“There’s always room to grow” is one of the arc phrases in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. The words first appear at the end of the opening narration for the film, which is also revealed to be the closing thought of the book that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has written about his experiences; they reappear close to the end, when Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) confirms that he read the book by repeating those words back to Scott when he needs to hear them. Unfortunately, when it comes to linking this film series with the concept of growth, I fear that, in my case, I may have outgrown it. In just a few short months, it will be 8 years that I’ve been writing for Swampflix, and as I reminded everyone in my review of Ant-Man and the Wasp, the first review that I ever wrote for the site was of the first Ant-Man, lo these many moons ago. There are many things that are fitting: that my 200th review on the site should also be about an Ant-Man flick, and that the returns on this series, like its hero, keep diminishing.
(By the way, if that 200 seems low, it’s because it doesn’t include the 66 podcasts, 75 Movies of the Month, 13 “issues” of Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., countless lists, occasional rebuttals, and various other sundry tidbits. One time I even recounted a Q&A with Richard Kelly at a screening of Southland Tales without mentioning the fact that I had to explain to a server at the Drafthouse that I wanted to order food but wanted to wait until after the lights went down because I didn’t want Kelly to see me eat. I am a neurotic, but even I have my limits about how much of myself I’ll reveal in these writings, at least until my own self-imposed statute of limitations runs out. Longtime readers are no doubt shocked and horrified to realize that my content over these past 8 years has actually been me reining it in.)
I almost didn’t see this one in the theater. But just like fascism, MoviePass is back, and I got activated mid-month so I had a few credits left after seeing Cocaine Bear (it’s on a credits system now, it’s a whole thing); still, I thought I would go out, hit the drive-through car wash because it’s been a while, then drive over to the local art theatre, check in for something that was playing tonight and then walk up to the box office and buy a ticket for a future showing (they’re screening La règle du jeu this week!). Maybe it was the way that the flashing lights and the spinning brushes of the car wash made me think about that Scorsese quote about how Marvel movies are just theme park rides and it triggered something deep in the lizard parts of my brain; maybe the psychedelic, bubble gum-scented lather was sufficiently like the quantum realm (lol) to activate me like a sleeper agent who’s been programmed by unskippable ads. I don’t know exactly what happened, but somehow, in spite of myself, I found myself at the mainstream multiplex with a chili cheese hot dog on a stale bun and a blue high fructose corn syrup slush staring up at Paul Rudd’s face in 3-D because I didn’t realize that was happening until the cashier handed me the glasses and it was too late to turn back.
Anyway, it’s been a minute since Scott and his partner Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, who sucks) helped save the world back in Avengers: Endgame. For all intents and purposes, Scott is a celebrity, being recognized on the street and getting free coffee, not to mention being formally awarded “Employee of the Century” at the Baskin Robbins from which he was fired in the first film when his background check flagged him as an ex-con. Hope, who is barely in this movie for someone whose nom de guerre is in the title, has retaken control of her father’s company and is using its resources to assist in post-Snap recovery efforts. Hank and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) are retired or whatever, and if you’re wondering what’s happening with Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), or Dave (T.I.), you’re just gonna have to write your own fan-fiction for that, my friend, because this movie doesn’t feature or even mention them. Scott’s ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) exists solely as an offscreen presence who isn’t even mentioned by name and is referred to solely as “your mom” and “mom” by Scott and his daughter, respectively. Said daughter, Cassie, has been recast with Kathryn Newton, and she’s also been doing some offscreen work following in both her father and her presumed step-mother’s footsteps: getting into trouble with the law like Scott, and working on some quantum realm gobbledygook like Hope. With the whole Ant family gathered, Cassie turns on her thingamabob and explains that it works by sending a signal down into the quantum realm—henceforth QR—prompting Janet to freak out and tell her to turn it off, but the damage is already done, and all five of them, plus some hyperintelligent ants that Hank has been working on, get sucked into the QR for the duration of the movie.
The first act of this movie is interminable. There’s somehow both far too little and far too much exposition, and right from the start there’s something that’s off. We all love Paul Rudd, but in the other films, he had a larger, funnier supporting cast, and the comedy didn’t rely on Rudd alone, since he frequently got to play off of his old heist crew and their various idiosyncrasies, Maggie and her new husband and the dynamic of that whole situation, and others. Here, everyone is dreadfully and deathly serious all the time: Hope and Scott are apart for so much of this movie that they barely interact, Michelle Pfeiffer is doing some real heavy lifting with a character that apparently wasn’t written to crack a smile ever, Cassie’s a teenager now and the adorable dynamic of yesteryear is morphed into something more obvious and dull, and Kang (Jonathan Majors) has such an air of unrelenting arch sovereignty that he never exchanges even one quip with Scott. There are some minor comic relief characters, including a single scene of Bill Murray as Lord Krylar, but it’s just Murray doing his post-Lost in Translation schtick, which you either love or find exhausting, and it all feels very gratuitous. William Jackson Harper is here but gets a single one-liner in the climax, and he feels wasted in a thankless role. Elsewhere in the QR, there are a gaggle of assorted oddballs and weird creatures, one of whom looks like a cross between a throwable book fair sticky alien and one of those plastic models of your intestines that are always sitting in the examination room at the doctor’s office; there’s a neat effect where there’s a rippling in its membrane where a mouth would be when it talks that impressed me, and the character itself is a thing that creates ooze that acts as a translation which is inherently funny, and they’re also very curious about what it’s like to be a living thing with orifices. It’s the most inspired thing in this movie, and even though the bit gets a little tired before the film ends, it’s worth noting that there are some attempts to carry on with the comedic tone that we’ve come to expect of the man who befriends ants.
The middle of this movie is better in some places, and the film starts to pick up at around the halfway mark. Watching Pfeiffer’s Janet constantly ignore her family’s desperate pleas for an explanation of what’s happening around them while she just goes about her business reminded me of that scene in the Simpsons episode “Lemon of Troy” when Nelson tells the other kids that “there’s no time to explain” and then spends quite some time reiterating that statement as they make their way across town. There’s no character reason why she would have kept the truth about her time in the QR a secret from both her husband and her daughter, and then when they end up in the QR, they cross vast distances in which she would and should have had plenty of time to explain what’s happening. At one point, she does an entire charades routine to open the door to a bar, and we watch the whole thing happen while Hank and Hope beg her to explain, and we feel the same way. There’s a line between doling out information slowly to keep the audience engaged and frustrating the audience by having characters refuse to communicate with no reason to do so. It’s not even a fine line, and Quantumania spends a lot of time on the wrong side of it. Once we get the powerpoint presentation of exposition about how Kang and Janet found each other and tried to work together, then she realized he was a monster bent on domination like Thanos but again and more because there’s a multiverse now, so she sabotaged his ability to get out of the QR and thus confined his supervillainy to one place, yadda yadda yadda, the film picks up the pace. After nearly an hour of being annoyed at the transparent attempt to build drama, it’s a welcome relief when we can move on with the plot.
Beside the lack of a chorus of characters whom the audience knows to banter with Scott, and the utter absence of anything resembling a heist, there’s something just as vital missing here: the juxtaposition of big worlds and tiny people. That’s what I love! That’s what gets the imagination going! You gotta see kids eating a giant Oreo like in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids or chess pieces used as objet d’art as in The Borrowers, and we got that in both of the previous movies, whether it was a giant Hello Kitty PEZ dispenser bouncing down the highway or a cutaway from an epic (but tiny) battle to remind the viewer that the oncoming train is just a toy of Thomas the Tank Engine. The closest we get is a scene in which Hank uses Pym particles to make a pizza bigger, which is cute but doesn’t make much of an impression. One action sequence in particular, set at night and in a “desert,” is so muddy that it’s almost impossible to tell what’s happening, and it can’t all be blamed on the 3D conversion. The other big sequences call to mind Star Wars, and I don’t mean that in a good way. The attack on Kang’s fortress at the end is inspired by a not-particularly-inspiring speech from Cassie about not lying down and taking it anymore, but the entire tableaux (there’s an awful lot of French in this review, isn’t there?) looks like it was designed at the behest of the studio so that they could have a platformer level in the tie-in LucasArts release. It’s aping Star Wars in a not-very-interesting way but with a budget that’s sky high, so that instead of feeling like a fun, modern superhero story, it feels like a really high budget remake of Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone after wandering around in Valerian-by-way-of-Annihilation for half an hour. While watching the climax, all I could think about was that horseback attack on the hull of a spacecraft from Rise of Skywalker — again, not a compliment.
All of that being said, I was very pleased when the movie remembered that one of the other cornerstones of Ant-Man is, well, the ants. The movie won me back over a little bit when the ants who got sucked into the QR returned. They reappear in the wake of a big “the cavalry’s here” moment that doesn’t feel earned and is completely underwhelming as a result, but I can’t lie, I love those big ants. Ants! Ants! Everything else that gave these movies a different personality from the other Marvel fare may be jettisoned, but at least we got the ants making it possible to save the day, and I was helpless to that particular bizarre charm. Not enough to turn my opinion all the way around, but it bears mentioning.
It’s been a long road, getting from there to here. It’s been a long time since I’ve really been able to muster up any interest in a Marvel release, and even though I went to this one as if in a trance, it was still because I had some interest (ants!), and I’m just not sure I have that in me anymore. But don’t worry about me, dear reader. Marvel may have gone to the well too many times, but I’m still just getting started, and you’re not rid of me yet. Now on to the next 200.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond