Peyton Reed’s “Ant-Man” films have generally served as a sort of palate cleanser for the doomsday stakes of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang is just an ordinary guy, we’re told again and again, who still can’t really believe he’s even a part of the Avengers. In these films, he becomes the wide-eyed, middle-aged fanboy of the group. In his own films, he lives under blue skies in San Francisco as an affable single father and ex-con who was once fired from Baskin Robbins and has the occasional enemy to defeat.
In this third film, Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, which opens in theaters Thursday, he’s riding with a best-selling memoir, lots of fans around town and a generally sunny disposition – when he is – with his his own post-blip star went on to not bail his teenage daughter Cassie (now played by Kathryn Newton, always a pleasant presence) out of jail for civil disobedience.
There’s a fun, light sitcom twist to those early scenes of him and his makeshift family Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) sitting around the table. They use their particle technology to blow up the tiny cake.
“I just saved us $8,” Pym proudly explains.
But Ant-Man is part of the MCU’s larger chessboard, so of course he’s doomed to be sucked into the chaos of the multiverse and build characters for more Avengers movies with the introduction of a new villain, Kang (played with a lunatic). suffering from the great Jonathan Majors). And the results have been mixed. Reed has returned to direct with a new writer, Jeff Loveness, who was also tapped to write Avengers: The Kang Dynasty, and it’s hard not to empathize with both because of the logical gymnastics involved , to aid Ant-Man and his gang in conflict.
A comedy buff with an affinity for comic book and B-movie absurdities, Loveness gives Ant-Man his own Star Wars adventure. There is quite a bit of unrest in the quantum realm, with rowdy rebels fighting a powerful ruler with an army of faceless soldiers. But he takes that conceit further, adding some personality and humor to the rebels, including William Jackson Harper as the mind-reading Quaz. The villain is a killing machine, MODOK, who (knowingly) looks straight out of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie and is quite entertaining. It’s both a nod to the fun of sci-fi ridiculousness and a reminder that sometimes serious superhero movies are just one crazy special effects away from being dumb superhero movies.
Quantumania also gives Pfeiffer a lot more work to do as we and Hank and Hope learn a little more about Janet’s 30 years in the quantum realm and the various compromises and alliances she made to stay alive. Pfeiffer is a definite delight and the real center of the film, despite what the title might suggest. Ant-Man finds himself in the midst of a mess stretched out in a jumble of sci-fi furniture that’s probably quite inspired and interesting individually, but together just blends into a bleak mess.
It’s a shame because Reed’s films are generally so fresh and styled and best focused on characters, not worlds and quantum realms. “Quantumania” shines when it keeps things light and bubbly.
But Kang needs to be more serious as we can assume there are bigger story needs. Majors is certainly terrifying and compelling, but Kang seems like an ill-fitting foe for a standalone Ant-Man film, and the result is a Quantumania that tries to be too many things. However, it is not a Wasp film. Lilly has a lot to do, but not much — if any — character development.
And thankfully, Quantumania keeps the ending.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, a Walt Disney release hitting theaters Thursday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “some sci-fi action violence.” Running time: 122 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPA Definition of PG-13: Parents Urgently Warned. Some materials may be unsuitable for children under 13 years of age.
Follow AP film writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.