Monday, July 15, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania’ is an Empty Exercise in Special Effects

Director: Peyton Reed

Writers: Jeff Loveness and Jack Kirby

Stars: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas

Synopsis: Scott Lang and Hope Van Dyne, along with Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne, explore the Quantum Realm, where they interact with strange creatures and embark on an adventure that goes beyond the limits of what they thought was possible.

It has been a hot minute since the last Marvel Film blew me away. Phase 4 movedright by, and of the 7 films and 8 television shows, only 4 struck a chord with me. Marvel is in a post-Thanos slump, and I personally hoped that Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania would signal the end of its morning period. Ant-Man has typically been the small stakes Avenger, and Marvel could use a return to those smaller stakes and strong emotional core that defined phases 1-3. To that end, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is not just a disappointment. It is a massive misfire from Marvel Studios.  

 Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is an amalgamation of so many disappointing films, and I could point to the various reductive elements within. I fully intend to explore and explain why these elements both seem reductive and feel out of place. But fundamentally, Quantumania suffers from what the rest of phase four has suffered from: writing problems. Apart from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, every phase four project has been plagued with poor writing. Spider-Man: No Way Home had a plot that felt more like fanfiction than real life, both in its concept (all the Spider-Men teaming up together) and in its explanation for that topic (post-Secondary acceptance is the motivator I expect in a soap opera). Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness changes Wanda’s character completely to what had been seen in every other MCU film prior and ignores the emotional arc Wanda took in WandaVision. WandaVision is not blameless either, with a modern-day plot that takes away from the rest of the series. The quality of writing in phase four has been worse than what preceded it, though the consequence of the writing is specific to each project.  

 The writing failures in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania does not end with unfunny jokes. Below its failures to work as a comedy, Quantumania’s biggest flaw is its lack of character, and character growth. While there are a plethora of new characters introduced, none of them feel truly integral to the story. M.O.D.O.K (Corey Stoll), Jentorra (Katy O’Brian), Quaz (William Jackson Harper), Veb (David Dastmalchian), & Lord Krylar (Bill Murray) are all new additions to the MCU, but they have so little to do with this film that it’s laughable. While each of these characters play a key part in the plot events of Quantumania, outside of Jentorra, they have nothing to do with our core characters’ growth as individuals and heroes. And even then, Jentorra interacts solely with Cassie, who already was a revolutionary. This massive mismanagement of characters and plot lead to the big problem in Ant-Man and the Wasp Quantumania: There are no character arcs or growth for Scott Lang, Cassie, Hope, Hank, or Janet. These events occur, and nothing changes for these characters personally. Sure, Kang (Jonathan Majors) has now been introduced to the MCU as the next Thanos, but this was already established in LOKI which managed to tell a story with character arcs.  

It’s not that these arcs are outside the scope of Quantumania either. There are a lot of promising threads to follow; Scott and Cassie are arguing about the role of using a suit against police officers who tear gassed a crowd of peaceful protestors; Janet is keeping her time in the quantum realm close to her chest, isolating Hank and Hope; and Yellow Jacket (Corey Stoll) has returned as the fearsome M.O.D.O.K. But of these arcs, only two are actively followed throughout the film, and one of these is M.O.D.O.K. trying not to be a dick – treated as a golden gag. The other active arc is with Janet, but so much of the film follows her doing things and relying on others to trust her blindly that the audience has no clue what’s happening. The script sets up a lot of interesting ideas, but never allows the payoff to exist for more than a moment, and it’s not engaging storytelling. And of course, our protagonist, Scott, has an arc that doesn’t feel earned, because it’s undercut by every beat of the story. Jeff Loveness has failed to make a compelling screenplay, and how these major problems didn’t get noticed in a second draft is beyond me.  

Aside from major screenwriting failures, the visuals are the next major letdown of Quantumania. Director of Photography Bill Pope really feels constrained in these full CG environments, and unlike his work on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the action sequences in Quantumania are clumsy and lack clarity. A lot of this stems from scenes feeling underlit, with quick editing that does not sell any of the action. Worse yet, there is such a wide array of characters with unique weapons, and yet the action seems completely uninterested in establishing what they can do, unless it works towards a joke. This goes from the smaller roles to Kang and M.O.D.O.K, and it really fails to sell the stakes in the third act. Kang’s move set is a combination of the force, Iron Man’s laser beams, and time manipulation, but none of these are adequately explored or explained enough to allow the audience to understand the danger posed to our heroes in the third act. The disappointing action adds to the major failures of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, because it fails to be engaging as a drama, comedy, and its superhero action is mediocre. This is not to say that Quantumania does not have some stirring visuals; there are some stellar establishing and wide shots that feel made for a windows background. But when most of the film is made up of mid-close ups in CG environments, those few moments of beauty are washed out entirely. 

For all its flaws, Quantumania is not all bad. Firstly, the CG environments are as striking as the Star Wars prequels. The quantum realm truly feels like an alien landscape, and its world design, creature design and production design work perfectly. The miniature cultures and cultural norms sell this new world perfectly and create visual genres for each chapter of the film. This is furthered by the stellar costume design and should not be conflated with suit design. Quantumania’s costumes add layers to this world; at times it’s a space western, at others it’s a post-apocalypse. Kang’s kingdom feels like a kingdom because its costumes denote separate places so well, and it is worthy of applause.

  And speaking of Kang, Jonathon Majors has really stepped into this role perfectly. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is a display of what Majors can do as an actor. He takes a character that has been exiled into the quantum realm by others and turns that emotion into devastating desperation. Every movement and word spoken drips with sorrow and closeted anger. It is captivating, and Majors alone injects life into this dying film. By comparison, the rest of the cast really does not do a whole lot. Paul Rudd is the same loveable Scott Lang we have seen before. Michael Douglas leans into Hank’s curiosity about the quantum realm. These are fine performances, but they are still hemmed in by the clichéd nature of the role. The only performance that left me intrigued in their character was Kathryn Newton, who manages to capture the youthful, unjaded spirit of Cassie well, though she really did not have a lot to do in this film.  

As I alluded to earlier, the suit design of Quantumania is pretty uninspired. Ant-Man, Wasp, and Cassie have fully CG suits, and it is obvious. Nanotech is the Infinity War’s biggest sin, and Quantumania is a notable example of why: The suits do not feel human. There is no fear of shrinking without a helmet because the helmet is always a render away. Characters always have the suit, so you do not fear them being powerless. The suits never break down, so the stakes fall drastically in a third act. And the final major problem is that these all feel the same. Compared to the varying costumes and character design around the quantum realm, the Ant family suits, the M.O.D.O.K., and Kang’s suit all feel the same. There isn’t anything tactile to these suits, they seem more akin to action figures and plastic toys. It is at best cheap, and at worst, confusing.  

 The last flaw of Quantumania is with its premise: the quantum realm is not an interesting place to explore Ant-Man’s core abilities. For all the problems in Ant-Man and The Wasp, the film managed to still use the shrinking/enlarging abilities well. Whether it is to lift a ferry, to skateboard with a truck, or to commit a heist, the core abilities of Ant-Man and Wasp feel fundamental to that story. Now, in Quantumania, the ability to enlarge and shrink feels relegated to the third act, and not natural to this story. The quantum realm may require shrinking to enter, but after that, it could be any superheroes world. And our heroes’ abilities just do not interact with it in interesting ways. No longer is there a toy train that can transform a battle scene, there is only a whole other world that we view solely from the ground. It is a massive, missed opportunity, and it is not aided by the film’s quick, out of left field, resolutions to problems that feel removed from our heroes’ actions. There are two deus ex machina moments in the third act alone, and it really makes the finale feel… empty. 

 Empty may be the best way to describe Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. The elements that break free of its lighting, framing, editing and CG suit problems are taken down by its writing. Personally, I preferred when the quantum realm was a kaleidoscopic empty void outside of time in Ant-Man. Because then, it had stakes and I felt connected to our characters’ fight to see his daughter again. Instead, the quantum realm is a fully realized, gorgeously rendered science fantasy world, but the characters feel empty and void now. 

 Grade: D+  


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