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Diagnosing the Problem with Ant-Man: Quantumania

“Explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog. You learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.”

Mark Twain

In my never-ending quest to dissect stories to the point where they resemble so much fleshy bits on a slab (if this is Marvel, would this be Throg?), I just saw Ant-Man: Quantumania, the first of Marvel’s Phase Five, where we stop dealing with the consequences of Infinity War/Endgame and start getting real with the multiverse and Kang the Conqueror.

Quantumania was universally panned for being “just another Marvel movie.” Another notch in the interminably average fare Disney/Marvel has been churning out since Avengers: Endgame. And I have to agree. Shang-Chi, Eternals, Thor: Love and Thunder–all dull spectacles.

There have been some bright spots–Spider-Man: No Way Home, Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever I liked. But I didn’t LOVE them. Not the same way I love Iron Man 1 or Captain America: Civil War or Guardians of the Galaxy.

But every creative work fails in its own creative way. What went wrong with Quantumania? I see two big problems.

Problem One:

All the tension is based on people hiding information. You hated it in Spider-Man 3, you hated it in Mamma Mia!, you hated in Star Trek III, you hated in the Star Wars prequels, you’ll hate it in this one. It’s a trope and it’s lazy writing: a character purposefully refuses to give or lies about information that could aid everyone. But it would also resolve the plot or dramatic tension.

In this one, it’s even lazier. Janet Van Dyne, who had lived in the Quantum Realm for thirty years prior to the movie, refuses to tell anyone about the Quantum Realm or what’s in it or what they have to be afraid of. Why? It’s too “painful” for her.

You know what I call that? Being an asshole. Lady, we are trapped in a dimension beyond dimensions. Now is not the time to retreat into your wallow and say “it’s better you not know”. We need all the information we can get if we’re going to survive in an alien world. Tell us EVERYTHING YOU KNOW, DAMMIT. You’ve already lived in a world where half your friends and family were dead for five years. What pain are we not ready for?

If you were trapped in the Vietnam jungle with your family, and one of them had served in Vietnam before, what would you think if he said “I can’t talk about it, it’s too much for me.” Bitch, save it for your psychiatrist and start spilling. We’ll deal with your reputation later. Haven’t you ever heard of Malthus’s hierarchy of needs? We are on the base level right now.

Instead, she plays brooding badass, meeting with Bill Murrays, lassoing flying monsters for transport, letting others take the funny fall by putting their hands in goopy controllers. All the dialogue is based around someone saying “you didn’t tell them?” and one of the heroes says “About what?” or “HE is back…” “Who’s he?” Cut to some other plotline. Then someone says “what are you so afraid of?” “…the conqueror”. Cut to something else going on. It’s frustrating when a character so obviously holds the idiot ball like that. It makes me remember that I’m watching a movie.

Problem Two:

The characters’ goals are thin — just get out of the Quantum Realm. Moreover, no one has an internal arc (like Tony Stark getting over his self-centeredness or Thor maturing into a leader of men). There could have been something with Scott Lang and his daughter Cassie, who he missed five years with. Passing the torch or reconciliation after years of being away. But nope, nothing happens with that. They get along fine. There could be resentment with Janet Van Dyne coming back to a place she barely survived, but nope, no trauma there (besides what keeps tension going) or something between her and Wasp.

But this movie is all spectacle and no substance. I will admit it’s good spectacle, because the stuff they did with the Quantum Realm was really creative and imaginative (reminded me of Disney’s similar jaunt into “Strange World“). But the issue is that the plot is not character-based, like other movies. Everyone is separated so no one can have any character-relationship-defining moments. And they miss the opportunities when they do. It’s all visual effects and wacky characters (and we already have Guardians of the Galaxy). And furthermore, this fails where GotG succeeds because we never get to know anyone. Everyone is a visual gag, like Broccoli Head and Telepathic Man and the Goop Guy Who Wants Holes.

And that’s because the bigwigs at the top are dictating the story, not the screenwriters, not the directors. They’re mandating a checklist of beats the movie has to hit (establish our Phase Six villain, end with these characters alive by the end, tease this next movie). It’s fitting that the beginning and ending bookend with Scott’s narration because nothing has changed with the Ant-Man family from minute 1 to minute 124.

Is this a screenshot from the beginning or end?

But you might say “hey, Indiana Jones is a movie where the characters don’t have arcs and basically go on a quest into a strange world.” True. Let’s take a look at why Indiana Jones succeeds but Quantumania fails.

For one, Indiana Jones does have a teensy bit of character transformation in it, usually consisting of Jones figuring out that the real treasure was “the friends we made along the way” (e.g. Jones giving up retrieving the Holy Grail for his father, eschewing “fortune and glory” to return the Sacred Stones, etc.).

Second, Indiana Jones limits characters to just one protagonist, one villain, and two side characters who either serve as comic relief (Willie & Short Round) or deuteragonists (Jones Sr., Marion). Quantumania has FIVE main characters.

The side characters number in the dozens and have no names. They’re lucky if they have memorable characteristics like the telepath, the warrior woman, and the goop guy. In Indiana Jones, those would have been combined into a single character like Sallah. They should have only put Ant-Man and Cassie (and maybe Wasp) in the Quantum Realm. It’s more fun if they have to get around without knowing anything. Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne could have been advising them by radio from above or had their own plotline to deal with (maybe S.H.I.E.L.D./S.W.O.R.D. comes knocking). And cut the chaff. No unnecessary Bill Murray cameo. No cringey M.O.D.O.K. who’s force-tied into the Ant-Man lore.

Dey done Modok dirty

Which leads into Problem 2.5. It’s not Quantumania’s fault, but I feel like Marvel knocked it out of the park with Phases 1-3. We, the audience, just completed a huge story arc of twenty-three movies and eleven years. I’ve had my catharsis and I need a break. Emotionally investing in another saga sounds exhausting at this point.

But Disney will keep churning them out, regardless of quality, because they make money. It just has to be a spectacle to draw you in and “promise” gripping plots. It was the same problem with Star Wars. All you have to do is make expensive set pieces and action sequences for the advertising. Forget about making memorable characters or stories with “therefore” and “but” plot connectors instead of “and then”. This one in particular is just “and then” all over. This has been a problem with lots of Marvel movies and series post-Endgame.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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