It’s tough to make truly trippy cinema. The bold ones break through. 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Star Gate sequence can still hurl you into an altered state at 3am. Alex Garland’s Annihilation, which turned people into flora, was fresh. It can even be done on the cheap, as Shane Meadows proved with Dead Man’s Shoes’ shuddering LSD sequence, and Ben Wheatley did with A Field In England’s juddering psychedelia. It’s odd, then, that Marvel, with all their resources, have made a film set in a universe where time and space are not as we know them, yet have ended up with something that that looks surreal, but feels shackled. Mind-bending it is not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun.
Following two frothier outings, the third Ant-Man film takes Earth’s tiniest hero to bigger places. Time/space jumper Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is living his best life, and the first few minutes of Quantumania set up potentially meaty material. Scott’s daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) challenges his chill — while she fights for causes she believes in, he’s just being happy and famous. She’s young and idealistic, full of vim and vigour, which may be important later (spoiler: it will). Meanwhile, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), having been rescued from decades stuck in the Quantum Realm, is harbouring secrets about what went on down there (spoiler: a lot). But before any one of them can really get into any of it, the quantum shit hits the quantum fan, and they’re all transported to crazy-land.
In trying to compete with the more seismic MCU films — in going big — this franchise loses some of its charm.
At its best, Quantumania plays out like an episode of 1960s Star Trek, those hefty themes and more — idealism, abandonment, morality, identity — explored within the context of a wild universe inhabited by wackadoodle aliens. It’s scripted by sometime Rick And Morty writer Jeff Loveness, which is clear via the more surreal highlights — the creature curious about human holes; the walking, talking broccoli; the take on Marvel Comics legend MODOK, an utterly ridiculous killing machine, the film gleefully leaning into his silliness.
The madness, though, feels somehow restrained. There are imaginative set-pieces, notably a bit where Scott encounters endless versions of himself, but they feel like lesser versions of things we’ve seen before — in The Matrix, say, or, even in the MCU itself (nothing here matches the invention of Doctor Strange’s trippier sequences). And throughout, you can practically smell the green-screen — as good as the CGI is, there’s just so much of it. This film makes the Star Wars prequels seem subtle, and what is there never feels quite freaky enough, especially as it lurches towards an all-too conventional climax.
The edge is missing across the board. Considering this is the first MCU film to introduce the new Big Bad for the foreseeable, the motivations for Jonathan Majors’ timeline-controlling, world-vanquishing Kang The Conqueror seem somewhat nebulous. And despite the story presenting huge consequences, it all feels peculiarly inconsequential, more interested in paving the way for what comes next. In trying to compete with the more seismic MCU films — in going big — this franchise loses some of its charm. Ant-Man is better small.
And yet… Majors is an enthralling watch. His Kang — or at least, this particular variant — is furtive and odd, a world, a history behind his eyes. Kang is formidable and intimidating, but Majors imbues him with inherent eccentricity, captivatingly so, making the multiversal villain multi-dimensional. The best scenes are not the ones populated by bizarro creatures, but the ones involving Majors and Pfeiffer just talking, thrashing out their complex history. A sizeable chunk of the film is just that, and it’s tense, chewy stuff, proper back-to-basics human interaction.
If it’s a shame the rest of the film is lacking that, there is at least enough of it to hang on to, and enough goofiness to have a laugh with, including some pretty cool ant shenanigans. Quantumania might be more lightweight than it thinks it is, but it’s got a few surprises up its sleeve, drawing on decades of the comic’s nuttier ideas. The MODOK merch is coming.
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