Combustible Celluloid Review - Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), Jeff Loveness, Peyton Reed, Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, Kathryn Newton, William Jackson Harper, Katy M. O'Brian
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With: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, Kathryn Newton, William Jackson Harper, Katy M. O'Brian
Written by: Jeff Loveness
Directed by: Peyton Reed
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence/action, and language
Running Time: 125
Date: 02/17/2023

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Let's Get Small

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

No other franchise outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe has given us a higher number of good, solid films, with relatively few disappointments. But even though these are mostly forgivable, there have been dips in quality in just about every section of the MCU, such as Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Love and Thunder, Avengers: Age of Ultron, etc. Ant-Man had so far escaped such a fate with two solid, thoroughly entertaining films, but now it's time for that franchise to dip as well. The new Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is certainly likable. It has laughs, astonishing visuals, and a terrifying villain. But it also has some little… bugs. There are just a few niggling flaws that bite at you and refuse to let go.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is back in San Francisco, riding high after having helped save the world in Avengers: Endgame. He's published a book, and generally kicks back and enjoys his celebrity, posing for photos with dogs and getting free coffee. He spends time with his family, teen daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), partner Hope (Evangeline Lilly), and Hope's parents Hank (Michael Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who were, of course, the original Ant-Man and Wasp. Things are going fine, except when arguments arise. Cassie's activism has begun to land her in jail, much to Scott's horror, and Janet's refusal to discuss her time in the Quantum realm infuriates Hope.

It turns out that Cassie has been doing some inventing of her own, creating a device that will allow exploration of the Quantum Realm without actually having to go there. Unfortunately, the mere act of sending a signal winds up sucking our five heroes through a portal and into that unpredictable place. Immediately, Scott and Cassie are separated from Hank, Hope, and Janet. At first, they all simply want to find each other and head home, but Scott and Cassie discover a whole culture of Quantum People, who have been displaced by the actions of an evil conqueror, Kang (Jonathan Majors, introduced on the Disney+ Loki TV series). Indeed, the film's theme is a complex question: if you can help, should you help, and what are the consequences if you do or don't?

In any case, Scott and Cassie manage to get themselves captured, and they meet Kang in person. Kang swears that he'll kill Cassie in a most horrifying way unless Scott steals a power source that will allow Kang to escape the Quantum Realm. Everything builds to a revolution, in which Cassie and the heroes lead the Quantum People in an all-out attack against Kang. But there are questions. We learn through a flashback about Janet's time in the Quantum Realm that Kang cannot power his ship, but his suit contains power that's centuries ahead of anything we can imagine. He has used this power to conquer the entire Quantum Realm, and to rule everything. If he has all this power, why can't he get his own power source and fix his own ship? (Apparently only "Pym Tech" can accomplish this, but... really?)

The Hank/Hope/Janet half of the storyline moves at a weird clip. As soon as they land, Janet shouts that they must "hurry," that they have no time to lose, while still refusing to explain what's going on. It's only after they secure a ride aboard an organic ship that they all take a break, relax, and listen to Janet's long exposition dump, even though they still racing to save Scott and Cassie and still supposedly have no time to lose. Admittedly, after Janet tells her story, it's understandable that it's something that she might like to never think about again, but the rhythm of the storytelling is still disrupted.

On the other side of the story, Scott manages to maintain his lovable sense of humor almost throughout, but as soon as the revolution begins and he turns into Giant-Man, he begins shouting serious, deep-throated battle cries that are distinctly out of character for him (they belong more in a film like Gladiator). He even shouts that creakiest of old, worn-out movie lines at Kang, "we had a deal!," not once, but twice.

As you can see, these are small complaints, and there are smaller ones yet still. I thought of Back to the Future Part II, which understandably came about after the enormous success of the first film. But what story to tell was the problem. The filmmakers chose a slender thread that had been written for the first film's epilogue that was only meant to suggest that Marty and Jennifer will eventually get married and live happily ever after. And it remains a niggling voice throughout: "was this trip really necessary?" That slender thread of an idea also seems to have been the case here, totally ignoring the images we already saw of the Quantum Realm in earlier Marvel films, and building a "story" out of almost nothing other than the need for a sequel.

It's because of this factor that Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania depends on Janet not talking and Kang not being able to get his own energy source. If the initial thread had been stronger, the story would have been stronger. But what about what's actually here? Do we still have a movie worth seeing? I'd say, tentatively, yes. Jonathan Majors is one reason. While so many villain characters are overplayed, Majors chooses an eerily soft-spoken approach. This evil that he does has worn him out. He's just tired, sad, and given up hope that he can ever make anyone understand him. He furrows his brow and his eyes soften when he talks. (It's all the more terrifying when he unleashes a torrent of rage and violence.) It's a powerful performance.

Next is the astonishing visual design of the Quantum Realm, filled with strange organisms made up of both biological material and hard tech. Other organisms are soft, or spiky, and that's not even mentioning the landscapes: forests, deserts, villages, every small detail of which looks like it may have been dreamed up over years by a single artist, and then combined into one huge mosaic, everything flitting by faster than you can blink. People may talk about a similar design in the Avatar films, but combine that with characters you actually care about (and can remember the names of) and you've got something.

Paul Rudd gets props as well. He's one of the most comical and most sheerly charming of the Avengers, perhaps because he's routinely seen as one of their "lesser" heroes. (The coffee shop guy initially mistakes him for Spider-Man, and when he finds out that his customer is actually Ant-Man, he starts charging for the coffee.) Rudd is frankly adorable, with impeccable timing — his response to the assertion that his body contains "seven holes" is priceless — as well as a soft side that allows him to warm hearts. It's terribly, terribly difficult not to like him, especially after we've invested so much time with this character.

I wish I could say that Hope is just as cool, but since the story separates her from Scott, their banter is gone, as are any hopes for romantic sparks. The Wasp is pretty much only there to rescue people at the last second, and sadly doesn't get to much to do on her own. Rather, Janet is the real hero of this movie. As soon as she's back in the Quantum Realm, she's in charge, stoic and tough and ready for anything. With her flowing gray hair and flawless makeup, Pfeiffer is still dazzlingly beautiful here, and it all makes her character most intriguing.

So... yes. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is a list of pros and cons, perhaps evenly matched, with the main argument being: which outweighs the other? As I said in my review of Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), I tend to prefer my superhero movies on the lighter side, so, due to the characters, the dialogue, and the locations largely shot in my town of San Francisco, he has always been one of my personal favorites of the MCU, and perhaps the one I most enjoy re-watching. If you're like me, and you have a soft spot for Ant-Man, then there will be enough here to entertain you. But if you're like the coffee shop guy, then best to stay away and pick a flick with someone your own size.

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