To paraphrase Michelle Pfiffer’s Janet Van Dyne, ‘He seems like a lost soul, but he’s also terrifying.’ This is a description that appropriately defines the personality, mentality, and reality of Kang the Conqueror, Ant-Man, and the Wasp’s new nemesis who sees time as an ephemeral thing that can’t be fully defined but must be conquered.
Played by Johnathan Majors, Kang is a man who’s turned the Quantum Realm into his domain. A place where people refer to Kang as “Him”, rather than his name. He’s built a kingdom where he rules through fear, oppression, and genocide, and it’s this that becomes the newest challenge for Scott Lang (Paul), also known as Ant-Man, and his family in Quantumania. But while this may be a new challenge in the sense that it’s the first time they (and the audience) are able to explore the Quantum Realm in a way we haven’t seen before in previous MCU films, it’s not a new fight or scenario. You see, Quantumania follows the exact same story beats as every other film in the twenty-plus-year franchise.
First, there’s a new discovery by a character, in this case, Cassie (Kathryn Newton), Scott’s daughter who out of curiosity and foolhardiness decides to build a machine that can send signals to the Quantum Realm. With the aid of her stepmother Hope Pym (Evangeline Lilly), and Hope’s father Hank, played by Michael Douglas, – adults who should know better – Cassie’s goal is achieved. But no sooner than Scott and Janet discover what their family members have been up to, they all end up getting sucked into the device and thrown into a world outside of known space and time, and beyond their wildest imaginations. Except not really, because in this new world, class systems exist. Oppression exists. War exists. Racial and cultural genocide exist, as do creatures and beings that aren’t that different from anything they or we’ve seen before.
I don’t want to nit-pick, but Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, highlights just how bereft of original ideas, concepts, and execution the MCU is. Which granted, is to be expected of a franchise that has dozens of films and shows within it, but when tens of millions of dollars are being spent to create a single film, and hundreds of millions are made from people spending their hard-earned money on cinema tickets, concessions food, and merchandise, the least they should get is a film, unlike anything they’ve seen before. Yes, the film, just like every other one, is based on long-established comic lore and canon, but that doesn’t mean that making the story, characters, and visuals seem like something new and fresh can’t be achieved.
Director Peyton Reed and writer Jeff Loveness have created a film that while mainly entertaining thanks to the performances of Majors and Pfeiffer and some of the supporting cast – more on them soon – is extremely predictable, with dialogue that does more of a disservice to the characters and their performers, than serve them. The script doesn’t tell us much about who these people are or add gravity to the situation they’re in. Instead of invoking a sense of dread and true concern over being stranded in a world where no one but them knows they exist, Scott, Hope, Hank, and Cassie spend more time delivering pallid one-liners, and exchanging quips instead of actually protecting the lives of the beings they’ve placed in mortal danger because of their selfishness. Sounds similar right? When time could’ve been given to let the audience know more about characters like Jentorra (Katy M. O’Brien) who by the way give strong Xena: The Warrior Princess vibes, telepath Quaz (William Jackson Harper), or even Kang himself, time is spent with a sequence introducing someone from Janet’s past in the Quantum Realm, who serves no real purpose to the plot and is very forgettable.
As the main villain of the film, and the next ‘big bad’, very little about who Kang is beyond what we’d been told in the Loki series is revealed. It’s Majors’s performance that saves Kang from being a flat and uninteresting character.
In flashbacks that occur as Janet recounts her connection to the fearsome man, we see that they had an unexpectedly close relationship that was formed through a bond forged as they worked together on Kang’s damaged ship, in the hopes it could return her to her own timeline on earth, and him to the fight he wanted to win. These flashbacks were the main highlights of the film as Pfeiffer and Majors both give the right balance of trepidation, loneliness, and determination their characters feel. You believe every line of delivery and are fully invested in their story. You actually feel sympathy for Kang and empathize with him, because his loneliness is palpable. You know he genuinely feels loss and fear, because who wants to be completely alone? It’s this weight and gravity that was missing from the rest of the film even though the other main characters are basically in the same situation, only years apart. And this isn’t the fault of the actors. They all did the best they could with what they were given, it’s just that they weren’t given much to work with.
Kang’s turn from a sympathetic traveler to a menacing conqueror is impressive because he shows how having power and a lack of empathy can corrupt someone. He also demonstrates that not having a fundamental understanding that seeing everything as a game to be won at all costs, and people pawns to be dominated is how entire civilizations are destroyed. And herein lies a major issue I have with the film.
The way Kang is written, is practically another version of Palpatine, the main villain in the Star Wars universe, which coincidentally…or maybe not, is also a Disney property. The empire that Kang builds is structured exactly like Palpatine’s Empire, as well as every other genocidist and imperialist who uses military forces to fight and dominate for them. Now, this isn’t exactly an issue per se, but the fact they chose a Black man to play this character, isn’t exactly the best choice when taken into context. When you really look at it, having a Black man portray a colonizing genocidist who indiscriminately goes about murdering and oppressing the indigenous people, while the white people are treated as heroes leading a rebellion despite their actions and mere presence leading to an actual war with Kang, is in a sense careless storytelling.
There’s more I could say about the film and particular choices that I found to be odd in their character design (there are creatures and characters that are very similar to those in Strange New World, and 2018’s Lost in Space series) or how some characters are treated, but I don’t want to make this review too long. Suffice it to say, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania doesn’t bring anything new to the MCU, but thanks to the acting it isn’t a chore to watch, and I so want to learn more about Kang and his past with Janet, and Cassie is a girl with a good head on her shoulders who seems to have learned from her mistakes.