Marvel’s latest Phase is off to a shaky start as their new big bad feels squandered in a half-baked story with no stakes.
While Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’s overwhelming onslaught of half baked CGI and hamfisted performances may be the bulk of the film’s over two hour runtime, one performer who isn’t sleepwalking to his payday is Jonathan Majors, here as Kang the Conqueror. It’s a shame we spend an entire act pretending we don’t know who is lying in wait, as he is kept off screen for way too long. I mean Loki, if anything, proved not only his menace as a villain, but a raw heart at the core of his character of someone who really believes what they are doing is the best thing possible for all those involved, and that usually signals the most dangerous villains in the MCU.
The film has the Ant-Man Clan mysteriously transported to the Quantum realm after Scott’s (Paul Rudd) daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) sends a signal down to the submicroscopic world to map it, where Kang has been banished along with a ship that can travel the multiverse. I mean if you were to banish someone as powerful and as smart as Kang, why would you leave them with a ship that has the possibility of traveling the multiverse — that is also repairable?
After the usual get to know this wacky world hijinks that are becoming a bit cliche in these Marvel films, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) finally discloses about her time in the Quantum Realm and about how she used Pym particles to blow up the power source to Kang’s multiversal ship, stranding them both after they had repaired it. This move that also trapped herself came about when she touched the ship, controlled by Kang’s mind, which allowed her to see the carnage he had wrought in his time.
The film’s logic feels about as wonky as the CGI as Kang catches Scott and Cassie and uses Cassie to get her father to unshrink his power supply so he can finally escape the quantum realm. Only he does not keep his bargain with Scott, keeping Cassie and also Scott in the game. So if Kang knew everything, like he said he did, he would have simply delivered Cassie and fulfilled his bargain sending Ant-Man home. What did he need Cassie for anyway, except to keep Scott invested and the writers in a plot.
Now, there’s also the fear everyone has of Kang, but he isn’t allowed to kill one principle character here. Nothing said “this guy meant business” more than the opening of Infinity War where Thanos started the film by killing Loki. I mean Loki did the same thing by killing Agent Coulson in The Avengers. That said, Majors does all he can to save this film from itself, but in his first full scenes against a de-aged Michelle Pfeiffer it’s apparent their performances are from two different films. There is a haunted nature to Major’s performance that is filled with a kind of granular complexity that just doesn’t seem present in his co-stars.
For example, there’s a moment at the end where Kang has done all he can and is about to be possibly thwarted and you can literally see tears streaming down the scars on his face. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Marvel villain cry, but it’s accompanied by an unsettling calm that is downright chilling.
So while the rest of the film is about par with what’s on Disney+, Majors is not settling for anything but the best here and it’s a performance that justifies seeing the film alone. THIS Kang will go down as the greatest “what if”, the greatest possible villain that was squandered in a film where Bill Murray is beat up by a giant purple octopus in what I see as a possible “jump the shark” moment for the MCU. It’s a film that wants so desperately to be Thor: Ragnarok, but should be Avengers: Infinity War. It needs to set the stakes and qualify the threat coming, because that stinger at the end was about as cringeworthy as you get.
The humor here feels shoe-horned in like it’s desperately trying to offset something that never really happens. I feel like there was a version of the script where Ant-Man died and his daughter picked up the mantle, but someone at Marvel said no at the last minute. Ant-Man needed to be our Coulson, our Loki, our canary in the coal mine to show the threat was real, but without that there’s no real danger. Kang deserved better; Majors deserved better.