On ‘Ant-Man 3’ And The Emotional Ponzi Scheme Of The Marvel Universe

The problem with Marvel movies is a bit like the problem with the American frontier. Eventually, you run out of cheap real estate. The superheroes have been saving the Earth, the universe, the multi-verse, the space-time continuum itself, for so long that the big question becomes, what else is there to save? What can a bad guy conceivably destroy? Ah, but what if we had them go back in time? Sorry, already did that one. A few times. Okay, what about alternate dimensions? Ditto, been done.

Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania, which I’m going to be calling Ant-Man 3 from here on out for reasons that should be obvious, has a galaxy-brain solution to the real estate problem: go subatomic. Surely there’s plenty of space left down there squirting around between all those electrons and quarks!

I’ve been begging superhero movies to make the stakes smaller, but not like this. Would you believe “the Quantum Realm™,” where the characters travel to in Ant-Man 3, is basically just every other Marvel movie with a different screensaver background? Yep, turns out it too is just a mess of portals, an all-important energy core, and a bad guy who destroys not only planets, but entire timelines and planes of existence! Not again!

So much death and destruction (especially the hypothetical kind, which is mostly what we’re dealing with here) naturally inures audiences to the idea of death and destruction and massive body counts. In the Marvel Universe, we’re on, what, our tenth movie about a planet/universe/timeline/reality smashing bad guy? Now, is seeing so much of it this many times going to make us care more, or less? It’s almost like they’re having a contest with themselves over how much money and manpower they can spend on a monumental, visually spectacular, maximalist FX extravaganza and still have it be boring as shit.

Part of the problem is that in a movie economy where movies weren’t glorified NFT schemes, you figure Marvel would’ve killed off Ant-Man long ago. It has to be the weakest sub-franchise. I know that I saw the second Ant-Man movie, because there’s a review to prove it, but I’ve had experiences under general anesthesia that were more memorable. Now we’re back for a third installment, because… well, there are no narrative reasons, only economic ones, and even those are mostly based on groupthink and inertia. If the Marvel Universe movie is going to remain relevant, it’s going to need to start killing off characters, and doing it for real (no time travel tricks!).

Anyway, we catch up to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) in the aftermath of whatever heroic thing he last did with the Avengers, trading on his status as an international celebrity, albeit in a very tertiary sidekick kind of way. Essentially, Ant-Man 3 joins Eternals, Thor: Love And Thunder, and the last Doctor Strange in needing to acknowledge that this is supposedly a populace who have all collectively lived through the universe-shattering events of the 10 previous superhero movies that are part of the same timeline, but can only really do so in the most cursory, surface kind of way. Like that Lang’s barista (played by the mother-in-law guy from I Think You Should Leave) gives him free coffee while mistakenly calling him “Spider-Man.”

The big conflict is that Scott’s daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton) is itching to do superhero stuff while Scott wants her to have a normal life. “Dad, a man dressed as a bee tried to kill me in my bedroom when I was six, I was never going to have a normal life,” Cassie sasses him. Touché, dad.

Cassie’s secret science experiment includes a kind of satellite dish for communicating with the Quantum Realm™. When Cassie’s grandmother (Scott’s mother in law), Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) sees what she’s done, she screams and tries to break it. Janet, you’ll remember from some other Ant-Man movie, actually spent 30 years trapped in the Quantum Realm™, and there’s something about it she’s never told her family. Basically, that there was a bad guy down there: Kang the Conqueror, played by Jonathan Majors, who the whole family ends up having to fight when they get sucked down the quantum hole themselves.

I was reading an interview the other day with the director of RRR, the smash-hit blockbuster out of India last year, which was as over-the-top a visual spectacle as any Marvel movie and just as fantastic a tale, but miles more thrilling. The director, SS Rajamouli, in describing some of the action in his movies, said something like “there should be an emotional need in the story to develop a great action set piece.”

I thought about that a lot while I was watching Ant-Man 3, which has scenes that exist on the very cutting edge of what is even possible in a movie, visually, and yet are so dull. The action and the emotion are almost completely disconnected.

Not only does the movie barely reckon with the fact that it takes place amongst a population who has seen their universe come just to the brink of collapse multiple times, there’s a bit where one of the characters describes choosing to sacrifice ever seeing her home or family again in order to save billions (maybe it was trillions?) of people she’s never met, on planets and timelines she’s never visited. That’s kind of a huge decision! Ant-Man 3 just treats it as a given and yadda yaddas onto the next thing with nary a comment.

There’s a bunch of “action” here, but it’s all meant to address continuity, not emotion. This movie (and a lot of the sub-par Marvel product lately) doesn’t appeal to viewers’ emotions, or if it does, does so only as an afterthought. The appeal is to continuity, and to the viewer’s innate sense of completism. It’s all based on the expectation that you’ll go just to avoid that feeling of missing out when their next movie inevitably references something that happened in this one. It’s an emotional Ponzi scheme, in a sense, justifying a current debt with the promise of a future return and assuming that this will work forever.

Seeing as it stars Paul Rudd and is directed by a guy (Peyton Reed) once known for comedy, it seems Ant-Man was intended as the sort of comic relief of the Marvel sub-franchises. Certainly, there are “jokes” and “humor” in Ant-Man 3. Yet the jokes too mostly only serve continuity — a couple of yuk-yuks to caulk up a plot hole, the humor of a corporate consultant trying to keep you from falling asleep during a PowerPoint presentation. Jokes this utilitarian sort of just make you feel sad about jokes. The MCU uses comedy the way a super uses drywall filler.

The heroes in Ant-Man 3 spend most of the movie in this Quantum Realm™ where no rules seem to apply, and the conflict is over whether they can save millions or billions or trillions of hypothetical people, timelines, and dimensions, which they eventually do using methods that seem like they could’ve done 90 minutes of screentime prior. It mostly all seems like stuff we’ve seen and done before, and it’s hard to care one way or another about any of it. But hey, maybe it will seem important in the next movie.

‘Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania’ is in theaters everywhere now. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.