If there’s a challenge faced by all contemporary purveyors of superhero cinema, where expectations run amok, it’s adjusting the knobs that balance light and dark, the goofy and the grim, comedic character interplay and interplanetary stakes.
Those knob settings are, of course, a matter of taste, and certainly a bone of contention between fans of somber grit and those who like a bit — or a lot — of witty banter between mega-punches.
With his third Ant-man adventure, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” director Peyton Reed and screenwriter Jeff Loveness (a “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “Rick and Morty” vet making his big-screen debut) handle the balance of tones impressively. It’s a film that gives Paul Rudd multiple opportunities to display his comic charm, even turning a shameless bit of product placement into an effective running gag. At the same time, it sets the stage for a genuinely chilling villain, one who’s only getting started in what promises to be an ongoing assault upon the reality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it.
That villain, as anyone who’s been watching “Loki” on Disney+ can tell you, is Kang the Conqueror (a riveting Jonathan Majors), a seemingly omnipotent being who can travel to — and destroy — any thread of the multiverse. And as we learn in “Quantumania,” he has a history with Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) that dates back to the 30 years she spent trapped inside the quantum realm.
Since returning, she hasn’t wanted to talk to anyone, not even her family, about that time, instead re-embracing a normal life with husband Henry Pym (Michael Douglas); daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who has inherited Janet’s mantle as The Wasp; Hope’s partner Scott (Rudd), stepping in for Henry as the second Ant-Man; and Scott’s daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton, “Freaky”), who’s turning into quite the impassioned activist and science prodigy. But Janet’s secrets are coming out whether she wants them to or not: Cassie and Henry have created a device that will allow them to map the quantum realm, but someone within that realm uses the machine as a homing beacon to shrink down this quintet and bring them there against their will.
The first third or so of “Quantumania” allows the production designers, art directors and effects wizards to go wild, creating a series of psychedelic landscapes populated by unfathomable creatures of all shapes and sizes. Here, the quantum realm plays out like an amalgam of every 1970s prog-rock album cover mashed up with every 1970s sci-fi paperback.
We’re introduced to some new characters — William Jackson Harper as a reluctant mind-reader, Katy M. O’Brian as an intense warrior, a not-to-be-spoiled cameo by a major star-making their MCU debut — but “Quantumania” really kicks into gear with the arrival of the much-feared Kang, who’s got a nefarious agenda that he can only implement if he can get his hands on some Pym Particles, those scientific marvels that allow Ant-Man and the Wasp to shrink to insect-size or to grow like giants.
It’s a frequent complaint about the Marvel movies that they spend more time setting up the next five chapters than they do resolving the one they’re in, but “Quantumania” offers threats both immediate and long-range, making it satisfactory as both an individual movie and as a preview for what’s to come. It also makes generous use of its ensemble; Rudd and Majors — the latter injecting some always-welcome intensity into the MCU — are the key players here, and the yin-and-yang of their sensibilities provides the motor for the plot, while Pfeiffer and Douglas get plenty to do and aren’t treated as nostalgic tag-alongs.
While Cassie’s arc could have been unbearably plucky and can-do in less careful hands, Newton grounds the interdimensional adventure with recognizably human care, both for her family and for the lives of those downtrodden by Kang. Admittedly lost among all these characters is Hope; despite the Wasp’s inclusion in the title, Lilly’s superhero comes off as a bit of an afterthought once all is said and done.
A strong case can be made that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is better served in its non-cinematic iterations on Disney+, with serialized adventures offering more opportunity for depth of character and complexity of plot. But if it took “Loki” to introduce and explain Kang and his machinations, “Quantumania” sets up what promises to be a lengthy arc for the character, perhaps even jumping between big screen and small over the coming years.
At this point in history, the idea of attracting new fans to the MCU is probably moot; most viewers are either on board for this ongoing saga, or they checked out long ago. “Quantumania” may not swing for the fences as ambitiously as recent entries like “Wakanda Forever” or “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” but it does take the wildly disparate tones and plot threads that are seemingly endemic to this series and turn them into an entertainingly cohesive whole. To be continued, obviously.
“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” opens in US theaters Feb. 17 via Marvel Studios.