So Marvel does this thing every January where they release a single one-off issue that serves as like a combination thesis statement and sizzle reel for the upcoming year in comics. This year’s was titled Timeless and it was written by Jed McKay, a rising star at the publisher. The story focuses on an established villain learning about some grand mystery called The Impossible Moment. But most of the issue is about debuting and establishing a new villain named Myrddin and his Twilight Court. They’re pretty cool, if the name didn’t give it a way, the new guy is based off of Merlin and his Twilight Court is like a weird superhero version of the Knights of the Round table, including an Artur, Lancelot, Bedivere and the rest. The new guys kick the preexisting supervillain’s butt and we’re left with the promise that all will be revealed in the new Avengers comic launching sometime in 2023. I found myself thinking about Timeless quite a bit as I was watching the newest MCU entry, Ant-Man and Wasp: Quantumania.
So, let’s get the basics out of the way first. Quantumania is the third Ant-Man movie. Like the last two it’s directed by Peyton Reed and stars Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, the titular superhero. The core cast still includes Evangeline Lily, Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer. The big new names this time around are Kathryn Newton as Scott’s daughter Cassie, and Johnathan Majors as the villain, Kang the Conqueror. We’ll talk more about him in a minute because I also want to focus on the new name behind the camera, Jeff Loveness.
Loveness is most well-known as a writer for his work on Rick and Morty, the adult sci-fi animated series that has won tons of acclaim and fans over the last 10 years. Rick and Morty became a success by blending a quirky sense of humor with emotional storytelling and extremely high concept science fiction scenarios. It’s the kind of show where any given episode might include multiple alternate realities, alien civilizations and a character named Shrimply Pipples. Loveness is most famous for having written the series’ first Emmy-winning episode, “The Vat of Acid Episode.” I bring this up because Loveness’s fingerprints are all over this movie. But first, a quick digression about priorities.
Sometimes you must judge a movie based on what it prioritizes. For example, everyone loved last year’s Top Gun: Maverick. That movie set out to make a throwback to the action movies of the 80’s, and remind people that Tom Cruise is still the biggest movie star in the world. It succeeded wildly on both of those metrics. It didn’t do such a great job of say, contextualizing the story’s conflict. Like, to the point that the movie quite overtly avoids actually naming who the bad guys are which is an interesting choice to make for a war movie in 2022. That doesn’t detract from the movie, and if anything makes it better as a throwback to a simpler time, but it is noticeable. So, what are Quantumania’s priorities? Well in this case the movie wants to have a lot of fun exploring the Quantum Realm and set up a new big bad for the extended MCU in Johnathan Majors’ Kang. All of the movie’s strengths and its weaknesses come from how well it succeeds at both of those things.
First, let’s talk about how the movie portrays the Quantum Realm. In the first two Ant-Man movies, The Quantum Realm was just established to be a strange microscopic zone that existed between the atoms of our own universe. It was implied to be completely empty. Avengers: Endgame later built on this idea and used the Quantum Realm as a shortcut to create the MCU’s version of time travel. Quantumania quietly retools those ideas and expands the setting into a complete alien world that exists outside the bonds of time and space. And you can tell that Loveness and the production team had a lot of fun populated that world with bizarre aliens. Or as Loveness himself referred to them in a Twitter thread shortly after the movie’s premiere “weird little guys.” Quantumania works best when it’s just reveling in the weird places and even weirder little guys it can dream up for the new setting. The new characters are a lot of fun and Paul Rudd, once again playing the closest thing to an everyman in the MCU’s cast of superheroes is the perfect foil for all this new weirdness. This movie wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun if it were a vehicle for Captain America or even Thor. A highlight in this regard is how the movie introduces MODOK to the big screen. MODOK is a giant floating head with tiny baby arms and legs. He’s the kind of thing that should only work in comics, but Loveness, Reed, the actor and the production team do a really good job of threading that needle. I really wish the movie had leaned even more into the wackiness of the Quantum Realm, but what we got was fun in the moment. The movie’s other biggest strength is Johnathan Majors as Kang, but frustratingly, the character might also be the movie’s biggest source of friction.
Kang is a weird character who is interesting in concept but difficult to get right in execution. The basic premise is that Kang is a supervillain from the future who has already won. He’s the guy who defeated all the superheroes and conquered the universe, hence why he’s usually called Kang the Conqueror. Now, armed with time travel and futuristic tech, he constantly has to go back in time to make sure that events play out so that he still wins. Plus, because of all this meddling in history there are actually a ton of different Kangs, and they all want to be the one who wins it all. One’s pharaoh, one’s from even further in the future than Kang-Prime and one’s even just a small-town mayor somewhere in America. And they all hate each other. It’s a fun idea, especially because the character has the classic “Doom bot” excuse built into his backstory. Did the Avengers have a weirdly easy time defeating Kang or was he acting “out of character” (i.e. starring in a poorly received series or storyline)? That’s okay that was just an alternate Kang from a different timeline. The problem is that in execution, Kang is usually just a big, blue dude with magic powers and stuff. So how does Johnathan Majors do with the character? Pretty goddamn good.
Majors is one of those actors who has slowly built up a resume over the last few years. He was the best part of the otherwise frustrating HBO adaptation of Lovecraft Country. He’s shown his acting range with projects ranging from 2019’s indie critical darling, The Last Black Man in San Francisco to 2022’s Korean War drama Devotion. He’s the kind of actor for whom the term stage presence was coined, able to convey so much through body language and subtle gestures. He’s able to be equal parts charming and quietly dangerous while dominating pretty much every scene he’s in. In other words, he’s been cast perfectly as a major over-arching supervillain for the MCU. What’s more Kang is quite a bit different from someone like Thanos, the last big bad of the MCU. Thanos is “The Mad Titan.” Even after the MCU gave him a more relatable motive than his comic book counterpart, Thanos is more of a Force of Nature than a personality. Josh Brolin did a great job of imbuing Thanos with pathos but the character is more like a mythological god than a relatable presence in the story. He was the kind of threat that could be slowly teased and built up in the background.
Kang is kind of the opposite. He’s as powerful as Thanos but his motives are always personal. After all, this is a guy who is so egotistical that he gives new meaning to the phrase “self-destructive.” As a result, in order to work, the character must be far more human than Thanos ever was, which is probably why Kevin Feige and the powers that be at Disney decided he needed a whole movie as a formal introduction. Which is part of my big problem with Quantumania. The secret of the MCU has always been that it’s not really as tightly connected as it looks. Yes, actors jump across films, and certain plot threads carry over, but there are surprisingly few “you had to see the previous one to understand this” sort of leaps in the MCU. But now, we’re spending an entire movie, which is itself sort of supposed to be the conclusion to its own trilogy, setting up a major threat for the next several films.
It’s obvious that a lot of this movie was left on the editing room floor. The plot doesn’t flow from beat to beat as smoothly as it should, and certain sequences don’t make as much sense as they could in context. What’s frustrating is that a lot of the stuff that got cut feels like it was mostly character development stuff. In particular it feels like both Scott and Cassie were supposed to have more significant character arcs that were either dropped or truncated. It all comes back to priorities. Could this movie have used Kang more sparingly and focused on Scott’s journey or that of his daughter? Probably, but that’s not what the MCU needs right now, apparently. And since Quantumania has been established as the first movie in “Phase 5” and a keystone in the “Multiverse Saga,” we’ve got to focus on what the franchise needs. I think this is the first time I’ve been openly critical of a movie because of its connection to the MCU, but I want to stress that it’s a minor problem in the grand scheme of things. Or at least, it’s a minor problem right now. I want to go back to that comic I mentioned earlier. It’s okay when Marvel puts out a five-dollar comic to act as a teaser for more events to come. I’m worried about where we’re going when a multi-million dollar, two hour film is essentially being used for the same purpose. Oh, and one last thing. The supervillain in Timeless, the one defeated by the new guys to establish them as threat to the Avengers? That was Kang the Conqueror.
Overall, Quantumania is a fun movie filled with a lot of colorful characters and some gorgeous production design. The acting is fun and the newly introduced big bad of the MCU seems like he’s more than up to the task of carrying the franchise on his back for a while. In execution, this feels like the sort of movie you could go see on a whim at two o’clock in the afternoon or the kind of thing you might rent from a blockbuster, back in the day, months or even years later because you vaguely remember it being fun. It’s the type of solid B to B+ filmmaking that makes you smile and enjoy it without feeling like its life-changing in quality. And that’s fine. Those kinds of movies can still inspire and foster the imagination. Quantumania is like the cinematic equivalent of going to grab ice cream on a hot summer day. It’s a bag of candy at the checkout counter. I had a lot of fun and I think you will too.