Sunday, February 19, 2023

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania wants to soar but never feels comfortable in its own skin

In the book Nobody Does it Better: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of James Bond by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, there's an interesting anecdote from a creative figure involved in classic James Bond movies on what kinds of people you need to make those big-budget films. Specifically, this person noted that it was fine to pair an inexperienced leading man with a blockbuster veteran director or a famous leading man with a filmmaker whose never tackled a blockbuster before. But if both the leading man and director are novices, that's where problems occur.

It's not a steadfast rule, but it was one that was on my brain as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania drew to a close. This movie aspires to take the Ant-Man characters into a grand sci-fi epic in the vein of Star Wars. Unfortunately, it's helmed by director Peyton Reed, a veteran of low-key comedies (and enjoyable ones too, like Down with Love), and written by Jeff Loveness, a Rick & Morty veteran and Marvel comics writer who never penned a movie screenplay before. Quantumania desperately needed a more assured hand guiding this ship in some capacity. None of the primary creative voices get to play to their strengths, resulting in a movie that feels like a Xerox of superior sci-fi fare.

After the events of Avengers: Endgame, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) hung up his superhero outfit in favor of selling and promoting his autobiography. As Quantumania begins, he's shifting gears to be a dad to growing daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton). Turns out, though, his child has managed to create a device that can communicate with the Quantum Realm, the domain Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfieffer) was previously trapped in for decades. A malfunction with the machine sends Scott, Cassie, Janet, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and Hope van Dyne/The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) into the deepest corners of the Quantum Realm. Here, weirdo creatures lurk behind every corner while the nefarious Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) rules the land with an iron fist.

Once we get to the Quantum realm, Quantumania initially gets some fun out of depicting our Earthbound heroes contending with an unpredictable domain dominated by strange beasts and a variety of biomes. Eventually, though, the Quantum Realm slips into being more generic-looking while Loveness's screenplay struggles mightily with making the exploits in this universe absurd yet also something audiences can emotionally get invested in. In an average Rick & Morty episode, you can just do all kinds of violent madness and not have to worry about viewers losing their emotional investment in the titular leads, that's not the point of that program. Here, Quantumania wants to provide moments of firm emotional catharsis while standing on top of a world that's nebulously defined. A story shouldn't be suffocated by logic, but Quantumania keeps reaching for narrative and emotional beats that require a shred of logic to function properly.

Paradoxically, the script suffers from this issue even while tossing off avalanches of expository dialogue at the viewer. So many words get spoken, yet I'll be darned if I still understand what Kang's motivation was or why key moments in the climax happened. Speaking of that evildoer, Jonathan Majors gives a gripping performance as Kang, but unfortunately, this figure can only lean on a talented actor so much. Kang is otherwise a shockingly disposable villain who lacks the kind of discernible worldview or engaging human elements that defined past great Marvel baddies like Zemo, Thanos, or Kilmonger. Keeping so much of him shrouded in mystery for further Avengers movies to explore may help future Marvel Cinematic Universe installments, but it doesn't help Quantumania at the moment.

Meanwhile, the action and spectacle in Quantumania aren't bad, but they're undercut by a lack of grandeur in the movie. Subpar editing from Adam Gerstel and Laura Jennings constantly undercuts moments that should be inspiring awe or terror while rampantly dim lighting makes the most potentially exciting sequences hard to decipher. These larger-scale sequences would almost certainly get a greater jolt of personality if the Quantumania score wasn't so forgettable. Great blockbuster movie scenes often get so much of their power from the orchestral music accompanying them, but alas, composer Christophe Beck appears to be as lost as Reed and Loveness here. A veteran of comedies with minimal blockbuster experience (he did do the score for Edge of Tomorrow, but that had long stretches of Looney Tunes-style comedy), Beck's undeniable talents as a composer never get utilized here. His tracks lack the musical creativity or excitement that this kind of adventure desperately needs.

Even with all these flaws, Quantumania is never painful to sit through. When you throw enough darts on the board, something is bound to stick, and Loveness's script does deliver smatterings of amusing sci-fi weirdness. I especially liked Veb (David Dastmalchian), a soft-spoken blob who sounds a little bit like Richard Kind, while Quantumania's interpretation of M.O.D.O.K. is such a preposterous creation that I have to admire the audacity of trying to bring this vision to life (even if the visual effects used to realize M.O.D.O.K. are simply not good). Talented performers like Paul Rudd and Michelle Pfieffer remain charismatic and provide a pulse to scenes where Quantumania's story gets lost in the weeds. Plus, Reed and Loveness being veterans of comedy help the moments where Quantumania can indulge in jokes rather than franchise set-up., though the editing does undercut several potentially amusing gags. 

I laughed quite a bit in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and found myself reasonably diverted by all the action mayhem on-screen. While far from a Moribus disaster in the realm of comic book movies, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania sinks to the level of Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe pantheon. It's just hard to get involved in a movie that seems so half-hearted and derivative. The "zanier" aspects of Quantumania have been done better elsewhere while its key villain gets undercut by obligations to future Avengers installments. Being so bound to other movies means that Quantumania is bound to disappear from the minds of even die-hard Marvel fans, save for the fact that I think it's the first Disney movie to ever feature a character say the word "socialism". Unless I missed some alternate cut of Million Dollar Duck...

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