Monday 13 March 2023

REVIEW: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

SPOILERS if you still haven't caught it.

Well, that was certainly very strange. I can fully understand that Quantumania isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I don't get the level of hate thrown at it. It's nonsense, yes, but it's enjoyable, entertaining nonsense, as befits an expansive sci-fi cartoon (more than any other MCU film, this is clearly a cartoon). 

The first Ant-Man was a very clever film that masqueraded as a stupid action flick. Quantumania is a rather stupid film trying hard to appear as a clever one. The plot moves arbitrarily, with some huge illogical elements that aren't quite covered up by the spectacle. It was hard enough to accept that Janet Van Dyne could be picked up from the Quantum Realm with such ease once Scott had been down there, considering that we're talking about what is supposedly a whole universe. It's tiny, yes, but lying within the "main" universe, it's still infinite in extent. In fact, relatively speaking, it should be even bigger to its inhabitants than our universe is to us. Yet everyone who enters it ends up in the same area, where everyone knows each other from some point in their lives either above or below. Even when you accept that MODOK was interfering with Cassie's satellite, this is hard to swallow. The Quantum Realm is microscopic, but it shouldn't be small.

There's also a deeply uneven tone to the film. The Ant-Man films, more so than even the rest of the MCU, have always balanced the over-the-top and comedic with high-stakes drama, but here, the balancing act fails somewhat. The comedy - particularly the later scenes with MODOK - becomes intrusive to the drama. Add this to irrational plotting, and you have a film which can be frustrating to watch.

In spite of those frustrations, Quantumania is tremendous fun. We don't get enough truly weird, visually over-the-top sci-fi these days, and this film just throws us straight in there, showing us a noisy, colourful, baffling universe. There are some brilliantly bizarre choices, not least making the MCU's version of MODOK the twisted remnants of Darren Cross. The comedy isn't on the level of the previous two films - the opening act is easily the funniest, and the comedy never really recovers from jumping to the Quantum Realm - but there are still moments of gold there. That's probably the biggest problem with this film, and why it doesn't reach beyond good fun to something more. Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp worked so well because they juxtaposed the absurd and the mundane, and they were refreshing amongst later MCU films by mostly standing alone. 

Quantumania, for all its joyous embracing of the bizarre, loses this juxtaposition, and by positioning itself as the introduction of the new Big Bad and the fulcrum of Phase Five, there's a lot riding on it. Plus, after the surprise hit of the first Ant-Man and the impressively solid follow-up, the expectations were higher. I guess a weird cartoon alien battlefield doesn't cut it now.

All this serves to distract from the stars, who without exception gives great performances. Paul Rudd remains the adorable everyman of the MCU (albeit the terribly handsome everyman), who grounds the film even in its weirdest moments. Evangeline Lily is a little underused, but continues to make Hope a formidable character, one who could easily carry her own story if given the chance. Kathryn Newton is very likeable as (the third) Cassie Lang, now rather randomly given her own suit to become another size-changing hero (Stature/Stinger/Giant-Woman in the comics), and while she doesn't yet have the presence to carry the adventure herself, she shares great chemistry with Rudd and brings their scenes together to life.

One thing that I really liked about the film was its embracing of an older heroic cast. Aside from Newton, they're all over forty. Lilly is the youngest at 43, and actually looks it, which is a rare privilege for an actress in Hollywood, and while Rudd is forever ageless, he's now 53. Michelle Pfeiffer is 64 and Michael Douglas is pushing eighty, and they both get a solid chunk of the action. Pfeiffer is excellent as Janet Van Dyne, holding her own against the villainous Kang in both present-day and flashback scenes, and Douglas manages to give a classy performance even when delivering lines about hyper-intelligent ants.  Honestly, the original Ant-Man and the Wasp deserve their own film as out-of-retirement superheroes. Pit them against Doctor Nemesis or Egghead. It's a sure-fire winner.

Hats off to Jonathan Majors, who takes on the thankless task of following Josh Brolin's Thanos as the new chief villain. I didn't like his performance as He Who Remains, the alternative variant on Loki, at all, but here he gives an entirely different performance. He embodies the arrogance and frustration of someone utterly convinced he is destined to rule, with a remarkably restrained performance. There were moments when he seemed to be channeling Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance in Serenity: that same resignation to doing what he is certain is right, whatever the unpleasant cost. I'm reassured that Kang will make a great villain for the franchise, although the other variants on the Council of Kangs were all rather broader.

The core cast rightfully dominate their scenes, but there are some nice moments from the expansive supporting cast of peculiar characters. Bill Murray's much-anticipated appearance as Lord Krylar is fun, although he just plays Bill Murray like he always does. David Dastmalchian has a silly cameo voicing Veb the blob, which is a nice touch since there's no room for Kurt or the rest of the X-CON gang here (although Michael Pena is sorely missed as Luis). William Jackson Harper is underused as the telepath Quaz, but is entertaining in the scenes he has, and Katy O'Brien's warrior Jentorra deserves a future appearance. Lovely to see that Jimmy Woo got his dinner with Scott. The decision to include MODOK, played by Corey Stoll as a twisted version of the first film's Darren Cross, is hilarious; it's just a shame that his comedy intrudes on more dramatically important scenes later. (And look, MODOK has always been utterly ridiculous. The last screen version was a cartoon parody starring Patton Oswalt. It's not like he was ever a serious villain.)

I liked how the Quantum Realm was depicted, and how we had a mixture of humanoids, inexplicably alien creatures and almost protozoan organisms all mixing together, giving a truly otherworldly experience. It was satisfying how quantum physics played into the action at crucial moments; given the Multiverse is the central concept for this iteration of the MCU, playing with the Many-Worlds Interpretation is an obvious and effective way to create new problems for the characters. I'd have liked a bit more quantum, though; have characters appear in two places at once, or play with superposition. It's not like any of this really makes sense when applied to people and macroscopic action anyway, so why not go nuts with it?

The final confrontation is where it falls down somewhat. Not because it isn't an effective final battle; the siege of Kang's fortress and his showdown with Lang are both some of the best end-of-the-movie fight scenes we've had. It's just that, with Kang being built up to be the ultimate, multiverse-threatening villain, having Scott and Hope be the ones who kill him seems a bit imbalanced. Of course, we know he's coming back. Whether he was actually crushed by that singularity, or fell down into an even deeper level of reality, we don't know. Equally, it looked like the film was going to end on a powerful cliffhanger, with Scott and Hope marooned in the Quantum Realm. And then they just got out, with the minimum of effort. It massively undercut the final act.

However, let's remember the Many-Worlds Interpretation. If we're talking about a Multiverse-travelling villain, he can surely never be truly defeated, since there will naturally be a version of events where he won. Logically, there should also be a version of events where Scott and Hope won, but remain trapped. Is this how they'll follow up the climactic scenes? Or is that giving them too much credit?

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