This article contains spoilers for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
If you’ve seen the last several Marvel Cinematic Universe films—and I bet you’ve watched at least a couple of them—you may have found yourself asking the question What on earth is going on? The problem of tracking what, exactly, is happening in these movies has gotten much, much worse over the last few years. The glut of subpar Disney+ series (Moon Knight, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law) has made the new MCU even more of a slog than its predecessors. If you find yourself asking what Julia Louis-Dreyfus is doing in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever or what happened to make the Scarlet Witch into the villain of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, that’s because you haven’t done your Disney-assigned homework.
But this question also arises in part because Disney has let Marvel Comics’ freak flag fly a bit more freely in recent years, and the MCU is now a very different franchise than it was in its first three phases—through 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home—where the individual movies were often riffs on established genre formulas. The Captain America films were spy dramas, the Guardians of the Galaxy flicks were space operas, and the Iron Man movies were 1990s-style action-comedies. Marvel deployed them in regimented phases, like seasons of a TV show, and if the sense that they were simply installments in an infinite serial sucked a lot of the fun out of them, Joss Whedon’s first Avengers kindled the hope that other fun might be in store. (The next few Avengers flicks would stomp on that hope like Galactus stepping on a Ford Taurus.)
Since Avengers: Endgame, Marvel has allowed at least a few of its movies to try things that are genuinely interesting and eccentric, but the gravitational pull of capitalism keeps forcing them to have long boring bits so that they can sell toys from the next movie. There are genuinely cool sequences in Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder, and especially in the franchise’s newest, weirdest, least-obviously-shot-in-a-Best-Buy-parking-lot entry, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Where Multiverse of Madness stopped a goofy psychedelic Sam Raimi gorefest dead in its tracks for what felt like half an hour of parallel-universe shenanigans and obnoxious MCU TV cameos, Quantumania is mostly a coming-out party for a villain weird enough to be worth watching: Jonathan Majors’ Kang the Conqueror. (Another incarnation of him shows up in Loki, probably the best of those Disney+ shows.)
Kang—this Kang, at least; comics readers know the multiverse holds many more—is an otherdimensional time-traveling tyrant who befriends Michelle Pfeiffer’s Janet van Dyne during her 30-year-exile in the Quantum Realm, a microuniverse underneath our own. Kang’s spaceship—uh, timeship? quantumship? I don’t even know any more—crashes in the Quantum Realm after Janet gets trapped there, and they form a friendship as they look for ways to fix Kang’s broken ship and fancy superperson suit.
Of course, when he gets the suit working again, he can move things with his mind and shoot death beams out of his hands, and Janet realizes she’s made a big mistake. When the gang—Rudd’s Scott Lang and his daughter Cassie (now played by Kathryn Newton), Janet and her daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), and Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym—gets sucked back into the Quantum Realm, they discover that he’s become the Emperor of Space, or possibly Time, or maybe Quanta. But none of this is enough for the insatiable Kang: He must escape the Quantum Realm itself so that he can wreak havoc on other timelines, destroying some in their entirety for, uh, reasons.
I realize I sound a little dismissive here, and I want to be clear: This is fine. A big, universe-conquering villain worked once, totally OK doing it again, possibly having learned some lessons from the previous iteration, which I found both deadening in its solemnity and too absurd to take seriously. But James Brolin’s Thanos was merely purple with a wrinkly chin; Kang’s gimmick is that there are an infinite number of him, so even though he’s a terrifying badass who can kill you as soon as look at you, you can’t get rid of him; there are always more where the first one came from. At the end of the film we get a glimpse of a world peopled entirely by other Kangs—a Pharaoh version called Rama-Tut and (I believe) the helmeted General Immortus, among others. A longstanding trick in the Marvel Comics universe is to reveal that your mystery villain has been Kang all along, and I fully expect we’ll get to see that one pulled a few more times before 2025’s Avengers: The Kang Dynasty.
The most promising thing about this game plan is that it brings the movie franchise back to the best run of The Avengers comics anyone has ever written (with the possible exception of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in the 1960s), and that is Kurt Busiek’s Avengers reboot from the late 1990s. British artist Alan Davis (of Miracleman fame) drew the big Kang story for which The Kang Dynasty is named, and it’s probably the series’ high point, although you’re a bit spoiled for choice.
I don’t know if Marvel superproducer Kevin Feige will be able to make this work with the new, super-weird direction he’s taken the franchise—though the Busiek story uses a lot of interesting characters with odd designs, it’s not exactly trippy. But I have high hopes. I like weird, and I think it is possible for the MCU to get even weirder—so weird that normal people give up and admit that they’re having a good time. Quantumania is “Too Absurd to Take Seriously: The Movie,” which is the thing I enjoyed most about it—it’s directed by Peyton Reed, who has the distinction of having directed the entire Ant-Man franchise, and written by Jeff Loveness, a TV writer whose “The Vat of Acid Episode” of Rick and Morty won the series an Emmy. If you like Rick and Morty, you’re on pretty solid ground here: Corey Stoll returns as MODOK, Jack Kirby’s crazy-looking Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing, who is roughly 90 percent head and 10 percent arms, legs, and floating chair. (Other versions exist in the comics, notably MODORD, Mental Organism Designed Only for Roller Derby. I’m not kidding.) There’s a little alien blob of pink gel named Veb, voiced by David Dastmalchian, who is obsessed with how many holes other beings have. William Jackson Harper plays Quaz, a mind-reader who is desperately unhappy because “everyone is disgusting.” Veb and Quaz are original creations, not nostalgia plays for Xers and Boomers, and they’re wonderful. It’s the first film in Marvel’s psychedelic era I’ve seen that feels like it takes place in a world that extends beyond the screen—there are living buildings and desert nomads who ride balloons and a guy with a plasma cannon for a head. If this is what we’re headed toward, bring it on.
Still, I worry we may not get all the way to “weird enough to be consistently good.” The parts of Love and Thunder and Multiverse of Madness and Quantumania that are good and cool are the work of talented directors and screenwriters, and they have also gotten some of the series’ worst reviews. Feige’s hand isn’t as heavy in these films as it was in early installments of the MCU, and so when he does take the wheel, it often wrecks the film. I’m not convinced Chloé Zhao’s Eternals had to be the catastrophe it obviously was, and in that movie more than any of the others, you can feel a gifted artist playing tug-of-war with an almighty studio and losing. If audiences start to follow critics in their cooling ardor for the MCU—reviews for Quantumania are pretty terrible so far—Disney is likely to see it as a question of whether to back directors and screenwriters trying to make something of value, or a superproducer whose multi-billion-dollar franchise is basically a license to print money.
But we are, at least briefly, traveling in the right direction, as far as I’m concerned. Ant-Man and his pals aren’t the only ones who fear the onset of a world completely dominated by identical superpeople. I don’t need a superhero movie to be Andrei Rublev, but I would like to come out of each one having seen something I’ve never seen before. I’ve gotten that out of the last couple Marvel films—James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad on the DC side, too—and I’ve wanted more of that weirdness, and fewer lore dumps and cameos. What else can the Marvel Universe contain? A demon who barfs rainbows? A lovesick mermaid bank robber? I liked Captain Marvel’s tentacle cat. Maybe give her a movie next.