‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’ moves the Marvel narrative forward with dazzling effects, intimate story

Funnier than most MCU offerings, popcorn movie relies on the appeal of likable Paul Rudd, magnificent new villain Jonathan Majors and their wonderful co-stars.

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Happy couple Hope (Evangeline Lilly) and Scott (Paul Rudd) are separated in the Quantum Realm in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”

Marvel Studios

The thing about Ant-Man is that even when the little guy is essentially saving the universe, he’s still never going to carry the gravitas of a Tony Stark/Iron Man or the heroic majesty of a Steve Rogers/Captain America or the complicated storyline of a Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch. I mean, he’s a regular guy with a cool suit who can get super small or really big. Even as far as superhero monikers go, Ant-Man isn’t in the same league as Thor or Black Panther or Hulk or even Spider-Man, man! What scares you more, a spider or an ant?

So here we are in 2023, with Marvel kicking off Phase 5 with the third “Ant-Man” movie and the fifth overall appearance for the character and the 31st movie to date in the ever-expanding MCU, and let’s toss all those numbers aside and celebrate “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” for knowing exactly what it wants to be, i.e., a mostly comedic placeholder in the greater storyline arc. It relies heavily on the strengths of its wonderful cast, led by the ridiculously likable (and often likably ridiculous) Paul Rudd as Scott Lang/Ant-Man, and a brilliant supporting cast including generational icons Michael Douglas, Bill Murray and Michelle Pfeiffer; reliable stalwarts Evangeline Lily, Corey Stoll, William Jackson Harper and Katy M. O’Brian — and a suitably formidable villain played by the greatly talented Jonathan Majors.

Clocking in a relatively breezy 125 minutes and featuring a dazzling array of VFX and CGI, “Quantumania” manages to tell an intimate family story against an enormously expansive yet subatomic background.

‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’

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Marvel Studios presents a film directed by Peyton Reed and written by Jeff Loveness. Rated PG-13 (for violence/action, and language). Running time: 125 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.

“Quantumania” kicks off on the lightest of notes. With John Sebastian’s theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter” playing on the soundtrack, we see Scott thoroughly enjoy his life as a San Francisco celebrity as beloved as a point guard for the Golden State Warriors. Everyone smiles at him on the street, folks are constantly asking him to pose for selfies with their pups, the corner coffee shop won’t take his money and he has published a memoir titled “Look Out for the Little Guy.”

Best of all, Scott’s personal life is thriving, through his romance with girlfriend Hope Van Dyne aka The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) to his loving relationship with now-teenage daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) to his close connection with Hope’s parents, Hank (Michael Douglas), who is retired but still likes to tinker with ants and science and such, and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has been released from her 30-year confinement in Quantum Realm.

Oh sure, Cassie and Hank and Hope have been secretly messing around with a new device that will help them study the Quantum Realm from a safe distance, but what could possibly go sideways with that?

Before you can say “Special Effects Units, Assemble!,” the entire quintet is sucked into the microscopic yet vast world of the Quantum Realm, and just like that we’re plunged into territory that visually and dramatically often bears more resemblance to a “Star Wars” movie than an “Avengers” offshoot. Scott and daughter Cassie land amidst a band of rebels fighting an uphill battle against a fascist regime, while Hank, Janet and Hope are plunked into a Tatooine-like desert landscape before eventually winding up in a joint that looks like a more elaborate version of the Mos Eisley cantina.

As they endeavor to find each other and find a way home, our heroes encounter a number of colorful characters who become either allies or foes, including Bill Murray (effortlessly doing his Bill Murray thing) as the duplicitous Lord Krylar, who apparently has quite the history with Janet; Corey Stoll’s Darren from the first “Ant-Man” film, who now has morphed into the ludicrous and hideous M.O.D.O.K. (Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing); William Jackson Harper’s Quaz, whose forehead glows as he reads your thoughts, and Katy M. O’Brien’s Jentorra, the fearless freedom fighter leading the rebellion effort.

Oh, and the Quantum Realm is filled with all sorts of vibrant and bizarre creatures, including a guy with a broccoli head; a gooey entity known as Veb who laments not having “holes,” like humans have, and all sorts of beings that look like they just missed the cut in being cast in “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

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Supervillain Kang (Jonathan Majors) takes his ambitious seriously.

Marvel Studios

Mostly, though, Scott and company must contend with Jonathan Majors’ Kang the Conqueror, a time-manipulating, seemingly invincible supervillain with a universe-conquering record and megalomaniacal ambitions that make Thanos seem like a small businessman. Even though “Quantumania” retains a mostly comedic tone throughout, Kang doesn’t know he’s in something of a romp; for him, the stakes couldn’t be greater, and he will destroy entire civilizations for breakfast if it means getting his way. Jonathan Majors alternates between brooding, carefully constructed line readings and teeth-rattling, spittle-spewing, fiercely delivered monologues, as if he’s standing on the stage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. He is magnificent. (The flashback sequences explaining Kang’s history with Janet are among the most compelling in the entire film.)

“Quantumania” is a mid-tier MCU film, with decent enough battle sequences and some nifty visuals, but we’re here mostly for the popcorn-movie enjoyment of watching Paul Rudd et al., do their thing, and once again, the little guy and gang come through.

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