NEW YORK — There’s a lot thrown up on the screen in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” and much of it is perplexing. But one thing makes this picture stand out, at least for me: It’s the only superhero movie I can think of that hinges on two likable Jewish men being good dads.
In the “Ant-Man” movies, the heroes are small and so are the stakes. These are the least essential movies in the enormous Marvel Cinematic Universe, the culture-gobbling juggernaut that began in 2008 and shows few signs of going away. A recurring gag here is that Paul Rudd — Ant-Man! — frequently has to remind people that he was instrumental in saving the world, but as part of the ensemble in the team-up “Avengers” films. He also still gets confused for Spider-Man, which is totally understandable.
In the first two stand-along entries (2015’s “Ant-Man” and 2018’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp”) director Peyton Reed leaned into the visual absurdity of a microscopic superhero, crafting action sequences on toy train sets and skyscrapers wheeled around like luggage. Unfortunately, that playful big-then-small-then-big point-of-view dynamism is mostly lost in his newest chapter, and traded for unimpressive computer-generated sludge.
The creatures and costumes our gang find in “the quantum realm” (which we’ll get to in a minute) look terrific, in an original “Star Wars” or “Tron” kind of way, and the story hints at going in a B-movie (or, in the case of all these insects, “bee movie”) direction like “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” But the second half of “Quantumania” makes the disappointing decision to play all this with absolute seriousness. The movie winds up being confusing (a sin) and dull (a bigger sin.) I’m absolutely flummoxed.
But let’s focus on the positive. Paul Rudd, Hollywood’s most adorable Midwestern Jew, is back as Scott Lang, a reformed cat burglar who, thanks to innovative technology and a desire to help people, frequently saves the day as Ant-Man. He can shrink (down to the size of an ant!) which has proven time and again to be more useful than you might think. By his side is Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), his best gal, who does the same as The Wasp. (Only she can fly, too, whereas Ant-Man must ride an ant!)
These miracles of science were created by Hope’s father, Dr. Hank Pym, played by Jewish-American (and Israel-supporter) Michael Douglas. Douglas’s character has gotten goofier as the movies have progressed, using his physics-defying science to enlarge pizza pies to save a few shekels, and delivering lines like “I like ants!” as if he were hanging out with George Costanza and Kramer.
By Hank’s side is his wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who, if I may be so bold, still looks absolutely pfoxy as she advances well past AARP-qualifying age. She wins a lot of points for having to say some of the goofiest technobabble stuff, and manages to do it with a straight face. Lastly, is Kathryn Newton, as Scott’s daughter Cassie.
These five (all scientists and adventurers) get sucked into the quantum realm. The idea, I think, is that they are within an atom, but once they are there, we see it’s also the same place where Janet was trapped for years. You would think the idea is that if you can somehow get so incredibly small to travel within an atom, and the fact that there are a near-infinity of atoms around us at all times, it wouldn’t be the same little spot. But I guess there are things we don’t know about higher dimensional realms (I have tried, oh, I have tried to understand Jewish-American physicist Brian Greene book’s “The Elegant Universe” and failed), so the movie gives us the weird (and poorly lit) Rhode Island with its own set of creatures and villains.
Essentially our team goes to Oz and meets the locals, most of whom are wildly creative funny-looking creatures. “Hey, that guy looks like broccoli!” Michael Douglas shouts, in ultimate dad mode. And he’s right. There’s a guy who looks like broccoli, and later they all fly around in a spaceship that looks like a paramecium, sticking their hands in ooze to fly the thing. It’s terrific and the kids oughta love it.
Exploring the new world in all its Saturday Morning Cartoon splendor is truly enjoyable, especially with wisecracking Paul Rudd at the center of it all. His primary motivation is simple: he wants to protect his daughter. She is, of course, old enough now to form her own identity, and has her own Pym-tech-enhanced suit. The two growing to see eye-to-eye forms what flimsy emotional story exists; it’s corny and predictable, but Rudd is such a winning performer it’s hard to condemn it too much.
What you can (and should!) condemn is Marvel’s continued practice of slamming the breaks on the movie you are currently watching to shill for the next one. The zippy “how will our heroes get home?” story takes a sluggish detour while a new villain, Kang (Jonathan Majors), stomps around looking glum. Imagine Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren from the recent “Star Wars” movies, then strip him of any personality or motivation — that’s Kang.
It’s a shame, as I’ve seen Majors in other films (like the forthcoming “Magazine Dreams”) and he is a very talented fellow. But he’s given nothing to do here, except put us all to sleep with his rote, confusing dialogue. I really don’t know what he wants to do, other than kill. And I don’t know why. I also don’t care. The movie isn’t good enough for me to care.
But the movie is good enough for me to enjoy the cool creature effects and the charms of its main cast. I don’t think you should spend your hard-earned cash and see this in theaters, but streaming it in three months or so isn’t a bad bet. It may even make the penny-counting Hank Pym proud. PJC