“Worlds within worlds.” That’s the well-worn descriptor—Quotation? Catchphrase? Cliché? Really, that universal catch-all-three “from the comics”—one character uses to characterize the primary setting of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. The characters are goggling at the previously glimpsed and now heavily explored Quantum Realm, a beyond-microscopic section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe reachable only by advanced (and dangerous) shrinking technology. Ten years ago, though, this phrase might have applied to the MCU’s numerous overlapping mini-franchises, Iron Man’s world not quite the same as Captain America’s which was not quite the same as Thor’s—until they pulled a few narrative threads together and converged into The Avengers. Now, it could also apply to the way the MCU seems obligated, whether by due dates, artistic conviction, or pure high-roller self-confidence, to paste together its wonders with green-screen, dim lighting, and suspiciously empty one-shots. Whenever it’s possible to look at Quantumania and idly wonder whether anyone on screen was actually in a room together during shooting—which is often!—you may be peeking at the worlds-within-worlds built by visual effects artists and actors’ conflicting schedules. In other words: a Zoom call with (somewhat) better backgrounds.
Which is not to say Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania entirely lacks for sights. Previous looks at the Quantum Zone somewhat resembled the spongy insides of Fantastic Voyage crossed with a lava lamp; this time, we see cityscapes that look like a more gelatinous Star Wars, and creatures to populate them. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), also known as Ant-Man, is on accidental extended visit there, along with his girlfriend Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), his teenage daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), and Hope’s parents Hank (Michael Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer). The whole family gets sent there in a sequence of admirable expediency and perhaps not a lot of sense; the stakes may be higher in this third Ant-Man movie than they were in the previous palate-cleansing adventures, but returning director Peyton Reed seems to vaguely recall the crispness of his best comedies like Bring It On and Down with Love (if not their colorfully winking wit), and attempt to bring things in around the two-hour mark. (For a contemporary superhero movie, this is the equivalent of 91 minutes.)
Before they’re all sucked into the Realm, Quantumania calls back to its predecessors, following a happy-go-lucky Scott through some family bickering and a handful of cute gags, attempting to take advantage of Rudd’s ingratiating disbelief that he’s actually a big-time superhero. That’s the kinda-sorta character obstacle Quantumania sets up in its opening moments: Having played a key role in the saving of the universe in Avengers: Endgame, Scott is happily resting on his laurels, reading from his bestselling book and irritating his daughter Cassie, who yearns to right more of the world’s wrongs as her dad urges her toward a more normal life. A superhero allowing himself to believe his own savior hype was a potent catalyst for Sam Raimi’s uneven but intermittently brilliant Spider-Man 3; maybe that’s why someone mistakes Scott for Spidey early on.
Once everyone’s gone quantum-sized, Scott and Cassie have a little more opportunity to clash over this issue, as they’re separated from the rest of the group and encounter a ragtag group of various life forms attempting to resist the conquering efforts of a fearsome man-or-something called Kang (Jonathan Majors). They have their moments; Rudd and Newton have an innate sweetness that sells the father-daughter stuff despite Newton only playing Cassie in one previous Avengers film (blip, time-jump, etc.). But Reed flouts his neo-screwball roots and never mines anyone’s conflicting ideologies, such as they are, for truly comic conflict. The movie’s version of playing nice is keeping the verbal conflict to light yet unfunny sniping.
Meanwhile, Hope and Hank make their way through this new world relying on the expertise of Janet, who was stuck in the Realm for three decades but has kept mum about her time there. (Those Marvel NDAs are a bitch.) The dual-track Quantum Wanderings allow for a bunch of weird-looking Cantina-grade alien equivalents to saunter across the screen, sometimes for a weak gag and sometimes for the sheer pleasure of population-as-scenery, and look, I’m not made of stone. I enjoyed seeing, say, a creature who looks like a broccoli-man hybrid, even if he might have been more delightful without his resemblance verbally underlined by a member of the cast, or seen in full, high-contrast light, rather than the murk that so often overtakes the movie’s field of vision, despite ace cinematographer Bill Pope—who also shot Spider-Man 3, come to think of it. At least the visual-effects characters aren’t fumbling around in the dark quite as piteously as the actors. They’re fed such a deadening mixture of filler non-jokes (“it’s a whole thing”), boilerplate heart-to-heart (“I get it, I do”), and bad comic-book exposition (Michelle Pfeiffer finally gets more than a few lines, and she’s forced to half-explain Kang) that it takes a Bill Murray-level personality to steal the lines away and make them sound like anything remotely human. Is it fortunate, then, that the movie does actually cast Murray in a supporting role, and he does briefly wrestle a bunch of glorified outline scribbles into submission? Or is it just desperation?
Frankly, I’ll take some desperation at this point—anything to make it feel like something is coming to a head in one of these movies. That’s supposed to be what’s happening with Kang; instead, the movie has Jonathan Majors, an actor of rare charisma and intensity, stuck giving a preview of performance: A sneak peek of what he might really do as Kang down the line. Rather than offer a true temptation to Scott, who has lost years of his daughter’s youth, he gestures vaguely toward the intriguing and entirely undeveloped idea of linear time as a prison and a curse. Maybe another movie will elaborate on that someday and locate some kind of genuine pathos in all of this timestream/multiverse worldbuilding-withing-worldbuilding. (Describing what Kang’s powers actually entail appears to have been deferred as well. In the meantime, you’ll never guess how they manifest here: He shoots laser-blasty things!) That Ant-Man, rather than Iron Man, now gets to muse about whether Kang might return in the future is supposed to count as an internal promotion. Murky visuals, weak laughs, endless coming attractions…if the same complaints about the MCU are beginning to bore you, just imagine how it feels when the movie itself feels so insistent on building them in. There’s one advantage to the MCU’s… let’s keep calling it consistency for now: It really doesn’t take much to shock me back to attention. When Sam Raimi brought some genuinely memorable visual ideas into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I practically wept with gratitude; there was a superhero blockbuster unruly enough to be fun, even across its rough patches. Right down to its title, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania plays like an instant knockoff of the Raimi movie, with far less of that pesky filmmaking to get in the way. That periodic Ant-Man zip of rapidly shifting sizes and scales remains, and, as with the other two movies, manages to stick around for much of the climax, which is not the case for every or even most MCU movies. These are the small favors the non-devout must contend with now, and they’re looking bigger all the time.