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In 'Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,' the setting is subatomic — as are the stakes

"Say, do any of you guys know how to Madison?" Scott (Paul Rudd) and Cassie (Kathryn Newton) greeted by residents of the Quantum Realm.
Marvel Studios
"Say, do any of you guys know how to Madison?" Scott (Paul Rudd) and Cassie (Kathryn Newton) greeted by residents of the Quantum Realm.

You know what? Sure.

[Critic nods, files review, impressed with his incisive pithiness.]

[Critic receives snippy text from his editor, demanding extrapolation.]

[Critic, wounded, defiant, sends shrug emoji.]

[Critic receives snippier, angrier, more demanding text from editor.]

[Critic sighs, reopens review.]



Maybe this is what we're all just doing now, making movies like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Maybe we all just accept it. Can we all just accept it? Could we? We'd all sleep better, I promise you that much.

Who's complaining? Not me. I mean, I don't feel I'm in any position to complain, because as a little nerdy kid, a movie like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was precisely what I wished for. Longed for. Ached for. Me, and hundreds of thousands of little nerdy kids like me.

We did this. It's on us. Let's own it.

We always knew we'd get movies about Superman, Batman, even Spider-Man. And we got them, eventually. But it wasn't enough; we wished for more.

Well. Hear me, my nerdy people: Look around you! I speak to you today in this, the year 2023 Common Era, wherein all of us, as a culture, find ourselves standing three-deep into an actual, honest-to-God Ant-Man film franchise.

Think on't!

Seriously, take a breath, hold it for a long beat, and think on't!

Ant-Man, for pity's sake!

Even more mind-boggling: This third Ant-Man film posits the purple, time-traveling despot Kang the Conqueror as a bad guy to take seriously. And the filmmakers have dutifully imported him and his whole goofy-as-hell outfit, more or less intact from the comics page. But don't stop there, because whom should Kang have henching for him than the even goofier-than-hell M.O.D.O.K, the Mental (or possibly Mechanical) Organism Designed Only for Killing. Yes, that M.O.D.O.K — the giant head in the floaty chair with the dangly arms and legs. And we're supposed to take him seriously, too — or semi-seriously, as screenwriter Jeff Loveness is clearly one of us and knows how to make a gleefully silly character like M.O.D.O.K work, at least.

Shrinking the stakes

But as I sat there watching Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, I started to wonder if perhaps, back when we as nerdy little kids wished for it, all those long years ago, someone snuck a monkey's paw into the whole affair. How else to explain how tirelessly, how doggedly, the film kept insisting that nothing I was witnessing remotely mattered — not simply to the cacophonous macrocluster of corporate content called the MCU, but to...much of anything, really?

Most of the film takes place at a far remove from the Marvel Universe we know, down in the subatomic Quantum Realm that characters from previous films have visited (Ant-Man), gotten stuck in for decades (Ant-Man and the Wasp) or used as a series of temporal highway bypasses on their way to saving the universe (Avengers: Endgame).

This time out, it's the entire Ant-Family that gets sucked down into the MCU's own microscopic Whoville, with its sunless, surreal, slimy Color Out of Space production design. There's Scott/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), his girlfriend Hope/The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Hope's father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), Hank's wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Scott's teenage daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton).

There, they quickly befriend the woefully interchangeable locals, including Krylar (smarmily smarmed by Bill Murray), who are fighting against the evil Kang (Jonathan Majors) to save their cavernous, entirely and egregiously CGI home.

A word about the CGI of it all: Look, as I say, maybe it's time to concede already, to just collectively agree that we'll move the goalposts and abandon any expectation that these movies will ever, should ever, can ever look like they were made by actors actually working together, or at least vaguely proximal to each other, on the same soundstage, at the same time.

Consider: The film features a brief scene in which Douglas, Pfeiffer and Murray sit around a table at a bar. You look at that scene and you think, here are three Hollywood stars who've been around for five decades. They could have made a film together at any time during that period and now, finally, here they are and here it is.

But they aren't and it isn't.

When we eventually get a The Making Of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, we might well learn that those three actors actually filmed that scene together. But in absolutely no way does it look like they did, and it sure as hell doesn't feel like they did. And that's what matters.

Or should. But it doesn't.

A cartoonish theory

A chilling thought occurs. What if the snobs were right, all this time?

You know: Those imperious jerks who've spent decades now peering down their noses at superhero movies, who've clucked their tongues and stroked their beards and dismissed the appeal of these films, waving them off as mere cartoons? I've fought against them, one way or another, my entire adult professional life — but what if, in one narrow sense at least, they're right? What if they've had the answer all along?

Let's look at the evidence. The characters of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, at least, are flat. Breathtakingly so. Take Scott Lang, as played by Paul Rudd. In previous Ant-Man films, we may all have looked past the thinness of his characterization, because the charming Ruddishness of the performance blinded us to it. But as depicted here, Scott's entire personality, the whole of his character, is defined thus: "I love my daughter Cassie. Where is Cassie? What have you done with Cassie?"

Douglas' Hank Pym? "I like ants."

Pfeiffer's Janet? "I have secrets I refuse to divulge for no reasons I can point to."

Newton's Cassie? "I am every teen ever depicted in popular culture."

Lilly's Hope? "..."

(Seriously, no time or effort is spent on Hope's motivation or characterization, she's just sort of ... there. In the mix onscreen. She might as well be one of the CGI barstools.)

Majors gets several scenes to explain — declaim, technically — what Kang's all about, yet still I came away from the film with no concrete idea of what Kang's all about.

But what if we all just agree to accept it? To categorize these films as cartoons? After all, the people who make cartoons are famously never in the same place together. The voice actors record their tracks in separate sound booths at separate times. The animation work is shipped overseas.

Perhaps that would explain why, at so many points in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, characters keep running or jumping or nearly falling off ledges and all the while your brain just floats up there in your cranium with its brainy arms crossed, flatly refusing to accept any of what you're seeing at all — the running, the jumping, even the baseline existence of the ledges themselves.

And now, a brief note to the producers of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Hello. I am here today to talk to you about the actress Michelle Pfeiffer's wig in the Marvel Cinematic Universe film Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

Seriously, people: What ... what exactly are you doing here, do you think? What are your priorities? What are you spending the money on?

You make movies for a living, so I know you realize how they work. You know that when this film gets shown on that big screen, my gal Micky P's forehead is going to be six feet high. Later, it's gonna get beamed into our living rooms in ultra crisp plasma super hyper mega HD, or whatever.

And that means it matters, and it matters hugely, that we can see the damn lace front.

We can also see how parched and thirsty that poor wig is. There is, I'm sorry to say, simply no excuse for any of this, none.

But look, there's an answer. It's too late to save the wig in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania -- but for future reference, just know that I'm happy to meet with you, and your accountants and go over the spreadsheets, because I'm telling you that you can fix this.

Just look at the standard line item in the budget for, say, the Mysterious Glowing Object That's Terribly Terribly Important To Everyone In Whichever Marvel Movie This Happens To Be — in this case, that yellow orb thingy with all those metal rings flying around inside it that Kang wants, for reasons I can't remember now. No, yeah, it does look great, I agree. Not my point.

Because imagine what would happen if you reallocated a tiny amount from that budget line — just enough to take its CGI glowiness down a few lumens that no one would notice anyway — so that your teams of professionals could set to work sprinkling some of their CGI fairy dust along the top of Michelle's forehead and obscure the wig line.

That's it. That one, tiny thing is literally all you have to do. No one's saying you need to futz with your Hair and Makeup Team at all. It's not their fault, it's yours; they're all doing a great job otherwise. Michael Douglas' thick mop of silver foxiness looks great, bless that man's follicular genes. Rudd's hair looks great, too. (I mean, the color — maybe it's real, maybe it's Maybelline, who can say, he's not on trial here.)

And you've got Evangeline Lilly sporting a short n' kicky mom-bob throughout? Perfect, no notes. Wish she hadn't lost the chunky Rachel Maddow frames she's wearing in the opening minutes, though. But here she's giving mid-'90s Annie Lennox, she's giving No more I love yous, and it works.

And let's be real. You all spent a lot of time and money to write the code and power the servers to de-age Michael Douglas for just one lousy scene in a previous Ant-Man film, so a tiny bit of wig line CGI won't break you. Plus, you owe her.

... Oh and also throw in a few bucks on coconut oil while you're at it. Just to moisturize that poor wig a bit, because she looks like she hasn't had a drop to drink since the Seoul Olympics.

It's the very least you can do. Almost literally.

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Glen Weldon
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.