The Psychedelic Intimacy of ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA

“I’m the man who can give you the one thing you want.”

Although director Peyton Reed doesn’t care for the term, the Ant-Man movies have always been great “palate cleansers,” the perfect antidote to combat the Marvel fatigue that comes along whenever another movie unveils a new ultimate threat and raises the stakes even higher. The best thing about the Ant-Man films (apart from the symbolism of an ex-con redeeming himself by becoming a superhero) is the specific level of stakes the titular character has to face. While the villains and the obstacles he’s gone up against have been formidable in the world of the Ant-Man films, they haven’t stopped them from maintaining a sense of exuberance that other MCU efforts have failed to capture. However, with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the stakes have been raised at the expense of some of the charm that flowed through the first two movies to usher in a new era for the MCU. For this reason, the film is simultaneously as great and as grave as any Ant-Man movie is capable of being.

In Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) is enjoying his post-Endgame life with girlfriend Hope (Evangeline Lily), daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), and Hope’s parents, scientists Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer). All is well with the family until Cassie creates a miniature satellite that sends a signal down to the Quantum Realm, the otherworldly universe where Janet was stranded for 30 years. When their signal is unexpectedly received, the entire group is transported down to the Quantum Realm itself where they are confronted with Kang (Jonathan Majors), a powerful being who will stop at nothing to conquer all.

I can’t speak to anyone’s motivation for seeing most Marvel movies, but with Quantumania, I feel safe in saying that most will be coming for the visuals, and rightfully so. Visually, the look and feel of Quantumania are a dizzying, dazzling assortment of landscapes and creatures, with a level of CGI that finds the right balance between being imaginative and slightly trippy. In an effort to add to the visual pleasures, the practical sets borrow heavily from the retro pop art feel of Jack Kirby, building on the texture that the first two Ant-Man movies established. The movie is at its most watchable when it uses its eye for visuals to explore its somewhat uncategorizable nature. A key sequence, for example, sees Scott encountering thousands of versions of himself after getting trapped in what is known as a “probability storm” for what ends up being the movie’s most inventive and hilarious sequence. If Quantumania doesn’t have much finesse in the way it switches between its two main storylines, its editing makes up for it. There isn’t much fat to trim in the surprisingly well-plotted story, which could have come off as convoluted but is instead neatly wrapped up by the movie’s end…more or less.

But Quantumania does have a story to tell, although not the one most would expect. Because she is the one with the most history in the Quantum realm, the movie becomes Janet’s tale. We see her hesitance in the modern world to even talk about her experiences there. When we go there ourselves, we see Janet have to face the world she lived in, the choices she made while she was there, and what she left behind upon her return to Hank and Hope. This of course includes Kang, with whom Janet shares a dark and life-altering past; a past that has left them forever changed. For his part, Kang has been awaiting Janet’s return and the chance to take back the moment he feels was rightfully his. The highlight of the dynamic that exists between them is showcased in a key sequence covering the span of their relationship. It’s a moment that tests both characters’ resolve in ways neither expected. The choices made here have far-reaching ramifications, extending to Scott and Cassie who in their own ways (along with Janet and Kang) help illustrate Quantumania’s various themes, including family, humanity, redemption, and each person’s willingness to sacrifice themselves in the name of all of them. If all this sounds like a more personal, introspective Ant-Man entry than most expected it to be, that’s simply because it is.

With Janet and Kang being the two key characters in the movie, it’s little surprise that Pfeiffer and Majors turn in the two best performances since they’re given the movie’s best scenes. After being little more than a plot device in the first sequel, Pfeiffer is front and center this time around, oftentimes driving the movie herself. Through a strong and soulful performance, the actress delicately explores the trauma and regret Janet’s been carrying with her for so long and how it turned her from scientist to warrior. It’s because of that past that the moments between Pfeiffer and Majors are the heart of the movie. Majors brilliantly and intricately peels back layers of Kang before letting his true motives show. What’s especially fascinating is seeing the actor deliver his character’s menacing nature not through huge theatrics, but with a quiet, controlled darkness that ensures the audience knows what he’s capable of.

Since this is a story that exists mainly because of Janet and Kang, it does feel that almost everyone else is awkwardly inserted at times. That’s not to say that there isn’t anyone on here who hasn’t come to play. Rudd, as always, lends his considerable and valuable charm to Scott, never dropping the needle and reminding us why his casting remains one of Marvel’s best decisions ever. Meanwhile, Newton makes enough of an impression as Cassie to make us curious about where the character goes next. But Douglas and Lilly have such little to do, the two feel more like tourists rather than characters who help drive the story, with the latter in particular barely verbal at times.

Each fan’s enjoyment of Quantumania will depend on their relationship with Marvel movies in general, which ranges from casual to devoted, to downright maniacal. As the introduction of a new phase, the movie is certainly lacking in that trademark (and oftentimes overbearing) Marvel heft. As a stand-alone Ant-Man movie, however, it mostly works. Director Peyton Reed and screenwriter Jeff Loveness retain enough of the same playfulness and earnestness that made the last two films so winning while taking pure joy in experimenting wherever they can. Although the movie could have used more laughs, Quantumania is still an effective, escapist fantasy romp. Ant-Man has always been seen as the misfit of the MCU and most fans have opted for patting the character on the head over proclaiming him to be their favorite Avenger. But as the movie more or less reinforces in spite of all its visuals and introspective nature, you can’t count out the little guy.

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