The Marvel films increasingly feel adrift, thanks to their most soulless outing yet
In 2002, Star Wars: Episode 2 — Attack of the Clones stood as a major filmmaking milestone on a purely technical level. While it’s direct predecessor, The Phantom Menace, had made serious advancements in the area of digital actors and CGI embellishment, Attack of the Clones was a much more concerted effort to not just create pieces of the surroundings, but essentially envelope its actors entirely in a manufactured reality, using a combination of digital film and computer generation to provide more precise access to create the distinct and specific vision of the inarguable auteur at the helm, George Lucas. The end result was a film that looked unlike anything before it, and while the specifics have unquestionably aged poorly, it ushered in a new means of thinking about big blockbuster filmmaking, and opened the door for other major, bank-busting films to follow in its model.
Flash forward two decades, and the fruits of that innovation are still being revealed. James Cameron’s Avatar films could be seen as an extension of the precise sort of control that an auteur-led, vision-based version of this sort of filmmaking approach, exploring all corners of how to stretch and bend the medium of movies. But we also officially enter the fifth “phase” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the newest Ant-Man movie, the cumbersomely titled Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. And in the way that Way of Water presents a vision of digitally led filmmaking that can expand the potentiality of what cinema can achieve visually, Quantumania by comparison feels like a lumbering mess, attempting to hold together high drama, weirdo science fiction and a trace of the superhero snark that the Marvel films built their brand on. The end result is a concerning installment in what was once the most consistent franchise in movies. Even for a long-time MCU faithful as myself, it is past time to admit that the whole enterprise may have lost its way.
Paul Rudd takes center stage again as Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, the most improbable and glib of the Avengers. He has created a sort of local celebrity status around himself in his home town of San Francisco, celebrated but also seen as down to earth and approachable. He is also balancing his family life, with fellow superhero girlfriend Hope Van Dyne, aka The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), his rebellious but well-meaning daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton, the third actor to play the role), and the original Ant-Man and The Wasp, Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne (Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer). After revealing an experiment she has been secretly performing with Hank, Cassie accidentally gets all five transported to the Quantum Realm, the mysterious subatomic universe that previously served as a prison for Janet, which she has been reluctant to discuss.
All of this takes place in the first ten minutes or so in the film, essentially basic table dressing before having our quintet of heroes stranded in a strange, unknown land. At least unknown to most of them; the other heroes soon find out that Janet wasn’t quite as alone as they previously assumed, as an entire society unfolds before them of strange alien creatures. This is where the Attack of the Clones comparison feels most apt, as the core cast of actors involved find themselves completely surrounded by simulated environments and a seemingly endless, colorful cast of supporting characters.
And for a good portion of that ride, the visual spectacle is entrancing. Seeing a wide variety of creatures, clearly modeled after real sub-atomic lifeforms, as well as some surprisingly invested performances from actual actors such as William Jackson Harper and Hannah John-Kamen, stimulates a sort of stimulating creativity that fills the screen with interesting ideas. But as the film carries on, those ideas all begin to rub against each other, creating a friction of overstimulation and oversaturation. The end result is an experience that wants to create a vast canvas, but ultimately weighs itself down with clutter.
At the center of the drama is Kang, the new big bad in the MCU following Thanos’ demise, with Jonathan Majors returning to portray him after debuting the roles (plural) in Loki. Kang here is the unambiguous malicious warlord ruling over the Quantum Realm, stranded and desperately looking for a means to escape. The specifics of his plan, and his relationship with Janet, is a central mystery of the film, but it isn’t going to far to say he is a menacing, scenery-chewing bad guy firmly in the mold that Marvel has mastered over the past decade and a half.
Majors’ take on Kang (or more accurately, one of his takes on Kang) that showed up in Loki was a shot in the arm that promised big things for his turn at the center of the massive soap opera. His performance here carries on some of that energy, but never quite tops it, partially because the material is never quite as strong as his one episode outing. It is clear that Marvel and Disney have decided to get into the Jonathan Majors business, which is not a terrible decision, but him wading through the weight of that impacts his performance here, as opposed to his more locked in, captivating work the first time out.
Ultimately, that is the biggest millstone around the neck of Quantumania: for all of its creativity and freedom in its world building, almost every aspect of it has been done before more convincingly. Even Paul Rudd, in his fifth outing as Scott Lang, feels tired and playing older hits with less energy. Of the core heroes, Pfeiffer seems the most locked in, and that’s largely due to her having the most emotional stakes to play around with. Playing against hordes of nothing is always a challenge, and the emotional uncanny valley is on full display on this outing.
It is especially dispiriting because the previous Ant-Man films were some of the most heartfelt of the whole mega-franchise, displaying humor and a human element. They were funny, lively and a bit smarmy, while still enjoying the bold gestures of the grand joy of superhero storytelling. By contrast, the newest outing lacks soul, instead opting for a sort of broad grandeur. In that trade-off, the films have lost what made them so beloved int he first place, the careful balance of spectacle and recognizable heart.
Part of what made Attack of the Clones such a strange artifact is that there was a vast gulf between its visual grandeur for the time, and the emotional underpinning; in short, it looked great, but it was emotionally hollow, especially when it needed to not be. In that sense, the Marvel films have found their Attack of the Clones.