Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

So, friends, what is going on with the MCU? We're now at the end of phase four (I think? I've lost track of that sort of thing entirely) and there's a very palpable sense of the air coming out of the balloon. By which I mean not that the movies have gotten bad—some of them are (Eternals) but most are still falling squarely within the same C-minus-to-B-plus range that has characterized this franchise from day one. And yet, without very much having changed, it's clear that something has changed. The MCU used to be something that I—and a lot of other people—enjoyed talking about, and maybe even more than that, arguing with. When it was bad, that was something that felt worth calling out. Now it's just something to shrug at.[1] What I want to do with this post, then, is not so much review the new Ant-Man movie (which is definitely at the C-minus end of the aforementioned scale but still isn't that exciting to talk about) as to try to work out what it can tell us about why the MCU feels so inessential these days.

There are several obvious culprits when trying to identify the cause of this shift. Avengers: Endgame put a period on an eleven-year film and TV project that maybe made it easier for people to hop off the bandwagon. The pandemic following soon after shook people out of the habit of going to see the latest Marvel offering in theaters two or three times a year, and it's hard to regain the sense of FOMO that made doing that seem reasonable. The Disney+ MCU shows we watched instead of the movies have fallen in an uncomfortable middle ground between the two mediums, not as compact as the films but not reaching for the classic TV virtues of building character arcs and relationships either.

To me, however, it seems as if the problem is both simpler and more profound. The reason that Marvel superhero movies aren't landing the way they used to is, well, the superheroes. Avengers: Endgame saw off Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johansson, three of Hollywood's most charismatic performers, who were playing three of the franchise's biggest draws. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Holland have subsequently made soft exits. Other MCU stalwarts—Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen—have transitioned to TV (and in Olsen's case, had their characters killed off). And, of course, the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman has removed what was probably intended to be a central figure for this batch of movies. There's a void at the heart of the franchise, and while new characters may eventually come to fill it, right now feels not at all unlike where we were during phase one, still trying to figure out what there is here to care about. Except now the novelty of the cinematic universe concept has faded, and the star power that made that concept seem plausible is absent.

It's in the context of this void that we have to consider the decisions made with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Scott Lang is one of three MCU characters who are still standing and capable of headlining a movie.[2] It makes sense to try to make him, alongside Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel, into the core around which the next stage of the MCU can be built. Makes sense, that is, until you remember that Scott, despite starring in two previous MCU movies and having major roles in two others, has never cohered as a character. He's a tech genius who walks around with a permanent air of confusion. A self-destructive fuck-up with criminal tendencies who is also a genial dad and a bit of a fuddy-duddy. His superpowers are mostly used for gags—the franchise has never figured out how to make the genuinely awesome power of miniaturization work in a fight scene—and his heroism feels largely informed. When he rises to it, it's usually because of a risk to his loved ones—most often, his daughter Cassie—or because he's too awed by another hero to say no.[3]

In fairness, Quantumania is clearly aware of all of this, which you can tell because the movie opens with a voiceover by Scott saying everything I've said in the previous paragraph, albeit more generously phrased. The purpose of the movie is thus to reposition Scott as a genuine hero, not the heroes' comic relief. It does so, first of all, by making him not a hero at all. As the film opens, Scott is retired not just from the Avengers but, seemingly, from any other job. He's written a book about his adventures, but doesn't seem to be doing anything else except playing devoted boyfriend and father to Hope and a now-teenaged Cassie. This frustrates Cassie, who believes her father should be using his powers to help people, and has been getting arrested while using miniaturization tech to fight off cops who try to break up protests and clear out homeless encampments—a radical note that the film raises and then immediately shies away from. At the same time, Scott learns, Cassie has been developing a device that sends signals into the quantum realm, where Hope's mother Janet spent decades before being rescued in the previous Ant-Man movie.[4] Despite Janet's warnings, the device malfunctions and sucks the entire Pym-Van Dyne-Lang family into the quantum realm.

The quantum realm, as it turns out, is inhabited with all the things that make for a good adventure backdrop—there are strange and dangerous creatures to run away from and/or make friends with, a marketplace where unsavory characters haggle over dubious wares, a bar where you're as likely to be stabbed as get a drink, and badlands where mysterious nomads roam. And there's a villain, Kang the Conqueror, another variant of the character introduced in the first season of Loki. Kang arrived in the quantum realm decades ago and was rescued by Janet, who then joined forces with him to repair his ship's power cell so they could both return home. Right at the moment of their triumph, Janet realized that Kang was the perpetrator of multiple genocides, acts that he'd resume if allowed to escape. She sacrificed her own chance to get home by destroying his power cell using Pym technology, but not before he regained some of his powers. Kang then began to take over the quantum realm, rebuilding his empire in miniature. The arrival of our heroes gives him access to the kind of tech that could restore his power cell and allow him to escape, while the rebels who have been fighting him for decades hope to use that tech to defeat him once and for all.

This is, in other words, the kind of story we've seen many, many times over the years, in books, film, and TV. It goes all the way back to Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars, and examples of it are as recent as Tron: Legacy. And the two things that need to be said about how Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania executes this story are, first, that it doesn't make a lot of sense for Scott Lang, and second, that the film doesn't even try to make it make sense. The standard template for this story sees the hero dropped into a long-running conflict and quickly embroiled within it. Their original goal may be simply to get home, but by the end of the story they're supposed to be emotionally invested—they've fallen in love with the leader of the rebellion, or discovered something essential about themselves in this new world with its new opportunities for heroism, or become so disgusted by the villain's perfidy that they whole-heartedly adopt the rebellion's creed. None of that happens in this movie. Scott's goals remain what they always were—to protect Cassie. He never gets particularly involved in the rebellion.[5] Right at the end he makes the same choice Janet did, to sacrifice his chance to get home in order to prevent Kang from escaping, but the emotional foundation for that sacrifice hasn't been laid (and immediately after he makes it a new way to get home appears, so it isn't even that much of a sacrifice).

There is some good stuff here. Jonathan Majors's second take on Kang is as magnetic as his first, and makes the idea of him as this chapter's ultimate villain an enticing one. The flashback in which we see Kang and Janet's friendship grow and then shatter is extremely well-done, and Janet's self-sacrifice lands incredibly well for a character we've known for less than an hour all told. The rebels are a fun motley bunch, including an enjoyably dry performance from William Jackson Harper, some zany CGI creatures, and a hopefully star-making turn by stuntwoman Katy M. O'Brian as rebel leader Jentorra. Late in the film it's revealed that the ants Hank was experimenting on, who were also drawn into the quantum realm, have spent subjective thousands of years evolving, eventually developing a hyper-technological socialist society—an idea that deserved much more space in the movie[6], but is pretty neat for what we do see of it. But as you'll note, none of these things involve Scott, who ends up feeling like a bystander in his own movie.[7]

Of course, that last bit isn't new. Scott has always felt like someone who stumbled into his own stories, all the way back to when he fell into heroism after trying to rob the wrong house. The second Ant-Man movie leaned into that by making Scott the relative straight man to an ensemble that included his semi-criminal friends Luis, Dave, and Kurt, his FBI monitor Jimmy Woo, his ex-wife and her husband, and a villain, Hannah John-Kamen's Ghost, whose story aroused more pity than disdain. The result was one of the best MCU movies for reasons that, I think, tell us a lot about why the franchise has started losing steam. It's not just about the characters. It's about the relationships.

There was a period, roughly between 2012 and 2015, when it seemed like the MCU was interested in doing the thing that creates fertile soil for a fandom—let its characters grow and change, and let the relationships between them develop. To let Tony Stark grow past his need for an armored suit. To sit with the tragedy of Steve Rogers's separation from Peggy Carter, and his determination not to let the same thing happen with Bucky Barnes. To make the Avengers friends as well as teammates. That all proved a mirage, of course. The MCU's now-famous tendency to devour itself, to end one story on a definite note of change and then roll that change back as soon as the next story starts, quickly asserted itself. But the fumes of that impression carried the fandom forward all the way to Avengers: Endgame, kept our investment in the characters going even though what was showing up on screen was flat and samey. Once that story ended, however, the fumes dissipated, and it's now easier to see that there's nothing in this franchise worth getting invested in.

There's no better encapsulation of the MCU's determination not to do the things that attract fans to stories than the fact that Quantumania discards all of Ant-Man and the Wasp's supporting cast[8] in favor of a parachuted-in "family" theme with Hope, Hank, and Janet that it then singularly fails to earn. As I've noted in the past, in the new MCU the only people who matter are the ones whose names are in the title, so it's obvious why this movie doesn't want Scott to have relationships with people like Luis or his ex anymore. But it also doesn't sell the relationships it does want us to care about. We don't feel the love that supposedly exists between Scott and Hope, or the connection that has formed between Cassie and her step-grandparents. Even relationships that should have been a slam dunk, such as Hope's attempts to reconnect with her mother after decades of separation, don't land. And despite all the emphasis the film places on it, Scott's connection with Cassie still feels generic, the standard protective dad template we've seen in a million movies rather than a relationship between these two specific people, who are starting to figure out how to relate to one another as adults.

As phase four draws to a close, it's clear that Marvel has put all its eggs in the cosmic basket. In multiverses and variants and a villain with a thousand (identical) faces. What's been left by the wayside is any reason to care about all of this. As Quantumania demonstrates, that reason will not come from the legacy characters, who are being flattened out of what little personality they had in order to suit the needs of this new, gargantuan, story. Again, I don't think this will lead to the vaunted "death of the MCU". It will take much more than that for people to stop going to see these movies. But I do think we're witnessing the death of the MCU as a fannish phenomenon—a death that, in all honesty, has been a long time coming.

[1] When you say things like this, some people start talking with great yearning about the looming death of the MCU, but I don't see any reason to anticipate that. Cultural currency is, after all, something very different from actual currency. As Avatar: The Way of Water recently demonstrated, it is possible for millions of people to spend billions of dollars watching your movie, and not have a single further thought about it as soon as the credits start rolling.

[2] Yes, I know that officially the title of the movie includes Evangeline Lilly's Hope Van Dyne, indicating that she is a co-equal hero to her male counterpart. That was barely true in the second Ant-Man movie, however, and it certainly isn't the case in Quantumania, in which Lilly gets virtually nothing to do and is repeatedly upstaged by the actresses playing her character's mother and stepdaughter. This is presumably due to her much-publicized anti-vaxxer positions, so good riddance.

[3] It's never stated outright, but between how the incident is described in the previous Ant-Man movie and this one, it seems very clear that Scott has no idea what the fight he was roped into in Captain America: Civil War was about. This is both hilarious and horrifying.

[4] Cassie has only known Hank, Janet, and Hope for a couple of years at the outside, but has nevertheless become proficient in miniaturization technology and even has her own supersuit. She also calls Hank Pym "grandpa". This all feels very awkward and like a way of shoehorning in a family theme for a character who already had another family, which goes almost entirely unmentioned here.

[5] Cassie does, but Cassie is the latest in a long line of teenage girls whom Marvel are clearly positioning as potential heroes going forward, and by far the least interesting and individualized of the bunch. Her affinity for the rebels never rises above the generic.

[6] If nothing else, in order to create the callback to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids that this film so obviously demands.

[7] One character who does interact with Scott a lot is MODOK, a cyborg killing machine who turns out to be Darin Cross, the villain from the first Ant-Man, now transformed into an enormous, floating head. This is such a weird plot element that I have no idea what to say about it, but I knew I couldn't let it go unmentioned.

[8] Jimmy Woo appears in a brief, wordless scene, but everyone else is absent. Including Cassie's parents who, again, raised her on their own during the entire five years that Scott was missing during the blip, a point that the film seems almost eager to elide.


Chris said…
So basically the MCU is going to turn into the big screen version of NCIS? Something that will not die, something that clearly someone is still watching or it wouldn't keep existing, but something that nobody has really talked or cared about in a decade and counting?
Chris said…
"This frustrates Cassie, who believes her father should be using his powers to help people, and has been getting arrested while using miniaturization tech to fight off cops who try to break up protests and clear out homeless encampments—a radical note that the film raises and then immediately shies away from."


Some day, some fan is going to write some MCU fanfic that finally follows through on the universe's repeated headfakes towards that kind of commentary. Somewhere out there is a universe where Christine Everheart is actually recognized for having been right about everything and Tony Stark atoning for his sins isn't just the middle act of the original movie; where Skye and Rising Tide are actually credited for the fact that their fears about SHIELD were completely justified; and yes, where somebody recognizes and acts upon the fact that, oh yeah, maybe there are actual injustices in this world that these superpowers could be put to use tackling, even on a small scale.

Ah well. I'll enjoy reading it if someone ever writes it.
Chris said…
"There's no better encapsulation of the MCU's determination not to do the things that attract fans to stories than the fact that Quantumania discards all of Ant-Man and the Wasp's supporting cast[8] in favor of a parachuted-in "family" theme with Hope, Hank, and Janet that it then singularly fails to earn. As I've noted in the past, in the new MCU the only people who matter are the ones whose names are in the title, so it's obvious why this movie doesn't want Scott to have relationships with people like Luis or his ex anymore."

I was hopeful that Bill Foster and Ava Starr would return in the next one, since I enjoyed them as villains that weren't really all that villainous and whose next story I was a hell of a lot more interested in than, say, Loki's. But not *that* hopeful, and I'm not surprised to hear that they didn't return.

On the other hand, holy crap, LUIS? Of all the people to cut out the movie, they got rid of Luis? The second movie was smart enough to realize they had a crowd-pleaser and lean into it, and to a lesser extent Scott's other work buddies. I'm not sure I wouldn't have cut even Hank or Hope before cutting Luis, simply from a "what does the audience want to see" perspective.
Yeah, I feel like not enough has been said (including possibly by me) about how baffling it is to make an Ant-Man movie without Luis. It's not even like it would have been impossible to incorporate him into this more cosmic story. I can easily imagine a version of this movie where Luis (and maybe also some other characters from Scott's civilian life) are among the people who end up in the quantum realm, and I think it would have been all the better for it.
Christopher said…
On the plus side, it was really great watching Michelle Pfeiffer kick butt for the whole movie. It's really her and Kang's movie, imo.
mc2rpg said…
For me what made the MCU into something inessential was the creation of the tv shows behind a disney+ paywall. It put an immediate barrier up for seeing every 'episode' of the MCU series, and the moment that I missed a large piece of canon it became very easy to stop seeing any of them. Skipping a movie that didn't seem that good instantly moved from breaking a streak dozens long to just not going to the movies.
Chris said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said…
Yeah, I second what mc2rpb said: MCU TV feels like it's making it more inaccessible and that can't be helping. MCU TV was fine when it was stuff like "Daredevil" or "Jessica Jones" that was set in the same universe, but didn't really affect the movies. It's not that anymore: nowadays you have things like Loki, the most successful villain of the movies, continuing his story on TV, and Kang, the next Thanos of the movies, being introduced on TV. It's no longer a fun supplement for hardcore fans who want more than just a movie two or three times a year, it's become something that actually affects continuity and viewer understanding. And for a lot of people, needing to change mediums is a bridge too far in terms of "oh God, how many things do I need to have watched before I can understand this?"
That's a good point, actually, and I'd say an even stronger example is WandaVision and the new Doctor Strange. If you hadn't watched the show, the last you would have seen of Wanda was her triumphant girl-power moment against Thanos in Endgame. And then suddenly she's a villain with two kids you've never seen before? (This gets even weirder when you remember that Raimi et. al hadn't seen the show and were going only on vague plot outlines when they wrote the movie.) I can definitely imagine feeling a greater disconnect from the franchise after that sort of disorientation.
Eric Scharf said…
I doubt we'll ever learn the full story, but if Evangeline Lilly is indeed being hustled out of the MCU due to her anti-vaxx statements, I have to ask if Letitia Wright was exempted from similar shunning because they needed her to fill the late Chadwick Boseman's shoes.
Almost certainly, yes. And even then, the film's ending leaves the door open to a time jump that skips over her tenure as Black Panther entirely and rejoins the story with the new T'Challa in the role.
Temmere said…
My worry at this point is that Kang was so good in this movie -- Majors was able to perfectly balance the character's alternating quiet power and fearsome rage -- that attempts to differentiate the Kangs we encounter moving forward will inevitably be less interesting.

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