‘Quantumania:’ or, ‘imagine if Rick and Morty sucked’

Part of the solution for Ant-Man’s unpopularity has been to add more characters, and you end up with this “Power Rangers” array of Ant-people. Images courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

3/10 Oh, Ant-Man. What did you do to deserve getting stepped on like this? In that iconic moment in an iconic movie when the Avengers assembled onscreen for the first time, Ant-Man was already the butt of the joke. He was the Avenger all the “geek culture” magazines, such as they were all those centuries ago in May 2012, were baiting clicks with. Do you know which original Avenger didn’t appear in The Avengers? “Wow” all your friends and distinguish yourself as the true geek among all the bandwagoners with this one bit of trivia!

Ant-Man was the first Marvel movie to openly suck. Of course the Captain America movies left me wanting and everyone can admit the Thor movies are a letdown, but Ant-Man was the first one that felt skippable, and a lot of people skipped it. Its $57.2 million opening is pitiful by MCU standards, only the second-worst at the time to the Incredible Hulk movie that still barely registers as part of the series.

The Avengers was followed by a weighty year-long pause, the longest we would go without an MCU release until the COVID-19 crisis, and then Iron Man 3, which engaged directly with the series’ most popular character’s PTSD from the immediately preceding film. Avengers: Age of Ultron was followed up two months later by a new character who’d already been introduced as the butt of a big joke.

Eight years and an entire lifetime later – the first Ant-Man released exactly one month after Donald Trump descended the golden escalator, try not to think about it – as I sit down in the IMAX house at AMC Stonebriar where I recently listened to a full house scream for all three Spider-Men, it’s hard not to think back to that first Ant-Man, because there’s the same palpable lack of excitement in the air. The lobby tells the entire story, with one poster for Quantumania situated in the shadow of their life-sized Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. III stand. The main displays, which are the identical image of new archvillain Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) holding a member of the ant-family on his finger, too small to tell who, are shoved into the same corner. Ant-Man was the MCU’s rebound after the melancholy Frankenstein drama of Age of Ultron and again after Thanos snapped in Infinity War, and now he’s being used again for a handshake with the next big bad.

The contrast between the title “Quantumania,” just an incredibly fun word, and this sad, imposing blue image of Jonathan Majors’ giant frowning face in a position of dominance is so surreal, made even moreso by this apparently being the only poster design they came up with.

In Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the ant-family is living large. Patriarch Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) has calmed down after his wife, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), was rescued from the quantum realm, and their daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), has a boss bitch haircut and is running their corporation. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the professional thief they hired once a few years ago who has stuck around as a guinea pig because he bangs Hope sometimes, has become a successful memoirist, and his daughter, Cassie Lang (Kathryn Newton), is grown and has her own shrink-suit.

While fooling around with their crazy shrink devices, they all get sucked into the quantum realm, a weird CGI void you can get to by shrinking down small enough, and that’s trouble, because Kang the Conqueror has conquered the place.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is bad. Technically, it’s a slap-dash film that almost feeds my sense of pointlessness back to me. Getting a third movie out is like crossing the finish line, but you can tell a lot of the talent doesn’t want to be here anymore. Douglas is 78 years old and has played exactly one character other than the elder Ant-Man since 2015. He looks tired. Pfeiffer and Lilly look like they want nothing to do with this.

He’s behind the camera so I can’t take his temperature, but director Peyton Reed hasn’t made anything but Ant-Man movies since 2015, and after 2018’s very fun Ant-Man and the Wasp, Quantumania is more interested in its paycheck than putting a heartfelt artistic vision onscreen. The whole film is dark and ugly and flat-looking, but that’s because the entire movie was shot in a green void, so I can’t put too much blame on cinematographer William Pope. Every location cut feels like a slap in the face, though I can’t imagine editors Adam Gerstel and Laura Jennings were chopping establishing shots – in a movie that leans this heavily on animation, it’s more likely they weren’t even drawn.

Bill Murray steals the entire movie in his one, single, solitary scene. It’s literally all in a day’s work for him. 

MCU entries tend to get a pass from critics, but Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is sitting at a rare 47% “splat” from Rotten Tomatoes, and the setting is a major reason why. MCU and ‘10s Disney movies in general are all ugly mixtures of photography and photo-realistic animation that build on the technological advances of films like Avatar and Jurassic Park for convenience, bringing the audience whatever fantastic scenario as cheaply as possible. Quantumania relies heavily enough on animation that the illusion that any of this was ever OK is broken, and usually compliant viewers rejected it.

Quantumania is ruled by the people who actually wanted to be here – newcomers Majors and screenwriter Jeff Loveness.

Quantumania imagines a feature-length version of the brainy and celebrated-yet-niche TV show “Rick and Morty” that sucks, and since every episode of “Rick and Morty” is a high-wire act that comes heart-flutteringly close to sucking, it’s not even an interesting thing to imagine. The heavily metatextual show cycles through major science-fiction concepts, using Rick’s cynicism and Morty’s innocence to brush through and explore their underlying socialism and nihilism in a half-hour timeslot. 

The show is so iconic and captures its subjects so completely that there’s a real danger science fiction as a genre could turn into a sad game of “‘Rick and Morty’ did it.” Recent films like Everything Everywhere all at Once and Infinity Pool expanded scenarios that “Rick and Morty” dealt with in single episodes into feature-length films, but they also expand and explore the themes and questions about humanity more fully and from different angles. Quantumania is not that. Quantumania is a muddy “Rick and Morty” nightmare with just about every set piece ripped directly from the show, including a sequence of Lang surrounded by and eventually working with a mass of variants and the “citadel of Kangs” it uses as sequel bait, with only the most unavoidable of these scenarios’ underlying themes.

None of this is an accident – in fact, it’s almost certainly exactly what Disney was going for given that they commissioned Loveness, rose to prominence for writing several “Rick and Morty” episodes starting in series 4, to do it. He’s already signed to pen Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and, oh boy, does it not bode well for that movie.

The first leg of the MCU, from roughly the first formal Avengers movie to Endgame, lazed into a long riff on “Community,” the brainy and celebrated-yet-niche sitcom known for heavy metatextual storytelling and clever genre play, including plucking the Russo brothers, who made their bones directing episodes of “Community,” to direct four of its biggest films. In a lot of ways this is the secret to the series’ popularity, so it makes all the sense in the world to jump to “Rick and Morty,” “Community” creator Dan Harmon’s next show, as source material for its next leg.

Majors is a megastar in the making, and of all the actors the MCU has picked up on cheap long-term contracts before they got famous, he’s sure to go down as their most prescient choice. Quantumania is a study in what it looks like when an actor out-performs a terrible script as he throws everything he has into this Hamlet-esque version of Kang. The “citadel of Kangs” epilogue makes it clear he’s having a lot more fun than anyone else, too.

The ant-family all seems modeled off of Rick, with Janet van Dyne returning to the setting of her younger days as a swashbuckling freedom fighter, activist Cassie Lang embodying a younger version of the same angst and Pym’s gruff demeanor reflecting the character’s sharp edges – all except Scott Lang, who occupies the same space as Jerry.

The medium is the message. The medium is what sets Quantumania apart from similar settings like Star Wars and “Rick and Morty.” Star Wars’ iconic cantina was created with an army of thoughtfully designed puppets in a real set. “Rick and Morty’s” alien environments are drawn to be full of Easter eggs, jokes and tons of cosmic horror and forcibly add a new dimension to the show – it’s fast-paced, but you have to slow it down to appreciate all the art, meaning every episode has multiple ways to view it built in.

Quantumania’s medium sucks. It sucks! This CGI void that Disney can afford to churn feature-length films out of at a steady drip, it’s awful! All the sets look like they’re covered in shrinkwrap. Every CGI character is action-figure perfect. There’s no daylight in the movie, it’s supposed to look like a cavern that’s half-lit by – hey, where is all that light coming from, anyway? Can we get more of it? Everything looks so ugly in this half-darkness.

Watching Quantumania, you can see not just a bad film, but the entire malaise of late-capitalist society. The “green screen everything” method of filmmaking is high-effort, high-cost and produces low quality movies, but it allows everyone at the office to send the most work down the ladder.

There’s a whole cast of revolutionary characters to talk up how horrible Kang is, and the whole movie grinds to a halt whenever the leader, Jentorra (Katy O’Brian), hits the screen. She’s very determined that nobody have a good time at her socialist revolution, those things that usually devolve into crazy hippie parties.

Does Marvel embrace the socialist revolution here? One of the MCU’s consistent criticisms is its allergy to systemic critique – “You want to save the world, but you don’t want it to change,” as Ultron chides in his film. Almost uniformly, villains want to save the world and heroes just want to party, and the hollowness and extremity of these desires laid bare by what they do with the infinity stones. Thanos wants to destroy life on an intergalactic scale to fail to solve very simple resource management issues, and the Avengers just want things to go back to normal again while changing absolutely as little as possible, giving no thought whatsoever to unintended consequences or other ways they could use the stones to help.

Quantumania thrusts Lang and company into an ongoing, full-scale socialist revolution. They specify Kang’s crimes as colonizing and enslaving the local population, and the film explores the social stratas of collaborators, both sellouts like Lord Krylar (Bill Murray) and bootlickers like Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who has volunteered to be cybernetically altered into Kang’s hunter-killer as a substitute for an identity in a failed effort to make people like him.

It ends with an extended sequence of the ant-family leading an army of disaffected quantum realm residents as they rise up against Kang in his ivory tower, overwhelm his stormtroopers and flood into his territory. This army is supported further by a large squadron of Pym’s ants that also made the journey – as literally as possible, we are watching workers rise up to overwhelm a colonizer and his police force.

Consistently featuring villains in positions of wealth and political power would represent a seismic shift for this series, and it’d be so wonderful and appropriate for so many reasons. Most people have a very different relationship to entrenched power structures in 2023 than we did in 2008 – this series is actually a few months older than the housing market collapse, try not to think about it – it would be much easier to incorporate characters like Daredevil and Punisher who engage directly with state violence, and it’d be a fitting shift from the pop-culture worship of “Community” to the radical libertarianism of “Rick and Morty.”

But the medium is still the message, and the medium of Quantumania is built on the same labor exploitation that its characters revolt against.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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1 Response to ‘Quantumania:’ or, ‘imagine if Rick and Morty sucked’

  1. Pingback: ‘Cocaine Bear’ a crash of poor filmmaking | Reel Entropy

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