s part of the appeal.4It’s especially hilarious that the face they chose to bizarrely stretch out over this horrific thing is of one of the most handsome and effortlessly sexy actors working today. He had to be the straight man in the first movie, as a pretty generic over-the-top villain who’d stand out against all the comedic performances, and here he gets to use that to its full advantage. Best of all, they made sure to show his origin instead of leaving it to the imagination, showing him being pulled naked from a pit, with his tiny butt and baby legs.
Does it make any sense that Kang would do any of this? Absolutely not. Is it essential to Quantumania? Absolutely, 1000%. That bafflingly weird and unnecessary interpretation of MODOK is exactly what makes this movie necessary.
When even a die-hard fan like me is showing signs of getting tired of the MCU5I haven’t even watched Wakanda Forever yet, mostly because as much as I loved Black Panther, I’m rarely in the mood to see a 3-hour-long movie, especially one that’s so much about grieving, that might be a sign to ease back on the level of output a bit. But I absolutely don’t take it as a sign that the franchise is running out of steam. It’s more a sign that it needs to go back to “its roots” and remember why the franchise exists in the first place. Obviously, it was initially to save Marvel from going out of business, but that’s clearly not a concern anymore. But it was also to give new, modern interpretations of niche characters and stories6Niche because Marvel had so few of the rights to its most popular characters left. Even a big-budget tentpole blockbuster of a movie, in which everyone is doing the job they’re supposed to do, can feel tedious if people don’t feel there’s a reason for it to exist beyond being the next installment of the franchise.
- 1I should mention that I’m in the minority, too, since his performance keeps getting called out as the saving grace of the movie.
- 2Unlike Taika Waititi’s Thor movies, which are the absurdist fantasy comedies, or Guardians of the Galaxy, which are the sci-fi comedies
- 3Back when I still loved Joss Whedon-style action comedies
- 4It’s especially hilarious that the face they chose to bizarrely stretch out over this horrific thing is of one of the most handsome and effortlessly sexy actors working today.
- 5I haven’t even watched Wakanda Forever yet, mostly because as much as I loved Black Panther, I’m rarely in the mood to see a 3-hour-long movie, especially one that’s so much about grieving
- 6Niche because Marvel had so few of the rights to its most popular characters left