Review: The Marvel machine hits a new low with ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’
Time works a little differently in the quantum realm, which may explain why the two-hour “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” lasts an eternity. To be sure, even as I entered the theater and took my seat, I found myself succumbing to a familiar, dread-soaked kind of temporal disorientation. Has it really been only three months since the last Marvel movie? And are there really just three months to go until the next one, and another three months until the one after that? Once you get sucked back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and the word “cinematic” feels more charitable with each repetition — time swiftly becomes a very flat and cruddy-looking CGI circle.
“It’s never over,” I said to myself, unaware that I was advance-quoting the movie’s central villain. Here I could follow the example of Jeff Loveness’ script and spend half this review writing suggestively around the bad guy’s identity, using ominous sub-Voldemort sobriquets like “he” and “him.” But no: His name is Kang the Conqueror, and it may startle you to hear that he possesses a metallic suit, superhuman strength and megalomaniacal tendencies. He’s played by Jonathan Majors, whom you can see giving interesting performances in recent movies such as “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and upcoming ones like “Magazine Dreams.” In this one, he basically stands around indulging a series of cosmic snit fits, laying waste to the digitally confected scenery and uttering tedious epigrams about time, recurrence and the apocalypse.
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But I’m getting ahead of myself. There were reasons to hope that “Quantumania” might be another slick, refreshingly low-key diversion in the style of its two “Ant-Man” predecessors (both directed, like this third movie, by the journeyman Peyton Reed). Released between longer, noisier entries in the overarching Avengers cycle, the first two “Ant-Man” movies were persuasive arguments for the less-is-more principle, with their downsized stakes, upbeat spirits and incredible shrinking superhero, Scott Lang, a.k.a. Ant-Man (the always appealing Paul Rudd). Best of all were their ingenious shifts in physical scale, as Ant-Man’s ability to switch sizes at lightning speed infused the action scenes — seldom a Marvel strong suit — with a rare and playful comic dynamism. He grounded these stories and, on occasion, made them soar.
That keenly disciplined sense of scale is one of the first casualties of “Quantumania,” which drags Scott and his allies — chief among them the brilliant particle scientist Hope van Dyne, a.k.a. the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) — down, down, down into the quantum realm and strands them there for the story’s duration. You might recall visiting this microscopic dimension briefly in 2018’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” though spending the length of an entire feature there turns out to be an altogether less enticing prospect. Differences in proportion and perspective scarcely register on this surreally designed yet gloppy-looking orange landscape, which, for all its trippiest inventions — a large fiery jellyfish, a sentient tub of red ooze, a giant, hairy purple tongue monster — never remotely springs to life, let alone stirs your awe. This isn’t world building; it’s more like world barfing.
Even when the narrative splits into parallel tracks, there’s precious little differentiation or modulation from one scene to the next. One thread follows Scott and his spunky, semi-estranged teenage daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton), who are briefly taken hostage by a gutsy freedom fighter, Jentorra (Katy M. O’Brian), and an army of refugees who look like discarded extras from the Mos Eisley Cantina. The other thread follows Hope and her parents, the ant-mad scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who knows the terrain better than anyone, having recently returned from 30 years’ imprisonment in the quantum realm. Exactly what transpired during those 30 years is gradually revealed through expository flashbacks, a low-grade Bill Murray cameo and several menacing monologues from our lead villain, who’s determined to escape this interminable episode of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kang,” bust out of the quantum realm and wreak havoc on a multiversal scale.
“I know how it all ends,” Kang intones on more than one occasion. I have no idea if he’s talking about the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe or just this latest, newly launched phase of it, though in the moment you will gladly settle for a swift conclusion to “Quantumania” itself. What a chore this so-called entertainment is! How strenuous are even its ostensibly funnier conceits, including a secondary villain who’s dredged up from the Marvel archives and placed in service of an especially tiresome running gag. The moments of wit and feeling that occasionally steal into the frame — in Cassie’s stubborn yet affectionate eye-rolls, Hank’s genial befuddlement and Janet’s poignant mix of guilt and resolve — feel like emotional outliers in a flat, inexpressive void. They’re a small saving grace, and so, fittingly, are the ants that march into the story at just the right moments, briefly turning this thoroughly lousy picture into a halfway decent picnic.
‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’
Rating: PG-13, for violence/action and language
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 17 in general release
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