It’s a new phase in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Phase Five, they tell us. Phase Four, despite a couple decent movies and some quite good TV series, felt a little half-baked. No clear goal or thrust aside from the fallout of Avengers: Endgame. Many outside the dedicated nerd sphere might be forgiven for not realizing the final feature in Phase Four was Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, its final entry period the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. Hardly a rousing culmination. Phase Five, however, at least begins with a booming statement. The movie may be Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, but we are in the Age of Kang.
The Thanos of it all has given folks a major question mark going forward. Such a compelling and intimidating villain is hard to follow. And, let us not forget Marvel Studios’ long history of lackluster villains (or great villains who die too soon). They needed to make their next Big Bad just as interesting as Thanos but markedly different. Jonathan Majors’ Kang, it appears on first blush, is just such a villain. Scary, cruel, confident, yet deep and almost remorseful at times. Majors’ glassy-eyed moments between evil deeds gives Kang so much more heft than he might have otherwise.
The usual problem is a villain who seems out of step with the movie; here it’s a hero who feels at odds with the tone of his own film. Paul Rudd is just as charming as ever and moments of Quantumania showcase the dry humor that made his Scott Lang and the first two Ant-Man movies so fun. Here, he and the other main heroes are completely outmatched by the baddies, the colorful and weird Quantum Realm, and the strange characters we meet within it.
Years after the Blip, Scott Lang has written a memoir about his adventures and, though happy, seems rudderless and content to live off his celebrity. Not true for his partner Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) who has relaunched her father’s company and become a pillar of the scientific community. His daughter Cassie (now played by Kathryn Newton) has become a proponent of civil rights, entering the film in jail for trying to prevent police from breaking up an unhoused encampment. She’s fighting for her beliefs, and has become a scientist in her own right. She, along with Hope and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), have created a satellite to the Quantum Realm.
This news comes to the chagrin of Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) who still has not told her family the horrors she witnessed during her 30 years within the Quantum Realm. And she’s right to be afraid; not two seconds after they turn on the satellite does the device suck all five of them into it. Someone has a score to settle with Janet and doesn’t care who else gets hurt along the way. Kang, it’s Kang.
Unlike the first two Ant-Man movies, which balanced family comedy-drama with goofy superheroics and a helping of quantum weirdness, here it’s all quantum. Yes, we have some humor, and a lot of it is really funny. William Jackson Harper, who plays a mind-reading denizen of the Quantum Realm, has a particularly funny few scenes. Bill Murray plays a wealthy former associate of Janet’s and does his Bill Murray thing.
I also need to give special commendation to M.O.D.O.K., aka the former Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Director Peyton Reed and the actors understand how silly the Mechanized Organism Designed Only for Killing actually is and steer into it beautifully. Stoll’s giant, stretched face is as goofy as it gets and yet they make it work within the context of the movie. As much as I generally dislike when the movies take the piss out of the comic books’ inherent out-thereness, it needed to happen with M.O.D.O.K.
The problem is, despite some very nifty set pieces and some laughs, the meat of the movie is Kang and not with any of the heroes. Is this a problem in general? No. But it seems as though the script attempts to give Scott and Cassie a throughline that sort of fizzles out; Hank Pym gets to do some fun stuff but doesn’t have much in the way of an arc; Janet and Hope likewise seem to start from a place of conflict and it doesn’t go where it should. And for a movie called Ant-Man and the Wasp, Rudd and Lilly share shockingly few meaningful scenes.
As a movie to properly foist Kang the Conqueror onto the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania succeeds and then some. I can’t wait for the next appearance of Kang and/or his many proposed variants. As a movie for the Pym/Lang/Van Dyne family of size-changing heroes? It’s only just fine.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania hits theaters February 17.