Despite my first-ever job being in a comic book store, I am by no means a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) slappy. Don't believe me? I gave less-than stellar reviews of each of the last three installments - "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," "Thor: Love and Thunder" and "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness."
And with "Ant-Man" in particular, I haven't necessarily been a fan (read my reviews of the first "Ant-Man" and "Ant-Man and the Wasp" here).
That's why I'm happy - more like pleasantly surprised - to report that I really liked "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania," the 31st MCU film overall and the first of the so-called "Phase Five" of Marvel movies.
There has been a huge void in the "quality" department ever since "Avengers: End Game" wrapped up the Thanos saga in 2019. Sure, the pandemic had something to do with the MCU feeling completely stalled out in recent years, but it isn't an excuse that makes up for the mediocrity we've been served up - with a few exceptions - over the past few years.
And this newest movie is imperfect to be sure, but FINALLY - after years of subpar films and countless Marvel series on Disney+ since 2019 - the MCU finally gets some forward traction, with one of it's most compelling villains yet, Kang the Conqueror.
And suddenly, I'm interested again in where the MCU is headed.
***Mild Spoilers Ahead - Read With Caution!***
If anything, the element I liked and appreciated more than any other, was that through three films and countless other MCU appearances, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is showing growth and maturity as a character. This isn't Shakespeare here, but I for one do not want "more of the same" from these characters. We are 31 films into the MCU, and Lang aka Ant-Man has finally "grown-up," and not just in the literal sense, spurred mostly by the existence of his teenage daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton).
Lang has written a book and has mostly settled in to his celebrity as an Avenger (even though the barista at the coffee shop he frequents keeps referring to him as "Spider-Man"). Cassie though, has the family "bug" (pun intended) and is destined to be a hero...it turns out she's a scientific phenom, and encouraged by her grandpa, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) as well as the Wasp herself, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), she has been secretly working on a device that can send signals into the sub-dimension known as the "Quantum Realm."
This comes as a major scare to Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who you may remember spent several decades trapped in the Quantum Realm before being "rescued" during the last Ant-Man film. She knows the dangers that lurk in the Quantum Realm, but before she can do anything about Cassie's device, they are all sucked into the Quantum Realm.
OK, so that premise is a bit on the weak side, but the film had to get its heroes in the Quantum Realm somehow (it's where the vast majority of the film takes place). It's inside the Quantum Realm that we learn how little we actually knew about it, and how much Janet had hidden from the others, and us viewers.
Once inside, we bear witness to a world of strange splendor...it's cheesy at times, but ambitious and imaginative in its design and never is it boring or uninteresting. The main take-away however is that there is a vast civilization - or civilizations - that exist at the sub-atomic level, and the ruler of the Realm is none other than Kang (Jonathan Majors), a character that will be completely foreign to viewers, unless they watched the fantastic "Loki" series on Disney+ (one of those "exceptions" in recent years).
More specifically, this is a "variant" of Kang that has been exiled outside of space and time to the Quantum Realm. He of course is seeking a way out - as are our heroes - but he needs Lang's technology in order to escape...he also has some kind of history with Janet from the time that she had spent down there years ago.
I found "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" quite funny (as all the "Ant-Man" films have leaned into Rudd's comedic abilities), even if it's clear that these are the most stakes that the hero and his crew have ever been entangled in, outside of his time spent with The Avengers. There is a real gravity to the film, which I found genuine, as Lang has much more to worry about than himself, or even the world. Anyone with children will feel that weight. For levity though, a very popular cult-classic villain is woven into the story, and this character hits all the right tonal notes, with the film never quite taking him seriously, because well, it's almost impossible to do so.
Jonathan Majors is on a sky-rocket to super-stardom, not only with a bright future as Kang the Conqueror in the MCU, but also as the antagonist in the upcoming "Creed III," as well as also having starred in one of the most buzzed-about movies at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Magazine Dreams." Kang is an awesome villain and Majors is the real reason that the rest of this particular film works.
After years of flailing around, trying to live up to its past and introducing us to several seemingly unconnected characters, the MCU finally has a big baddie for the heroes to rally around, and some momentum as to where this story might be headed. Two end credit scenes ups the ante even more, leaving us with the foreboding final words on the screen, "Kang Will Return."
There are some grin-inducing cameos, some great action and a balance of screen time between the secondary players like Janet and Hank. I wish the Wasp was given more to do, or given the same attention that Lang's character is given in terms of growth, but she is still given some solid moments to shine.
In many ways, this movie reminded me more of the actual comic book experience than most recent Marvel films have...our hero enters into a strange new world, with crazy creatures and full-on inventiveness in every panel. Not everything works, but what does work works well enough.
"Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" may be the last chapter in the Scott Lang trilogy, but the doors have been kicked open to the future of the MCU. The Quantum Realm might have been demystified in the process, but the potential and the mystique swirling around Kang leaves us with a world - or a multiverse - of possibilities moving forward, and supply a much-needed burst of energy to a cinematic universe that was nearing life-support.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy.
Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes.
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Kathryn Newton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, Bill Murray, Corey Stoll, William Jackson Harper, Katy M. O'Brian.
Directed by Peyton Reed ("Ant-Man and the Wasp," "Ant-Man," "Yes Man," "The Break-Up," "Down with Love").
"Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" is in theaters on Friday, February 17th, 2023.
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