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Marvel Monday - Ant Man & The Wasp: Quantumania

It was 1999.

Star Wars Episode I had opened to…well, I’ll be generous and say mixed reviews. At the time, I’d been a huge fan of the franchise and had bought into all the hype…so naturally I saw it in theaters far more times than I’d currently care to admit (yes, it could be measured in dozens). Needless to say, when it came to discussing the film at the time, I could be considered biased.

Why am I bringing this up in a review for Ant Man & The Wasp: Quantumania?

When I talked about Episode I with my high school physics teacher, who remained a good friend even though I was 4 years removed from his class, his main criticism was that it was far too cartoony. He very simply didn’t buy into the digital effects. At the time, I wrote him off as curmudgeonly, an old man fighting against the exciting new technology that was going to transform cinema.

Thanks to Quantumania…I get it. Now I’m that old man.

Okay…not exactly. After all, the situation surrounding the most recent Marvel film is vastly different. Back then, it was the forefront of the digital boom. Yes, computer graphics had been used throughout the 90s, but with varying results. Some were great, like Jurassic Park. Others, however, fell well within my physics teacher’s criticism. The current situation finds the computer effects industry horribly overworked and the reputation of Disney/Marvel Studios in this area has been less than stellar, pushing effects teams very much in the same way that video game developers treat their staff during the notorious “crunch time”: long hours away from home and family, little (if any) rest, working days that would be considered insane by any standards…all in order to meet a deadline, in this case, the movie’s release date. It’s been said for a while now that this sort of crunch would start showing up in the final products being offered by movie studios and…well, here we are. The effects for at least the first quarter of Quantumania…but more likely the first entire half…very simply look unfinished and really do have a very cheap appearance to them. It’s very obvious we’re watching actors with little of their surroundings actually present with them on set. The actors are, very simply, on a barren set with only a green screen and the director’s descriptions to react to. It speaks volumes that Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd do their best to keep the movie going in spite of this.

That said, realistically, you can’t blame the effects production houses for this. And notice I used the plural there. Films in the 90s and into the 2000s typically only had one digital effects house associated with any production: the legendary Industrial Light and Magic, Digital Domain, Sony Imageworks so on and so forth. The industry has since grown, of course, WETA being the new big name ever since the Lord of the Rings trilogy but also scores of other smaller companies…and all of them are overworked, if industry insiders are to be believed. And they should be. Not only are movies calling for more and more digital effects, but as the budgets grow on TV shows being produced for streaming services, intended to lure in more and more paying subscribers, the workload only continues to grow and grow. Since we’re talking about a Marvel movie here, let’s just look at Marvel/Disney’s output: not only do you have the Phase 4 films: Black Widow, Shang-Chi, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, but now you have the TV shows demanding even more resources from a limited pool: WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, Hawkeye, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk. As an audience member, sure, I can appreciate what the company is trying to do…shepherd more characters onto both TV and movie screens while maintaining production quality across the board…but if Quantumania is any indication, Disney/Marvel have done in Hollywood terms what years of prolonged drought have done to Lake Meade outside of Las Vegas – Nearly completely drained what had once been a vast and plentiful resource. It will be interesting to see if there are any repercussions from this, because anyone with eyes can see how this will likely unfold if Kevin Feige and his underlings don’t see the writing on the wall: big budget films that need to be blockbusters will fail due to shoddy effects, audiences start to fatigue of the comic book genre because of this (and let’s face it, there’s already some fatigue starting to set in just due to the sheer volume of comic book movies in the marketplace) and, next thing you know, we have a dead genre on our hands.

Okay, enough on that point, because there is another lengthy criticism that must be levied at the feet of Quantumania…but this is gonna require a knowledge of both late 70s comics and toys from the same era.

Who’s ready to talk about Micronauts?

Super brief history, since we all know how I like to drone on about things: Micronauts were produced by Mego toys from 1976 to 1980. These toys actually originated in Japan from Takara’s Microman line, with Mego serving at first as a simple importer. Given the success of the first two waves, Mego would not only increase their involvement in producing the toys by taking on manufacturing duties for both markets (North America and Japan) from their facilities in Hong Kong. If you’re thinking this sounds familiar, you’re right, as Transformers would be brought to US shores in a similar fashion.

Now, where Transformers and Micronauts differ though is that Hasbro would approach Marvel to create a backstory and resultant fiction for their imported transforming robots while Micronauts took a more surprising turn. As fate would have it, comics writer Bill Mantlo would see a toy from the line gifted to his son and upon seeing it was struck with inspiration. He would then go to petition the editors at Marvel to pursue the license. That inspiration would stick around…as not only would Mantlo write the bulk of the series, the comic would outlive its parent toyline, running from 1979 to 1986!

Here's where things get complicated. Mego ends up going into bankruptcy in 1982. Much later, in 2002, the Micronauts license emerges again, this time with Palisades Toys who would follow Mego into bankruptcy in 2006. Toy company SOTA would be granted the license next and began developing plans, but the fallout from Palisades’ demise proved to be an issue that they couldn’t overcome and thus nothing was actually produced. Hasbro enters the picture in 2016, starting with offerings at San Diego Comic-Con and the three figures produced for that event eventually found themselves on store shelves. But after this initial offering…no other toys were forthcoming. However, Hasbro retained rights to any Micronauts fiction. While stories were produced during the ill-fated Palisades ownership, from Image Comics in 2002-2003 and Devil’s Due Publishing in 2004, Micronauts were incorporated into IDW’s “Hasbro-verse”, headlined by Transformers and G.I. Joe but also including properties such as Action Man (from the UK), ROM Spaceknight (another former Marvel Comic), Visionaries and M.A.S.K.

So why does this make things complicated? Well, as was the case during the heyday of toy-themed comics, to help cross-pollenate and get readers of these toy books to branch into the Marvel Universe proper, Micronauts would appear in mainline Marvel books while Marvel characters may guest-star in Micronauts tales. Fast-forward to today and the rights issues of these stories become very murky waters. What stories, story elements and characters does Marvel own and thus, are able to use in their own adaptation of the microverse or, in MCU terms, the Quantum Realm? Which of these elements remain under the control of Hasbro, who themselves have been trying to get the Micronauts into other forms of media, such as animation and feature films?

After all of that, why am I dragging poor Micronauts into this to begin with? Well, to my eyes anyway, many of the characters in the Quantum Realm certainly felt influenced by Micronauts. Of course, given Marvel’s entangled history with the franchise, that shouldn’t come as a surprise and, even more so, may in fact be well within their rights to do. The thing is, Hollywood isn’t a vacuum. Take for example Jodorowski’s Dune. When that production fell apart, studios took design elements and ideas and incorporated them into their own productions, all without giving credit where it was due. How could they do that? Because all of them had access to the ‘bible’ that Jodo and Jean Giraud (Moebius) compiled in order to pitch the studios on their take on the potential film. With Hasbro having been trying to get a film of Micronauts off the ground since 2009, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to find that production concept art and what-have-you has been floating around the major studios since then. As such, it’s no stretch of the imagination that Marvel could simply be ‘inspired’ by these works and as such, should an eventual Micronauts film end up getting released, making Hasbro look like they cribbed ideas from Marvel and not the reverse which may in fact be the truth. [It’s worth noting here that the author does have a bit of sensitivity to this due to the ill-fated first iteration of the DCEU. If WB had the balls to stick to their guns, Darkseid would have made it to movie screens before Thanos and therefore, these two evil masterminds would have retained the relationship they have in the comics: Darkseid the original and Thanos the knockoff. – Ed.]

TLDR: While the denizens of the Quantum Realm did look cool and the environs very original, throughout the movie I couldn’t help but wonder what parts of this did Marvel come up with on their own and which parts did they crib from pre-existing media. Whether rooted in truth or unfounded, it still ended up leaving a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

This next criticism is likely going to get me booed off the internet, and honestly, I don’t care. The fact of the matter is, at least to me, Bill Murray needed to go away 10-15 years ago. Maybe earlier. Whenever he started making Wes Anderson films. That’s when. Okay, except for his cameo in Zombieland. We can keep that one. That exception aside, yes, it’s safe to say Bill has always had an inflated ego of himself and his talents as many on-set anecdotes would lead you to believe, but ever since his Wes Anderson partnership, that inflated ego has been on steroids. Poor Bill is now under the delusion that he’s making art films with ‘quirky’ humor. Look, as someone that has a quirky sense of humor I can tell you what that means: if you tell a joke, there may be 1 to 2 people that will find it funny, another person that will realize that something that might be construed as humorous has just happened and will give you a laugh to be polite. The other people in the room? They’re just going to give you a look that practically screams ‘Seriously? WTF?’. Sadly, Bill’s trajectory has gone from rising on the early days of Saturday Night Live, peaking with such greats as Ghostbusters, Stripes and Groundhog Day to his current output with Anderson that always makes me say: “Dude, why are you still here?” Even if you ignore that rant, there’s still one point to consider: everyone knows and recognizes Bill Murray as…Bill Murray. It’s kind of like when they were looking for an actor to play Superman in the original 1978 film. The producers wanted to offer the role to any and all of the big names in cinema during that time…names like Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds and the like. The director, Richard Donner countered with if you cast any of those guys, all the audience would see is that actor in a Superman suit…not Superman…and thus the verisimilitude of the story, that audience suspension of disbelief, would be utterly ruined. He felt the best approach would be to go with an unknown…which they ultimately did, giving us the performance for the ages that was Christopher Reeve in the role. Back to my point, the minute you put someone like Bill Murray in a Marvel role, that role instantly disappears. Whatever character that was meant to be simply becomes “that time Bill Murray was in a Marvel movie”. Given the fantastic circumstances surrounding his appearance, he ends up completely breaking Quantumania’s own verisimilitude. We as an audience stop believing we’re in the Quantum Realm. Instead, we’re made very aware of our surroundings: these actors are surrounded by nothing but green screen and a handful of people in costumes and, oh…look…Bill Murray just showed up. Now, you insert that into a film like Quantumania where the weak special effects already have the suspension of disbelief on the back foot and thusly it doesn’t take much to shatter that illusion and, as I’ve already said, you give rise to a first half of a film that’s trying to make you not like it.

Finally, my last beef…which I alluded to during my discussion of the computer effects: MODOK. In all fairness, the concept of MODOK is going to be a difficult one to pull off in a live-action adaptation. Sure he works in the comics and in animation, but trying to make a cybernetic organism with an immense head and tiny arms and legs floating around in a chair raining death down from the skies a real, believable thing? Woof. I don’t envy the challenge the design team had to face. That said, you know what doesn’t work? Giving MODOK a face that looks like the actor portraying him as seen through a disturbingly annoying funhouse mirror. And sadly, that’s the treatment he’s given here. The distortion here isn’t helped by the clarity they seem to feel like they had to go for, so we’re talking about not only facial stretches that border on the grotesque but also just these enlarged pores that would make any teenager with acne wince. Now, with the funhouse analogy, I will say that the effect in some ways looks cheap, almost like they did indeed film the actors face in front of such a mirror and then just dropped that footage over top the digital model and called it a day. If that’s the case, well, of course, I’m not going to lay blame at clearly overworked effects artists. Instead, it feels like it’s more fitting to place blame on the designers that though this might be a good idea to ultimately the director, Peyton Reed, who approved the effect’s inclusion into his film. For comic fans, if any of you have read reviews that say that this film tries very hard to get you to hate MODOK, well, some of that might be unfounded given the background they give the character (I didn’t mind it though as it did serve to tie the entire trilogy of films together), but just through is appearance alone, yeah, the design is trying really hard to make you hate this character and on some levels, for me anyway, it kinda succeeded.

Okay, my last, last beef. If there’s one thing I’ve loved about the Ant Man films, it’s been the inclusion of Scott Lang’s friends from prison, played perfectly by Michael Pena and David Dastmalchian. You know who’s missing from this film? Michael Pena and David Dastmalchian. Granted, sure, there’s no shortage of comic relief in the film and yes, we do find ourselves in fantastic surroundings where these two would be out of place. But I for damned sure would’ve preferred to see these two instead of Bill Murray…if for no other reason than they’ve been in the past two films. They’re a part of Scott’s life. Very simply, somehow, some way, they deserve to be included in this story…and they’re not. The thing is, their unique voices are really missed in the film and even with all the outrageous events of the film, there was some part of me that was still on the lookout for them and, ultimately, disappointed when they didn’t show up. Hell, they found a way to put Randall Park’s Agent Jimmy Woo in there, there’s no reason they couldn’t have done that for Pena and Dastmalchian.

Wow…nearly four pages of complaints. You’d be fair in asking if there was anything I did like about the movie!

Let’s start off with the headline here. Every review you’ve read about Jonathon Majors as Kang is spot on; he’s fantastic in the role. Each and every time he appears on screen nearly makes you forget about all the other things this movie is trying to do to tick you off. When we learn of his backstory via Michelle Pfeiffer’s Janet Van Dyne, we’re lured in by the seemingly innocent nature of it…only to learn, as she does that there is a very sinister undercurrent. In the hands of a lesser actor, the villain’s nature would have been too easily deduced, but here, as well as Scott Lang’s own interactions with him, we can see that there is indeed a civilized façade that hides the vicious barbarism of a Conqueror, speaking to the depth that Majors infuses the character with. Another thing Majors deserves full marks for is fulfilling the guideline for making a three-dimensional antagonist: the villain believes he is the hero of the story…and it’s very evident here that yes, Kang does indeed believe that only he can save space and time from the chaos of the multiverse and thus, save reality.

My earlier accusations of un-originality with regards to Micronauts aside, Jeff Loveness’ script manages to juggle a lot of plot threads pretty well. We have Scott’s arc of deflating his oversized ego and considering others, including Cassie, whose life he’s missing out on. Cassie herself gets an arc as we see her seeking her place in her superhero ‘family’ and eventually developing the maturity necessary to grow into Stature…quite literally. Janet is actually given something to do as she kind of gets the whole ball rolling with what she knows…and what she’s kept hidden…about the Quantum Realm. And while Hank takes a little bit of a back seat, there is one important role he plays…he reminds us that it all comes back to the ants. Yes, while many may walk away from the film thinking it’s more Kang’s entry film as opposed to the third act of a trilogy, Loveness actually does squeeze in a fair number of moments to remind us that these movies remain Scott’s story of growth and his evolution into a hero. Yes, while I didn’t like how MODOK was done, I did enjoy how they explained him and how he came to be…a prime example of how this film serves as the capstone to the trilogy. Scott’s quantum uncertainty moment reminds us that yes, we’re watching a film with larger implications to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but most importantly we ARE watching an Ant Man movie…deftly avoiding a pitfall that entries such as The Eternals could not. Another huge plus for this film is taking the time to set up the multiverse, explain variants and such. Sure, this was all covered in the Loki series on Disney+, but contrary to the House of Mouse’s wishes, not everyone has the streaming service for one reason or another…so being able to work this into the script was nice to see, that way, casual MCU fans that don’t feel it necessary to hunt down EVERYTHING can still follow what’s going on. All in all, there were a lot of potential pitfalls this script could’ve fell into that many recent Marvel entries have: having the women dominate the picture while making the men look foolish, focusing on, say, Cassie’s arc while all the others fall by the wayside and treating this film more like a chapter in the MCU as opposed to an Ant Man film that, yes, is a part of the MCU, but is also part of its own franchise. The fact that the script is able to juggle the storylines in much the same way the original Star Wars Trilogy did (paying equal attention to each of the characters’ branches of the story and treating the times when they’re all together as the significant beats that they are) and giving the cast something to do all the while setting up the next major threat to the MCU is really quite impressive, especially when you consider that this script has to work against everything else that’s trying to drag the film down.

Another feather in the film’s cap is the cast…mostly. Aside from missing Pena and Dastmalchian (yes, upon further research, I see that he voiced ‘Veb’…but since Veb doesn’t say anything about gypsies or Baba Yaga, I’m gonna go ahead and say this appearance doesn’t count), everyone here does a fine job. Pfeiffer seems pleased to have something to do in these films…finally, while Douglas actually seems fine with taking a bit of a back seat. Paul Rudd remains Paul Rudd and continues to embody Scott Lang pretty well, portraying a swelled ego without descending into caricature. When talking about Evangeline Lilly, I do have to be open and admit a bias right up front; ever since she came out as an anti-vaxxer, well…let’s face it, given that Hope Van Dyne is a scientist…being played by someone that is clearly displaying that science isn’t a thing to her…well…that kinda gives rise to suspension of disbelief problems for me. She continues to play the role fine, but I won’t lie, it certainly wouldn’t hurt my feelings if they recast the role. While I’ve already beaten this drum back where we discussed Kang, it’s certainly worth mentioning again, Jonathon Majors is certainly the standout here. Not wanting to repeat myself, I’ll simply say that I look forward to Kang’s future appearances…because if they’re as good as Majors’ first efforts here, then there may be something to Marvel’s Multiverse Saga after all.

There are some really good things about Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania…but boy, you’ve got to work through more bad things than a lot of moviegoers simply won’t have the stamina for. And it’s not their fault for not having that stamina. A movie is supposed to entertain and not make the audience work for it. So I won’t fault anyone for not liking it or reviewing it harshly. As you can see from the bulk of this review, I do agree that there are MANY faults to this movie. In looking at Box Office info, so far this film is earning the least out of the three Ant Man films…and maybe this will get Disney to listen. Maybe we need to slow down a bit on the material and, more importantly, give FX crews the time they need to create these fantastic vistas without forcing them to work hours more akin to the sausage mills of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. [Big nods to any of you Upton Sinclair fans out there. – Ed.] Otherwise, they’re going to do their level best to kill off a genre that still has much more to give. Still, if viewers hang on and work through all the negatives, there are some really good things here (did I mention Kang?) and while I’d certainly recommend it (with caveats), I can certainly see why this film won’t be for everyone…and I’d certainly not be surprised if, say five or ten years down the line, we’re looking at this film as the beginning of the end for Comic Book Movie dominance at the box office. The fact of the matter is this: since I enjoyed the movie, I’d be inclined to go with a Happy Cat rating. However, due to the bumpy start to the film, well…that’d certainly warrant an Angry Cat. So, we’re gonna cop out and go with our Plain Cat rating here for a very flawed, yet still good, entry into the MCU.

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