Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania has been out for a week – with no apology to moviegoers forthcoming, it would seem – so it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of the film and why it doesn’t work. As luck would have it, screenwriter Jeff Loveness did an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that serves as a good impetus to discuss some of the biggest problems with Quanumania, as well as why it’s so lousy and whether it was once better. There will be major spoilers below, but if you want my spoiler-free thoughts on Marvel’s latest disappointment, you can read my review.
Loveness talks about the multiverse, its seeming omnipresence in entertainment of late, and how to make the MCU version different from the others. For example, Loveness was a writer for Rick and Morty, which deals heavily with the multiverse. But his view on it, specifically on Kang and his relationship with it, misses the point and reinforces why Rick and Morty works so well while The Multiverse Saga is on the road to ruin. Kang, he says, is a villain who is actually many villains, with an endless number of them showing up in the mid-credits scene of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania to set up how multiple versions of the big bad will menace the heroes of Phase 5 and Phase 6. I know they think this is the coolest thing ever, but it strips Kang of his menace and characterization. Rick and Morty is the epitome of E Pluribus Unum, or “From the many, one.” In a world of infinite variations of yourself, you are uniquely you, and no one can replace you. The Rick and Morty we follow are “the Rickest Rick” and “the Mortiest Morty,” and despite Rick’s constant nihilistic claims to care about no one, he is completely devoted to his Morty. (I talk about this at length in these three articles: 1, 2, 3.) But Marvel is taking the opposite route with Kang, as no individual version of him means anything.
The Kang in Quantumania doesn’t matter anymore; he’s dead. The other Kangs we’ll meet in future movies, the ones who appear en masse in the Quantumania mid-credits scene, are not the Kang we were introduced to here, meaning that they will also need to be fleshed out and characterized in whichever films they appear in as the antagonist. Resultingly, the main villain of this next set of Phases is just a bunch of one-offs who will be disposed of before a new one takes his place. Loveness certainly suggests this is the case; he talks about how the subsequent films will showcase the “true versatility and passion that Jonathan Majors has” and that Kang “takes a few shots along the way as [Kang the Conqueror or his variants] make their rise.” That says to me that there is no “Kang Prime,” the main Kang who is the bad guy in this leg of the MCU. It’s just the Kangs, who Loveness describes as “a legion.” This feels most similar to Ultron, but he had the benefit of being AI, meaning all those drones – and the main body – were one being, not different people with the same name (who are all supervillains; is there a Kang somewhere who’s just a dentist or something?).
Ultron also had the benefit of only being in one movie. Kang is going to keep coming back at least till The Kang Dynasty, if not Secret Wars. So, if everything else plays out like Quantumania did, a Kang will show up and be defeated, making way for the next Kang, whom they’ll assure is “totally a big threat, you guys, you don’t even know!” But it won’t matter because we saw him be defeated already, even if it was just another variant. You can’t have it both ways; either Kang is a legion of variants who are collectively the main villain, or we should be invested in each individual Kang. The former is next to impossible to care about, and the latter is absolutely impossible to fear. We’ve seen Kang get killed twice now, once by Sylvie in Loki and once by Ant-Man in Quantumania. What are the stakes the next time a variant of him appears in a Marvel movie? We’ve seen him vanquished twice, both times quite easily, and once by friggin’ Ant-Man. We all love Paul Rudd, but I’m not particularly scared of someone he can one-punch into oblivion. So, we’ve got a villain who doesn’t matter as a character or a threat; I guess Loveness and Marvel achieved their desire to make Kang different from Thanos.
But was this always the case? I’ve got a theory that it wasn’t. Remember the trailers for Quantumania? They suggested a story about losing time, how Scott was going to be tempted to help Kang in return for regaining the time he lost with Cassie. As many have said, that isn’t what happens in the movie; Kang just threatens to kill Cassie if Scott doesn’t get that MacGuffin for him. (Sidebar: the scene where Scott goes after said MacGuffin is the best one in the movie, and it’s not even close; for one brief moment, Quantumania had stakes, imagination, and characterization.) But in his interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Loveness talks about these themes and plot points in regard to his script. He wanted to explore loss through Scott and Cassie and their lost time and use Kang as the potential solution to that. He talks of Kang offering “any sort of Faustian bargain you want.” He even says there was a subplot for Hope where she saw alternate versions of herself and mourned what could have been. And finally, Loveness says he and his collaborators “gamed out a ton of scenarios” where characters died at Kang’s hand.
None of this is actually in the film. There is no “Faustian bargain,” like the trailer teased before, and Loveness does here. The themes of lost time and regret are wholly absent as well; this is more about “doing better” and finding a cause to fight for, even if you just did in a big Avengers movie, because it’s never enough. Kang’s ability to manipulate time is pontificated on but never demonstrated or used as a plot point. It’s background for Kang, just more of the vaguely defined “bad guy wants to do bad guy stuff” motivation that gives the illusion of a coherent story. But you can see traces of it occasionally, like when Scott becomes Giant-Man and takes a weird temper tantrum, smashing buildings and yelling “We had a deal!” at Kang. They didn’t have a deal; they had a hostage situation. And even apart from her excised subplot, Hope doesn’t say or do anything that ties into that theme, but she’s not involved with the activism one either. She’s completely adrift, an extraneous part of a movie that has her name in the title. And, of course, nobody dies except the bad guys, so despite that dopey voiceover where Scott worries if he made things worse, everything is back to normal in the Marvel Universe.
So, here’s what I extrapolate from that: I think Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was a very different movie on the page. As a matter of fact, I think it was a very different movie when it was first filmed. In the months leading up to its release, there were reports of reshoots; I believe those reshoots were massive and completely changed the film from something that may have been unique and interesting to a disposable MCU flick in keeping with its Phase 4 forebears. Marvel and Disney had just come off a string of failures or underperformers, so they got nervous and decided to give people what they expected rather than challenge them or give them something new. They took out the complicated themes of loss and making a deal with the Devil and made Quantumania a simple good vs. evil story. They removed the darkness and tragedy of heroes falling and aimed for an easy dopamine high. Hope and Kang’s characters, plot cohesion, stakes, and all of those storytelling essentials were discarded in favor of a simplistic formula to give the audience what a spreadsheet thought they wanted.
There may have been other motives as well, to be fair. Quantumania is the first Marvel movie in a while that’s been allowed to play in China. I have to wonder if that precipitated the out-of-left-field longing for socialism from Hank Pym. It feels ill-conceived, not just because of its randomness (story-wise), but because it’s contradicted by making the villain a whole army of literally the same guy. There’s also this dumb subplot of Cassie making her own Ant-Man suit and learning to use it (minimally) throughout the movie. When talking about character deaths, Loveness asks if people “really want to see Paul Rudd get murdered in his third movie.” I wonder if Scott was originally going to die, and Cassie would take his place as Ant-Woman or something equally nauseating. It would make a certain amount of thematic sense; in trying to regain time with his daughter, Scott lost all the time he had left – or, rather, sacrificed it. And it would make that “we both just have to lose” line have actual weight. If that’s the case, it makes me think they’re getting cold feet about replacing all the heroes, which, once again, lends credence to my suspicion that they’re going to try to get as many of the old guard back as they can. Under better circumstances, that would be a good sign, but Quantumania certainly suffered for it.
And what was the result? Nobody seems to have liked Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Even the usual suspects in the film criticism community have given it lousy reviews. And this is their kick-off for Phase 5, which is supposed to make up for the failings of Phase 4. Does anyone even care what comes next anymore? (Well, kind of; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is next, and I think that will probably be better, but in terms of the Kang stuff, nobody seems all that interested anymore.) If Marvel had always been this timid, would we have ever gotten films like Infinity War or Civil War, where the good guys lost? Perhaps the bigger question now is, will we ever get Marvel movies like that again?