'Ant-Man and the Wasp' review: Jonathan Majors shines as Marvel's 'Quantumania' veers off track

Brian Truitt

“Ant-Man” films used to be the fun heist movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, full of sci-fi strangeness and Paul Rudd's shrinking ex-con/superhero dad, and existing as needed humorous breaks from the higher-stakes “Avengers” extravaganzas.

These days, nothing is safe from becoming an all-out Marvel epic, and so goes “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters now). Gone are the usual quirky personalities and breezy shenanigans (we miss you, ginormous Hello Kitty Pez dispenser!), though returning director Peyton Reed pumps in enough family bonding and signature whimsy to complement the massive world building and a new time-traveling big bad played by a terrific Jonathan Majors. Laying important groundwork for Marvel’s film future unfortunately means losing some of the franchise’s essential scrappy charm.

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Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, left) meets Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) in Marvel's "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania."

After helping to save galactic existence (see: “Avengers: Endgame”), Scott Lang (Rudd) is feeling pretty good about himself, enjoying the celebrity life in San Francisco and doing readings from his memoir. His 18-year-old daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton), who shares her ex-con father’s tendency to get in trouble with the law, thinks he should be less complacent with the heroing and still be looking out for the little guy.

They’ve formed a close-knit unit with Scott’s partner Hope Van Dyne, aka the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), her mom Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her dad Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who hatched the size-changing technology behind Ant-Man's and the Wasp’s powers. Cassie has been getting a crash course in superhero science and experimenting with sending a signal to the subatomic Quantum Realm. Janet’s not too pleased, since she was stuck there for 30 years and has been keeping secrets since, and a mishap sends them all down there “Wizard of Oz” style.

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Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, from left), Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) explore the mysteries of the Quantum Realm in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania."

After being split up, Janet uses her knowledge of the place to try and find sanctuary for Hope and Hank. Meanwhile, Scott and Cassie meet an oddball group of freedom fighters and ultimately the scarred face that runs the place. Exiled to the Quantum Realm, Kang the Conqueror (Majors) coolly boasts about killing Avengers in assorted timelines but needs to use Scott’s penchant for stealing stuff to escape his current predicament.

The recent MCU, especially with its movie output, hasn’t been all that welcoming for total newcomers and “Quantumania” is not the place to start your superhero quest. (In fact, let’s give out some homework: The Disney+ “Loki” series is an extremely helpful watch to understanding the Kang business.) Like “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Quantumania” crams a ton in so it can shape a piece of a larger story. If you’re a hardcore fan, it’s all good. But it does complicate matters for the more casual viewer (assuming those still exist).

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Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) encounter a weird new world when they get stuck in the Quantum Realm in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania."

Reed’s film does wonders mapping out the spiffy landscape of the Quantum Realm with jaw-dropping beings and splendid sights, all with a “Mad Max at the ‘Star Wars’ cantina” vibe. Bill Murray drops in as the eccentric Krylar, a shady character Janet knows well, while Scott and Cassie even meet a Guardians of the Galaxy-type misfit crew, including telepath Quaz (William Jackson Harper) and warrior Jentorra (Katy O’Brian). Yet these interesting new players get limited screen time thanks to a busy narrative with endless Ant-Men, a guy with broccoli for a head and forced callbacks.

Majors thankfully rights the ship every time he pops up with his deliciously disconcerting presence. Kang's deal is slightly more confusing than the last MCU big bad, a large purple alien collecting pieces of jewelry. One day, though, we'll probably be talking about the multifaceted Kang in the same breath as Heath Ledger's Joker: Majors brings an innate and understandable humanity to a king in his own mind who's all about manipulation and winning but not without weakness.

While rolling out the ubiquitous kitchen-sink finale, “Quantumania” lets Scott and Kang duke it out in a rousing slugfest that’s the highlight of this dizzying adventure. Even when the ant-sized Avenger headlines a large-scale Marvel epic, it’s still the little things – like two dudes throwing hands, with no superpowers in sight – that mean a lot.

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