It takes a while to feel like a new year is finally happening — that, oh, right, we’re into this year. And sadly, I think the arrival of the first big, shiny, corporate IP tentpole flick is one of those signs that the year has finally arrived. Now, of course, I do love me some corporate IP-driven entertainment, but there’s a continuum these things ride, with one end being “this is film-shaped content,” with all the negative connotations that cursed word brings, and the other being, “oh wow, some poor fools poured their soul into this thing they don’t own.” Having just gotten a Marvel flick that fits more-or-less into the latter category, I guess — and yes, I suppose I’m tipping my hand here — the former was due.
Now, of all the myriad mini-franchises under the Marvel cinematic umbrella, the Ant-Man flicks are probably the ones I’ve least revisited. Not that they’re bad flicks, but they’re corporate espionage action-comedies in superhero drag — and for any of those categories they fit into, they’re not what I’d call best-in-class; the best thing in any of them, I’d say, is the always-charming Michael Peña as Scott Lang’s fast-talking associate Luis, and that performance is the sort of thing you can go dial up a YouTube clip to revisit if you’re so inclined.
The sort-of ho-hum, isn’t-that-cute nature of the earlier Ant-Man movies is, I think, a large part of why for this third one they’ve tossed most of what made those earlier movies work at all out the window; “time to go big,” all involved thought. The problem being, alas, that what they’ve replaced all the things that drove those flicks with is a bunch of off-the-shelf Star Wars knock-off parts.
Peyton Reed’s third outing for Scott Lang (non-threatening friendly everyman Paul Rudd) and Hope van Dyne (the never-interesting Evangeline Lilly) sends them, Scott’s daughter Cassie (now played with teenage disappointment and a touch of sass by Kathryn Newton), and Hope’s parents Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) back into the Quantum Realm, the sub-atomic universe that Janet was trapped in for decades and in which Scott (for mere minutes to him) rode out the five years that followed Thanos’s snap in Infinity War.
As seen in the trailers, Cassie sends a signal down there to map the Quantum Realm, and someone fires a signal back that sucks them all in. Turns out there’s a whole civilization of near-humans and alien weirdos down there, chafing under the oppressive rule of Jonathan Majors’s exiled despot Kang the Conqueror, who would very much like to be freed from this very small place outside of normal time and space, thank you. Majors gets to do some fun villainous ranting and mood-snapping-on-a-dime, but while he keeps talking about his unique relationship with time, nothing really interesting comes of that here — he’s just a tough genocidal asshole with energy blasts, telekinesis or a tech-generated simulacrum thereof, and a forcefield. His enemies are action figure-ready rebels with various powers and unique looks that scream “collect them all!” (And yet, none of them are in evidence in the toys on offer, which aren’t even going to be ready ’til the summer! For shame, Hasbro!) And his Stormtrooper-alikes look like they could be the baddies in any of dozens of sci-fi action video games of the past thirty years.
It’s not like I didn’t enjoy it in the moment, and it truly was fun to see Michelle Pfeiffer front-and-center for a large chunk of the film — and in the middle of the action! — as the only member of the party who knows her way around the Quantum Realm, but I just kept hoping to be surprised or truly excited by anything on the screen, and I don’t think surprise happened until the mid-credit scene, and that was just shock that they really did play a certain card from the ol’ Marvel comics deck. There’s a few good gags that land, some of them running jokes, but I remember the earlier movies being consistently funnier; this one’s tone is all over the place, at one point sliding into Deadpool-like farce that doesn’t match anything else in its running time and just comes off as weird and a little broken.
Overall, an underwhelming time at the movies, strange in the ways it doesn’t work but not intentionally strange enough to be that interesting. If you really need to see The New Marvel Thing, it is at least only two hours and there’s some fun to be had in it, but it almost feels like Reed went, “You think these things feel like soulless corporate product? Oh buddy, I’ll show you some soulless corporate product!” Sad. At least the next one up is James Gunn’s third Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and that’s a dude who, while still coloring within the lines, doesn’t make movies that feel like an AI content generator spat ’em out.