There’s a lot of mania in the Marvel Cinematic Universe lately, much of it coming from Disney’s ploy to force another Thanos-level, multibillion-dollar “Avengers” arc. MCU superheroes have increasingly been tumbling through alternate realities and timelines that double as infinitely malleable plot devices. For better or worse, it’s everywhere right now.
“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” the third entry in director Peyton Reed’s likable “Ant-Man” series that kicks off Phase 5 of the MCU, arrives Feb. 17, but it may as well have been released last year. Like 2022’s “Doctor Strange: In the Mouth of Madness” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” it’s stuffed to groaning with trippy plotlines and excuses to trot out new versions of familiar heroes and villains.
And yet, there’s a sense that the MCU’s multiverse is spinning out of control. Its thematic attempts to channel anxieties about what could have been if presidential elections, the pandemic, and other events had gone differently in recent years feel shallow. There’s a briefly glimpsed but tragically missed better world out there, the film seems to say, and Marvel’s here to make sense of our disillusionment about it.
Or something like that. “Quantumania” can’t even make sense of itself as it squats over some of the most likable actors of the last couple of generations and plops perfunctory MCU duties on them. A lazy story and clichéd dialogue by screenwriter Jeff Loveness, as well as shoehorned, baldly green-screened action sequences work against one another to confuse the tone. Director Reed manages at least to preserve co-star Michelle Pfieffer’s smoldering intensity and Paul Rudd’s everyman charm, along with a gruff and energetic Michael Douglas and wide-eyed new-hope Kathryn Newton.
Rudd again plays Scott Lang/Ant-Man, a sunnily egotistical Avenger living in San Francisco who’s still trying to earn respect for having saved the universe in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” His scientist partner and co-billed Wasp, Hope van Dyne (an oddly vacant Evangeline Lilly) and her scientist mom, Janet van Dyne (Pfieffer), are still around, as is the story’s original Ant-Man and pivotal MCU character Hank Pym (Douglas). All seems well.
But not so fast! Lang’s daughter Cassie (Newton) invented a road map of sorts for the Quantum Realm, where Pfeiffer’s van Dyne also happens to have been trapped for three decades before being rescued in the last “Ant-Man” movie. After being predictably sucked back in, van Dyne’s past catches up with her as it’s revealed she was a revolutionary trying to fight the realm’s big baddie, Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors).
She first found Kang there as an exile, having been sent to this tiny prison that exists out of time and space. And yet, everyone’s exotic land is someone else’s home, and Kang’s plan to escape hinges on the slaughter of the people already living there (a mishmash of unfortunately designed, cantina-style “Star Wars” characters).
As played by the magnetic Majors, Kang is a ticking time bomb set to intimidate the MCU for years to come. But annoyingly, the movie makes far more sense if you’ve seen Majors’ first version of Kang in the final episode of the 2021 Disney+ series “Loki,” where he’s called He Who Remains.
It’s a full escalation of the interwoven plots from the MCU’s films and TV shows, and seemingly a marketing choice for Disney+. Before “Multiverse of Madness” or “No Way Home,” the six-episode (and far superior) “Loki” heralded this entire arc as Kang openly described each of the ostensible spoilers in the third act of “Quantumania” (seriously) and possibly the entire Multiversal War that’s coming. One can hope that, by the time it arrives, the MCU won’t just be burglarizing “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “Star Wars” and current Disney+ titles like “Avatar” and the animated dud “Strange World,” as it is here.
There’s so much to sift through and occasionally like: a visually inspired subatomic set piece, bits of the roiling family tension among actors who are much better than their scripts. But there’s nowhere to hide from the MCU’s accelerating sprawl, no meaningful plays beyond getting to the next line. It’s fun, yes, but predictable to a fault.
“There’s only one way this can go,” Kang says in “Loki,” in one of the most revealing bits of dialogue in the entire MCU. “You know you can’t get to the end until you’ve been changed by the journey. This stuff, it needs to happen to get us all in the right mindset to finish the quest.”
“So it’s all a game? It’s all … a manipulation?” Tom Hiddleston’s Loki asks. Don’t answer that.