by Rob DiCristino
Let me ask you an honest question: How much do you still care about the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Are you still wrapped up in this Phase’s ongoing storylines? Which current Avenger are you most excited to see in action? Who exactly are the Avengers these days? Despite the reliable box office receipts (a feat that grows less impressive in a thinning field of theatrical offerings), it’s hard to deny that Disney’s flagship franchise is in need of new energy if it hopes to regain anything near the cultural ubiquity it enjoyed in its heyday. My prediction that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ sheer ambition would be enough to solidify a base of ongoing mainstream interest was way off the mark, and with self-parodies like Thor: Love and Thunder, nostalgia trips like Spider-Man: No Way Home, and forgettable streaming content like Moon Knight filling out the rest of the first string lineup, there’s a real, tangible danger that Marvel’s omnipotence — once considered a generation-defining certainty — will begin to fade.
That universe is ruled by Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors), an alternate version of Loki antagonist He Who Remains. This Kang is an oppressive dictator who sees the Pym particle technology as his ticket out of the Quantum realm and back to destroying universes, the very tyranny that forced his variants — don’t ask questions, at least not yet — to exile him there to begin with. His transportation, a multiversal, space-dilating contraption best described as a “time throne,” is missing its core, and it’s only by threatening to execute Cassie that Kang is able to enlist Scott to retrieve it. Meanwhile, to defeat Kang and end his reign of Quantum terror, the rest of our heroes team up with warrior-queen Jentorra (Katy O’Brien), telepath Quaz (William Jackson Harper), goo man Veb (David Dastmalchian, returning to the series in a new role), and the haughty Lord Krylar (Bill Murray). These Quantum people are distrusting of Janet, however, whose secret Quantum past is revealed over the course of their Quantum journey.Wakanda Forever). Instead, screenwriter Jeff Loveness (who will pen Avengers: The Kang Dynasty) delivers a streamlined caper that rarely stops to worry about trifles like character arcs or thematic resonance, content instead to have its heroes shoot, run, and fly their way through a colorful mass of CGI goop that makes the Star Wars prequels look tactile. A hero who can shrink to subatomic sizes should be able to do battle in subatomic worlds, of course — and floating-head assassins who spar with men made of broccoli are far more interesting than the numbing concrete aesthetic we put up with back in Captain America: Civil War — but it’s hard to invest in the ecology or texture of a world when our actors are clearly chasing tennis balls across a pop-up soundstage in a Best Buy parking lot.
But again, most of Quantumania’s cast is incidental — Evangeline Lilly has nothing to do; maybe the Wasp in the title refers to Michelle Pfeiffer? — as large swaths of screen time are dedicated to establishing Jonathan Majors’ fearsome Kang, who takes over Thanos’ place as the MCU’s chief antagonist. Majors brings more than enough gravitas to distract from Kang’s undersketched motivations, which we can only assume will be fleshed out in later installments. That’s all fine, by the way, as Quantumania continues to build on the esoteric comic book storytelling that really kicked off in Multiverse of Madness. That the film is designed solely to introduce a new series antagonist is not necessarily a strike against it — the MCU has been in desperate need of a coherent narrative direction for a few years now — it’s that so much of its action feels empty and unmotivated by character agency. It’s all wheel-spinning. Time-killing. Anyone else remember the moral quandaries of Civil War? Iron Man 3’s exploration of PTSD? Because I do.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is in theaters now.