Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Quantum of solace


Directed by Peyton Reed
Written by Jeff Loveness

Spoilers: high

I was prepared to defend it, this Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumaniaand I suppose I will, at some point amidst my complaining, find something defensible about itand I was primed to like it much more than I did: first, simply because Peyton Reed's Ant-Man series and Paul Rudd's Ant-Man character have historically been very reliable sources of enjoyment for me throughout their entries in this old Marvel Cinematic Universe; likewise, I would never put stock in the wisdom of any crowd who can think that Spider-Man: No Way Home, the most successful piece of anti-art in the history of blockbuster cinema, is "good," but Dr. Strange In the Multiverse of Madness, a delightful director-driven chase movie, is "bad"; finally, I was genuinely fascinated to see how the most whimsical and frivolous of the MCU sub-franchises would handle a collision with the presumptive seriousness of the arch-villain of this next MCU "phase" (I think we're up to six, seventeen now, yes?), the adversary against whom the Avengers will once again assemble to do their thing, a time-traveling warlord from the ends of reality presently confronted with an amiable goon who started out as the real Ant-Man's hired help and, loveably enough, hasn't ever really evolved beyond that despite having been, several years but only two actual good MCU movies ago, the very fulcrum upon whom the salvation of half the universe turned.

And, well, it's fine to have a positive attitude, but Quantumania is simply no hill to die on.  It doesn't, in the fullest sense of the word, suck, but it sucks sometimes, maybe more frequently towards the end which is always the worst way to go about it, and it's almost never great, which is a damned disappointment from this sub-franchise, for even when it was clowning around in 2018's Ant-Man and the Wasp it still had great moments sprinkled liberally throughout.  It's very hard to call it "Peyton Reed and Paul Rudd's Ant-Man" anymore: Rudd's serviceable and just flexible enough to barely accommodate the new scope inflicted on this series without completely flying off into space, but I'm not sure in the entire history of the overarching MCU has a director who still keeps a screen credit been so totally overwhelmed by the genre and by the industrial necessities thrust upon them.

2015's Ant-Man, my second favorite Marvel film at the time and perhaps still the holder of that title, was a deceptively small-scale affairno, I'm not making a fucking punand Ant-Man and the Wasp was determinedly small-scale.  Only the basic fact that both of them are still VFX-heavy 2010s superhero movies really suggests that Reed would have the slightest comptetency at this particular blend of Russo-style shared universe scaffolding in a Gunn-style cosmic imaginarium, and while the possibilities of this combination under Reed was what kept me tantalized (maybe increasingly-cautiously tantalized) about Quantumania, even as the lukewarm and downright negative reviews began to roll in, it turns out to have been excessively optimistic of me to have ever been excited about it.

Whatever happened, Reed crumples under the burden: going solely by this, you wouldn't suspect Reed has the slightest competency at simply making a Goddamn movie, or had even seen very many before directing this one, and even for an MCU film, which have routinely had problems as far as filmmaking goes, this is full of some shockingly bad fundamentals.  It's one of the worst-edited movies of the year and I'll commit to that without having seen a single other 2023 film yetthere are cross-cutting failures that feel like Reed let students (possibly not film students) fool around with the assembly, and somehow this accidentally made it into the finished work, just scenes sloshing together without rhyme or reasonand cinematographer Bill Pope, returning to the MCU for another round after making roughly half of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings look distinctive, may have found the nadir of an otherwise honorable career, with numerous shots that feel like he has somehow forgotten how to shoot conversations.  Sometimes, at least, this might be a result of Reed attempting to do something modestly dynamic with multiple planes of action in a world where we've apparently recently lost eighty years of lens technology; predominantly, however, it's the result of seemingly nothing, just whole dialogues where one of the actors will be out of focus.  These things come together for a whole scene that feels like a fever dream, a conversation where they used editing to serve the same function as rack focus, racking focus invisibly in the spaces between cuts, making it more jarring because there's no gradient to it at all, and in a situation where racking focus would've been the ugliest way to do it already.  This isn't some technically-demanding sequence, either: it is arguably the single most quotidian scene in the whole damn film, literally just three characters talking in a car, something you'd expect a movie with a budget a hundredth of this to manage adequately.

This is all on top of the Marvel House Style problems: Reed defaulting in half the action scenes to mobile (maybe "mobile") medium close-ups of actors running around on a platform while composited and/or rear-projected StageCraft threats encircle and chase themit's not much of a compliment, but StageCraft is at least integrated better here than in Thor: Love and Thunder, in the sense that you can usually make out what the VFX arewhile anything that opens up wider is, of course, the same creature of pre-viz artists and CGI teams it usually is, though Marvel has spent several years now ensuring that those professionals aren't enthusiastic about their work, if the good ones will even work with them anymore.  And that I've gone on at extreme length about the formal qualities of a Marvel movie is probably a damning thing in and of itself: these are supposed to be undemanding and, these days, somewhat anonymous eventsMultiverse of Madness is the only really pertinent exception in a long whileand Reed is generally a director with a clean, clear style; but this is a real outlier on the other side of a company aesthetic, even by the standards they've set recently with Black WidowLove and Thunder, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever where "unexceptionality" has become "actually mildly offensive to watch."  (And mildly tedious to listen to: if you inferred because of the name Quantumania, due to its similarity to the terms Liszto- or Beatlemania, any significant musical componentor if you inferred that because this movie felt intentionally positioned as Gunn-likewell, that was a stupid thing for me to infer.  Christophe Beck's score is unnoticeably bland music even for this franchise.)  But I could just say this: this Ant-Man movie doesn't have Michael Peña in it, and unfortunately that feels correctthat along with his screwy muse, Reed's inspiration did, likewise, vanish into the night.

The good news is that this story, courtesy Jeff Loveness of the post-good Rick and Morty seasons, is about as straightforward as I expect it could be, and the 90 minute movie that it feels like he actually wrote I might even genuinely like, warts and all, given that the film's biggest problem is really just the same problem Marvel movies always have, of dragging out its finale with a bunch of plodding background action.  (Again exempting Multiverse of Madness, it's like they listened to the audience's complaint, "two and a half hours is too long for a superhero romp," without actually fixing the foundational problem with all their two and a half hour superhero romps, so that at 124 minutes Quantumania is still 30 minutes too long, or at least has 30 minutes that could be spent far more profitably than they are.  But you know, I think we could all suggest precisely where to start making the cuts.)  I should get to that story, anyway, though it's straightforward enough I've pretty much already summarized it: Scott Lang (Rudd) has settled into a happy life as a famed and beloved superhero with his girlfriend Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), maintaining a lovely relationship with his more-or-less in-laws, Hope's father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and mother Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the latter of whom was rescued from being marooned in the Quantum Realm in the last installment, which will be important momentarily, so remember that; meanwhile, Scott's also re-forged his relationship with his daughter Cassie, now an adult in the aftermath of the Infinity War/Endgame stuff, and also now recast from her previous adult version for no obvious reason (Kathryn Newton).

Cassie's feeling her oats, experimenting with Pym particles and also being a superhero, and in her grating young adult way she's on a mission to needle her cuddly dad, whom she feels has been resting on his laurels, and I was a little surprised how little push-back this receives since those laurels are not "I wrote a one-hit wonder" or "I scored the touchdown in the homecoming game" but "I saved the fucking universe," and I'm not sure how you top that except to save another universe.  Well, thereon hangs the tale, since Scott Lang and Mrs. Not In This Film (Judy Greer), a couple of very average dopes, apparently produced Lisa Simpson as their child, and Cassie has also been fiddling with a microscopic probe to map that Quantum Realmwhich she should've mentioned to Janet, who might have finally told them what was actually down there with her in the Quantum Realm that she doesn't like to talk about.  Cassie's experiment strikes back and sucks everybody into the basement of the universe, where time and space have no meaning (but has gravity, light, chemistry, and airokay, I'm being deeply unfun, I'll stop), a place that was Janet's prison, but not hers alone.  Down in the Quantum Realm remains Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors), one of infinitely many throughout the multiverse, but this one bad enough that his own alternate universe doppelgangers locked him here.

There is some cognizable pleasure in this: I desperately, desperately wish that the "Quantum Realm" was even slightly inspired by quantum physicsa stupid pop understanding of quantum physics, all the better!rather than inspired by Star Wars, to the extent it has a cantina scene, but there's creativity within the constraints of an absence of creativity here, with a lot of cavalier, who-gives-a-shit-it's-crazy-sci-fi Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (or, yeah, Guardians of the Galaxy) flair to the world-building, notably some fun monsters to interact with, though one of the problems with Loveness's story is that he eventually starts insisting these things that are basically design elements are actually characters.  So it works, on a very basic level, as a doofy 80s sci-fantasy film about fighting a warlord that our decadent culture has decided needs to have $200 million spent on it.  (They do eventually find some room for "pop quantum physics," albeit solely in a big CGI sequence that I initially thought was a touch too concrete, but it actually has an idea underneath it, and that's nothing to sneer at here, though Mark Waid once wrote a JLA issue with the Atom that is one thousand times cooler in just 22 pages.)

As for that warlord and his adversaries, I don't want to say that Majors is the single person taking this movie seriously: Pfeiffer is taking this movie pretty seriously indeed, albeit with a one-size-fits-all frown, and Douglas is taking it with the degree of seriousness it's actually asking for, and, awarded with the funniest and most conceptually-interesting material in a script that is funny or conceptually-interesting far too rarely, considering all the obvious avenues of exploration it should provide, at least ensures his lines stay the funniest, by playing them absolutely straight with a sense of oddball wonder.  (Cassie is such an absurdly superfluous character that I don't know what Newton could have done to make her stand out; Lilly's Hope is pushed so far to the side, a 40-something serving as basically her own parents' sidekick, that when I saw someone refer to this movie as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, I had to double-check to confirm they were actually right.  And yet pretty deep into the film the emotional stakes get recentered firmly on Rudd and Lilly again, and the movie starts working as a family team-up film, in ways it never does with Rudd and Newton.)  But our heroes are a pretty gauzy collection.  The movie gains at least an illusion of something more substantial whenever Majors is onscreen, whether he's in focus or not (though he frequently is not), and Majors manages this by way of absolute brute force: it's revealing itself to me, between this and Devotion, that Majors might have the single loudest face in contemporary cinema, and while I'm not entirely sure it's always well-calibratedthe ticciness of this Kang is right on the triple-frontier between mannerism, camp, and neurological impairmentit's the kind of focused, intent, and interesting acting that isn't very typical of the MCU, insofar as these things can often be weirdly emotionless, and in stripping bare his character's wounded, angry, half-crazed interiority, Majors's Kang at least can't be said to be that.

That's good but there's a hard ceiling to how good with this script, which is dedicated more to cagily expositing a lot of mysterious set-up for Kang than it is to actually doing anything with Kang, which is ranklingly familiar because they did this already on Loki, and this different iteration of Kang is run through what feels like and damned near explicitly are exactly the same paces: "I'm Kang, I'm nasty, but I'm the only thing between you and the rest of me, who are even worse," whereupon the hero doesn't listen and "defeats" this week's version of an infinitely-variated villain.  (It's a pity because Kang is, I think, my very favorite Avengers-specific villain,* and he's been a long time coming to the MCU.)  The only thing that's really different at all is that Majors's performance of this version of Kang isn't a giggly, irritating weirdo, which is a surpassing improvement, but it's still deflating, and I'm not really sure why they didn't just have him win, except they're very enthusiastic about the Council of Cross-Time Kangs for reasons that escape me inasmuch as one Kang is great, two Kangs is fantastic, and any more than that is just a bunch of costume ideas (good ones, though) covering up a mass-produced genericism that'll be the death of any successful villainy.  I'm also at a loss to explain how they managed to do a story about Kang the Conqueror that's only incidentally about time travel.  I'm not very fond of his empire in the Quantum Realm, either, which for most of the movie, and I may still have been right, appears to be just a bunch of copy-and-paste robots, though at least this makes him feel severethe goofier elements of the film being mostly kept from staining him.

Mostly, because there's MODOK, already the anathema of the Internet, and this time, God help us, the Internet is right: MODOKDarren (sigh)is a reprise of the humdrum but effective cold sociopath villain of the first Ant-Man (Corey Stoll), now taking on a rather different form and also a completely different, worse personality after being rebuilt by Kang, and he doesn't come close to belonging in this movie.  He may have belonged in some notional Quantumania that wasn't about Kang or sequel groundwork, and was another ridiculous Ant-Man larkI think I might've liked that movie moreand if he must be in this movie, his function should have been a one-scene gag.  For reasons that I assume must do with Satan, this fucking thingit's a silly-looking giant metal head flying around ala Zardoz only with baby legs, but absent its faceplate it's basically a gif of Stoll's face stretched across a bad 3-D model from 1991has an arc.  This does some downright horrific things to this movie's already iffy tone, and, by my lights, it gets worse: as a giant face taking up enormous stretches of screen, whose faceplate keeps popping in and out of existence so that this warped gif of Stoll's visage can deliver dumbassed line after dumbfuckingassed line, MODOK becomes the single most violent expression imaginable of that most execrable superhero film trope.  But the whole movie is like that: Ant-Man does it, the Wasp does it, Kang does it, and Kang's mask is a transparent blue forcefield that's already his face, and between this, and MODOK, and shitty editing, in a mere 124 minutes a condition that's always been chronic goes straight to acute, and right up to the edge of fatal.

But Majors and his better castmateswhich rarely, but not never, includes Ruddholds this nonsense more-or-less together; it can, at turns, be fun.  And while I feel like this is actively condescending of me, I do still appreciate that this has a structure and manages something like efficiency.  The Marvel movies have a reputation even amongst their boosters for being "fine," and this isn't even fine.  I don't know how long a billion-dollar-a-year capital outlay can keep going if it spends as long as this franchise has operating on the bottom side of fine.

Score: 6/10 5/10, I was being too easy on it and I think I realized that immediately, but didn't want to revise it

*Indeed, Kang, in one of his forms, is the principal villainand, thanks to time travel, also basically the protagonistof my favorite Avengers story, Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco's Avengers Forever, which I don't recommend to anybody, given that it is continuity porn of the very highest order.

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