In the four years since the Marvel Cinematic Universe reached a seemingly natural conclusion with “Avengers: Endgame,” many critics have called the installments that followed pointless and meandering. Granted, quite a few of the films have been lackluster, but I never fully agreed with that claim.
I enjoyed “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (although that one isn’t aging well) and “Thor: Love and Thunder,” as well as the Disney+ series “WandaVision” and “Loki.” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” also had their moments.
However, this weekend’s release of “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is the first time in the MCU’s 15-year existence that I’ve questioned if it should continue.
While the movie isn’t total garbage — there are too many good performances and fun comedic beats to write it off completely — I can’t deny that I asked myself “why should I care about any of this?” far too many times over the course of two exposition-heavy hours.
In the third installment of the “Ant-Man” series, which launches Phase 5 of the MCU, reformed thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is living his best life after helping to save the world from Thanos and bringing back everyone who disappeared in the blip.
That includes his scientist girlfriend Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and her retired superhero parents Hank (Michael Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer).
But that happiness is short-lived when Scott’s brilliant daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) sends a signal into the quantum realm (where Scott and Janet were both trapped at different times) that’s picked up by a dangerous adversary.
As a result, they’re all sucked into the microscopic world within our own, where they meet strange new creatures, a civilization in danger and — worst of all — Kang (Jonathan Majors), an enemy who possesses the power to travel throughout the multiverse.
Does that make sense to you? If not, you’ve got 30-plus films to watch before you can see “Quantumania.”
Therein lies the biggest problem: with budgets constantly increasing on these Marvel flicks (they have to be global blockbusters in order to make a profit), it seems like the studio would want to increase the size of its audience, which isn’t possible when the storyline is impenetrable to anyone who’s not willing to do a ton of homework.
What’s more, there are far too many moments where narrative momentum comes to a screeching halt so characters can deliver pages of exposition designed to set up movies we won’t see for months or years.
Remember how clunky “Iron Man 2” was because it had to establish S.H.I.E.L.D. and Thor?
Now imagine that on an infinite scale. I miss relatively standalone stories like “Captain America” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
It doesn’t help that the emotional stakes of “Quantumania” are practically nonexistent because the villain is more or less immortal (all of his “variants” throughout the multiverse are working together) — until the next big “Avengers” event, of course.
Plus, because of CGI overload, nothing feels real anyway.
Everything is clearly shot in front of a green screen, so there’s no tactile elements to hold onto; there’s an ugly, artificial sheen that permeates the entire flick.
Fortunately, there are a handful of positive elements that keep the movie from being a total lost cause.
Despite not having much to work with (a far-too-common issue with MCU villains), Majors is terrific as the new franchise big bad, a la Thanos.
As the never-ending exposition and table-setting indicate, he’s set to be a major player for quite some time, so I’m glad they found someone engaging who can make up for not having anything to do other than speechify.
Rudd is entertaining as always, but Lang seems to be on cruise control this time around.
He’s the character things happen around, rather than someone who contributes to any clear resolution to central conflict.
Sure, he shrinks and expands to skyscraper size while punching a lot of people, but his growth is purely physical.
He’s the same guy at the beginning and the end, despite being bestowed with universe-altering knowledge.
Newton is also solid as the older Cassie, although I’m not sure why Emma Fuhrmann — who played the character in “Endgame” — wasn’t asked to return.
Pfeiffer gets more to do this time around, but Douglas and Lilly are totally sidelined.
That’s a bummer for Douglas, but considering the kind of headlines Lilly has been generating lately, it might not be such a bad thing in her case.
Luckily, there are still plenty of comedic moments (including an otherwise pointless cameo from Bill Murray), which I enjoyed.
Still, I have to admit they undercut the heightened dramatic moments and supposedly multiverse-altering stakes that “Quantumania” is aiming for.
Jarring tonal issues aside, what this installment of the MCU comes down to is wheel-spinning of the highest degree. Perhaps once the entire Kang saga unfolds, this movie will look better in hindsight.
But for now, it feels like a big “so what?”
“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is rated PG-13 for violence/action, and language.
Opens in theaters on Feb. 17.
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