As the venerable Bilbo Baggins declared in “The Lord of the Rings,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe is beginning to feel thin, “like butter scraped over too much bread,” as the 31st installment of the ubiquitous superhero franchise arrived over the holiday weekend with “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”
Kicking off Phase 5 of Marvel Studios mastermind Kevin Feige’s sprawling cinematic dynasty that’s now addictively enamored of all things multiversal, this third outing for the diminutive Avenger is again directed by Peyton Reed but the stakes and tone have oddly shifted to make plenty of room to introduce the MCU’s newest megalomaniacal supervillain: Kang the Conqueror.
Amid the seemingly infinite roster of Marvel Studios offerings over the past two decades, only director James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” flicks compare to the tonal consistency of the “Ant-Man” movies as helmed by the distinctive voice and vision of filmmaker Peyton Reed.
Unfortunately, Reed veers too far into trippy territory this time around and as much as our eyeballs are gratefully saturated with a freaky fantasia of exotic imagery, the end results feel somewhat dislodged amid all the super-sized visual pageantry.
“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” swarmed into theaters starting on Feb. 17, 2023 with an impressive $120 million opening domestic weekend and a $241 million global total so far. Critics were mostly kind to the latest Marvel extravaganza and millions of fans are relishing its phantasmagoric visual effects that venture deep into the micro-universe of Kang the Conqueror.
However, those hoping for another playful romp into the “Ant-Man” franchise after two previous entries, 2015’s “Ant-Man” and 2018’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” audiences might want to brace themselves for a much darker affair save for humorous book-ended sequences showing Scott Lang strolling down a San Francisco street enjoying his celebrity and fame.
The film’s post-“Endgame” setup comes hard and fast, and after accidentally getting sucked into the Quantum Realm by an experimental signaling device, Scott (Paul Rudd), his adult daughter Cassie Lang (Kathryn Newton), Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), and Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) find themselves marooned in this vast subatomic land reigned over by the time-traveling tyrant named Kang.
Admirably portrayed by the charismatic (and talkative!) Jonathan Powers (“Lovecraft Country”), Kang has been banished to this microscopic landscape outside time and space, where’s he has employed his infinite knowledge and futuristic technology to create a totalitarian empire.
Without divulging too much plot-wise, we’ll just say that Kang is trying to escape this miniature prison world and needs the Pym particle to fix his ship and bolt into another time-stream for more genocidal destruction as he attempts to heal the broken multiverse through mass murder. Much of this exposition will set up what’s to come in two years for this Thanos-like deity with director Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty.”
Along the way we learn that Janet Van Dyne’s years stuck in the Quantum Realm involved far more than she’s revealed and included finding Kang’s crashed spaceship and initially trying to help him repair his Time Chair’s damaged drive until she comes to realize the truth of his horrendous past.
The gang must now band together to save Cassie, stop the exiled Kang from ever leaving, and try to return to their own normal-sized Earthly dimension.
As envisioned by Reed and screenwriter Jeff Loveness (“The Office,” “Rick and Morty”), the Quantum Realm is a fantastically rendered netherworld inhabited by a kitchen-sink assembly of tribal freedom fighters, sentient blobs, alien fish-people, plasma-headed robots, erotic entangled tentacles, humanoid drones, and a multi-eyed broccoli man. At times, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” almost feels like an elaborate “Star Wars” cantina movie from an alternate universe, which can be enjoyable for a while before you realize the singular plot becomes redundant.
Standout cameos here include Bill Murray’s goofy blue-robed Lord Krylar and Corey Stoll’s villainous Darren Cross from the first “Ant-Man” film. Cross has now been strangely transformed into M.O.D.O.K., an oversized head encased in a metal body and sprouting baby-size limbs.
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As much it was easy to be mesmerized with the colorful splendor on display, one couldn’t help believe that this over-stuffed micro-verse was more suited to “Guardians of the Galaxy” than “Ant-Man” and most avid fans will no doubt feel the undeniable tug of crossover familiarity.
“Ant-Man” movies have excelled with smaller, more contained storytelling and our lovable shrinking heroes seem a bit lost in the epic expanses of Peyton Reed’s dizzying little landscape.
Nevertheless, “Quantumania” is a brisk and boisterous beginning to Marvel Studios’ Phase 5 best enjoyed sipping a frosty Mango Fruit Blast, and crafted with enough retina-pleasing pyrotechnics to satisfy the MCU faithful, at least until “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” lands in May.