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OPINION | SECOND TAKE: ‘Ant Man and The Wasp: Quantumania’ lifeless, mirthless CGI saturnalia

by Piers Marchant | March 3, 2023 at 1:31 a.m.

Second Take is an occasional feature that looks at films currently playing in movie theaters.

If you haven't been paying attention, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has just closed out the so-called Phase 4 of its continuing series of movies, TV shows, games and commercial tie-ins. After the rousing success of the previous phases -- and the brilliant culmination of everything that had come before it by the end of Phase 3 -- the studio had an enviable headwind heading into their next wave of releases. But after seven pretty middling films (other than "Wakanda Forever," which did the best it could sans its leading man), it's pretty clear the good ship MCU has entered serious horse latitudes.

With the exception of "Wakanda," parts of "Spider-Man: No Way Home," and the first half or so of "Shang Chi," the rest of the studio's output over the past couple of years -- films including "Black Widow," "Eternals," "Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness," and "Thor: Love and Thunder" -- have all succumbed to various levels of cinematic degradation. Symptoms include threadbare characters, middling plots, incoherent interconnectivity and, mostly, massive CGI-overkill that suggests the screenplays were barely cobbled together before filming began (the surest sign of a weak script: an action climax that is all giant, ephemeral monsters, endless ray blasts and zero emotional attachment).

The hope for rabid fans was that after a tortuous period of time where filmmakers and production teams were spread too thin among the endlessly churning properties, Phase 5 would finally start to gather the various plot-threads from previous films/shows and put together another solid run. If this film, the first of Phase 5, is any indication, however, things are going from bad to worse.

"Ant Man and The Wasp: Quantumania" is a lifeless, mirthless CGI saturnalia that dispenses almost entirely with the emotional core of its characters. In its place, Peyton Reed and his production team have resorted to the worst sort of empty spectacle filmmaking.

When we begin, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has everything going his way. As a celebrity Avenger, having helped thwart Thanos' blip, he's beloved everywhere he goes. He has a bestselling memoir ("Look Out for the Little Guy"), he's friends with his former FBI adversary (Randall Park), and his integrated family life -- his now-grown daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton), living with him and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), Janet Pym (Michelle Pfieffer), and his girlfriend, Hope Pym (Evangeline Lilly) -- seems perfect.

Naturally, things go south from there. After Cassie and Hank reveal a project they've been working on, a sort of transmitter that is able to scan the quantum realm, the entire crew gets sucked into the subatomic universe by Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors), a despot with whom Janet had been acquainted during her time trapped there, in order to restore the precious multiversal engine core drive from his previously damaged spacecraft, allowing him to continue wreaking time-confounding havoc throughout the collected universes.

Split by their tumbling entry into two factions, Scott and Cassie meet with a group of anti-Kang rebels, led by the fierce Jentorra (Katy O'Brian, and the telepath Quaz (William Jackson Harper), before they get captured by the Conqueror himself, along with his henchman, M.O.D.O.K. (Corey Stoll), a sort of giant, floating head encased in armor. Meanwhile, Janet, Hank and Hope emerge in a giant city, run by Kang, and attempt to evade him, while making plans to destroy his core drive permanently.

As these things tend to do, it all culminates in a giant battle, with Kang perched upon leaving this micro-realm and returning to his former glory, and the Ant-heroes, along with their new rebel friends, throwing an all-out assault against him.

What helped previous MCU films was the idea that each character charted its own pace and tone within the larger universe of other characters: Captain America movies tended toward a kind of espionage thriller vibe; Iron Man flicks were high-tech, eye candy set-tos; Spider-Man films were high school dramas with super-powered bullies; Thor movies started as slow, Shakespearean tragedies, but morphed into clever send-ups of such pompous overreach. Even with characters without such a notable fan-following, say, the Guardians of the Galaxy, MCU lead producer Kevin Fiege would hire production teams to craft a tangible vibe.

Ant-Man movies, especially compared to some of their more out-there brethren, dealing with intergalactic space wars, and giant gods gone mad, were happily more grounded on Earth, and dealt with easily recognizable types of conflicts (in the second film of the series, "Ant-Man and the Wasp," Scott was under house arrest for assisting Captain America in Germany while on parole, and had to avoid FBI surveillance in order to keep seeing Cassie regularly). For these kinds of low-key supes flicks, Paul Rudd, a charismatic, affable everyman, was perfect in the role, and the films' shaggy self-referentiality added a welcome layer of humor to the silliness.

Here, however, Reed and screenwriter Jeff Loveness (whose previous credits include jokes for the Oscars, and a handful of "Rick & Morty" episodes) push the characters into CGI ­hellscapes of such soul-dampening excess that their grounding is almost thoroughly lost. Instead of relatable, engaging characters, such as Scott's best friend, Luis (Michael Pena), from the previous films, we get a small blob named Veb (voiced by David Dastmalchian, who played Kurt in the earlier films), and a dude with an energy launcher where his head should be. Scott himself does little more than run around asking questions, and looking lovingly at his daughter. Hope, stuck as she is with her parents, feels about as essential to the film's grinding machinery as a warm can of Fanta.

For all the plays at making this abject cartoonishness engaging ("You're inside Schrodinger's box," M.O.D.O.K. tells Scott at one point, "and you're the cat!"), it feels as unfocused and meandering as any regrettable Phase 4 offering. Yes, by the end, Kang is better established as the forthcoming new heavy that will no doubt lead the Avengers to do battle, but despite Majors' herculean efforts to make the character interesting, he comes across as any other bland tyrant Thanos-wannabe ("I will burn the broken world," he intones during one of his many villain digressions), only now with more time-travel options available to him.

It's possible the MCU will right itself, despite the furious pace of content creation by the powers that be at Disney (never a company to shy away from bilking every last dime out of its intellectual property) -- or, maybe, the newly hatched DC Universe, under the helm of James Gunn, will take the mantle as the comic book universe of note -- but, more than likely, it will keep floundering, and continue to lose any and all the goodwill it banked in the heady 2010's.

"You think this is new to me?" Scott asks Kang incredulously near the end. He means it as a blow against Kang's enormous pride, but it could just as well serve as a sort of epitaph for the MCU as we knew it.

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