‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’ broke me
When nothing feels real, why should you care?
Early on in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, our hero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) are warped into a quantum-level universe. It’s filled with alien biology and vistas that wouldn't be out of place on distant planets. But while that sounds like the perfect setup for a fun sci-fi romp, I never bought it. And, unfortunately, the actors didn't appear to buy it either. The backgrounds looked like psychedelic screensavers, and, similar to the Star Wars prequels, there was an uncanny disconnect between the live humans and their mostly digital surroundings.
I found the aesthetic so viscerally ugly, it made me fear for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for anything else made with ILM's StageCraft technology (AKA “the volume”). That realization surprised me, since I've mostly enjoyed how that tech helped make The Mandalorian's unique worlds come alive. The volume is a series of enormous LED walls that can display real time footage. Together with interactive lighting, it makes actors seem like they’re actually walking around artificial environments. Another plus? It also helps the lighting look far more realistic, something that was particularly noticeable on Mando's polished armor.
So what the hell happened to Quantumania? Its artificiality seems partially intentional, as it's trying to evoke pulp fantasy and even a bit of Star Wars. But somewhere along the line, director Peyton Reed forgot to ground its fantastical visuals with anything resembling human emotion. When Ant-Man, his daughter, or their tiny-tech compatriots, Hank Pym (Michael Douglass) and Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), enter the Quantum Realm, there's little room for awe and wonder. Sure, they occasionally quip about something weird: buildings that move! An alien intrigued by body holes! But we quickly move onto a rote sci-fi tale of rebellion against an evil conqueror (in this case it's Kang, played by Jonathan Majors.)
Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, who calls the film “a cry for help,” succinctly describes why Quantumania falls flat: “The action is tired, the universe unconvincing, and nobody on screen looks like they want to be there. They don’t even look like they know where there is.”
Clearly, we can't blame”the volume” for all of the film's faults, it's just another tool in a director's kit. In an interview with Collider, Reed said that he wasn't sure if the technology would work out for Quantumania, but eventually he found it to be "great for certain environments, but not necessarily right for other ones." He later added "There are limitations to it [the volume], and we push that system to its limit on this movie... What works so well in Mandalorian is they have a lot of lead time, because they're doing a whole series, to invest and create these environments, and on the schedule we were on, it's not always right for that situation."
Several anonymous VFX workers told Vulture that Quantumania’s hectic production schedule was one reason its computer generated worlds fall so flat. The higher-profile Black Panther sequel, Wakanda Forever, was a higher priority for Marvel (no surprise when that first movie made over $1.3 billion globally) when it came to VFX work. And there were apparently late-stage changes to Quantumania that led to some rushed work – though it’s worth noting that isn’t unusual for a major Marvel film.
“Making big pivots late in the game has consequences, and there is a constant scramble from the VFX houses to keep up,” a former VFX worker told Engadget. (They requested anonymity due to confidentiality agreements around their work.) “And near the end, it's almost always a disaster. Lots of miracles. Lots of clever solutions, not based on heightening the art, but just being able to do a week’s worth of work in 24 hours.”
While watching Quantumania, I couldn't help but compare it to Avatar: The Way of Water, another big-budget science fiction epic that brings us to another alien, almost completely computer-generated world. That film goes even further than Ant-Man, since almost every scene involves actors playing CG Na’vi characters, one or two humans and elaborate sets. But I never once doubted the reality of The Way of Water.
You could tell that director James Cameron has actually been thinking about the world of Pandora for over a decade, so he has a strong vision of how the Na'vi are supposed to interact with their animal companions, or how a soulless corporation may view a pristine planet as a way to make more revenue. With Quantumania, there's no clear sense of why that sub-atomic universe is special, or why Kang may want to rule it. We might as well be watching a lesser Star Wars movie.
Perhaps that's why the volume rubbed me the wrong way this time around. When you have a stronger grasp of character and story, as The Mandalorian (mostly) demonstrated, it can help to make the entire experience feel more epic. But if your narrative is dull and unfocused, the volume can easily heighten its flaws. There's room to do something truly special with the idea of a sub-atomic universe, the sort of thing screenwriter Jeff Loveness frequently did on Rick and Morty.
In the end, though, Quantumania feels like an episode of that show stretched out to two hours, and molded to fit the plot machinations of the MCU. Any enjoyment I had while watching it was instantly warped to the quantum realm when it was over.