Ant-Man established itself as the franchise that punched way above its weight in delivering entertainment value. The first two movies delivered consistent laughs and a group of likable heroes in Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and Luis (Michael Pena). Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp delivered essentially a reprise of her Tauriel role in The Hobbit. It allowed Rudd a solid structure to act as comic foil against. Their chemistry, while family-friendly and decidedly Dick Van Dyke-ish, worked. It was so successful that Ant-Man’s role in Captain America: Civil War was only outdone by Spider-Man’s MCU debut. The franchise was solid enough to warrant a critical plot role in Avengers: Endgame.
When Marvel Studios organized its storytelling into phases, I assumed the Ant-Man and Wasp franchise would build upon the thoughtful storytelling efforts pioneered in previous phases. Phases 1 through 3, in particular, saw a much-needed cultural shift in hero storytelling to move away from hero worship that was exclusively white and male. A few highlights include Steve Rogers’ passage of the shield to Sam Wilson, Bruce Banner’s passage of the rage torch to Jennifer Walters, Captain Marvel being female, Black Panther’s ascension, Shang-Chi’s emergence, and Jane Foster’s brief wielding of Mjolnir. At the same time, Disney evolved the white male hero concept from its John Wayne, patriarchal and puritanical foundations. Smart-aleck, amusingly misogynist, and racially patronizing Tony Stark was replaced by Peter Parker, who elevates the sanctity of life and healing. Thor became a dad. Hawkeye acknowledged the tolls of heroism on his body and partnered with Kate Bishop. The white male heroes that remain have been reformed, mainly through interactions and partnerships with communities of color.
The Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumnia experience was, therefore, supremely jarring. On a surface level, the 34 year old white male screenwriter Jeff Loveness created the plot by using a device famously employed by Highlander II: The Quickening. Yeah we try to forget, but it was made in 1991 and Sean Connery was even in it. The plot device is that you take a main character and make them remember a whole world that never existed or was even hinted at in the first film. In Ant-Man and the Wasp and Avengers: Endgame, neither Janet Van Dyne nor Scott Lang hinted at a quantum realm that was anything other than a wasteland devoid of life, let alone sentient life. It worked so well for Highland II (not), that it must have seemed like a good idea to Loveness. From there, he crafted a linear, predictable story with a theme, of a father’s love for his daughter, that is so ham-handed that it diminishes Ant-Man’s co-bill in this three-quel. The Wasp is the better fighter, the brainer partner, the smarter one and the more accomplished. So why is she relegated to sidekick? Just because she’s part of team Van Dyne? And she doesn’t even get to lead that. She’s given the back seat to Michelle Pfieffer’s perplexing performance as her mom.
From there, the story gets really bad. In the film, a tight-knit (overly so) white family (seriously Sunday dinner; seriously grandparents that are more intimately involved in the granddaughters life more the father) are accidentally thrust into an alien world mostly peopled by strange-looking sentient beings that are wild, untamed, and don’t speak English (until the heroes drink some ooze). The rare friendly person is usually white and male (Corey Stoll and Bill Murray) and the non-whites are mostly wary and distrusting. This tale of white European citizens stranded in a foreign land (foreign from the standpoint of Western culture) has a long history in cinema. Films were adapted from Victorian era novels such as Robinson Crusoe, Tarzan, and King Solomon’s Mines. They are stories of white men being stranded in lands far from England and encountering people whose appearance and culture seemed strange and uncivilized. These are deeply racist texts that popularized a false idea of South American and African civilizations.
One could make a compelling argument that Quantumania isn’t a Swiss Family Robinson rehash, but rather a Disney cannibalization of Star Wars, with its flying creature ships, beam weapons and glowing buildings. Except George Lucas’ world, stuffed with broad, racist stereotypes of Asians and Caribbean culture (to name a few), its portrayal of all-white heroes against evil, and its depiction of many species as unintelligible, strange and wary, is a direct descendant of this line of old-fashioned British adventure storytelling.
Quantumania dressed up the bias with glow sticks, but still paraded people around half-dressed without many lines and with the same idea of wariness of outsiders. This is a perpetuation of a false notion of Western exploration created to establish a sense of white superiority.
That Jonathan Majors is elevated to MCU nemesis is supposed to balance things out. It doesn’t. In the Loki series and now Quantumania, we are introduced to Kang, a singular ancient being who controls and manipulates time, and is at war with himself over timelines. Kang’s backstory isn’t coherent and is rendered illogical through its sole reliance on logic (another adoption from Victorian-era storytelling). Kang is a homicidal, mass genocidal killer with no reason for it other than a sense of order and wanting to win. A black man is given less humanity than Thanos and the madness of Hitler. For no reason.
Kang’s very existence in the realm makes no sense. Didn’t Sylvie kill Kang at the end of season 1 of Loki? If a banished Kang was trapped in the quantum realm by Janet Van Dyne, why didn’t he escape through the same device Scott Lang used? Why doesn’t Kang even acknowledge the existence of Thanos? Why is there no connection to the Celestials or Inhumans?
With the end credits scene, we are promised that Disney will double-down on the incoherent madness of Kang, giving us endless versions of stereotyped black male portrayals of madness, from cold and calculating, to strange-voiced, to full on Mike Tyson rage. Why? None of it makes sense. Hollywood and its white male content engines have been trafficking in mental health, madness, and villainy for decades now. And they’ve been elevating it to heroism over the past decade (e.g., Joker, Venom, Harley Quinn, Morbius). With Quantumania they’re trying to thread an even thinner needle. Kang is now the madness you want, keeping worse horrors at bay.
Villainy explained as madness has been used over and over to film over the truth— that villainy is illogical hatred, rooted in the self-interest of a few that gain power by manipulating many to act against their interests. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see Kang as an accurate representation of villainy— a man oppressing and subjugating and assimilating, not in a murderous way, but through trade and conformity? Root it in lies and misinformation. Show how Kang is trying to sell a false vision of time and history.
Instead, the movie is capped with a series of infuriating plot machinations involving late entrances (to be fair, they did the same thing in Return of the King with the ghost army). Also, I understand that exposition in storytelling is tedious. But providing zero explanation for the reason characters push buttons or take actions renders a story unintelligible.
To sum up, Quantumania uses racist storytelling as the basis for its plot, employs a plot device from THE worst movie sequel ever made, creates a stock villain whose purpose doesn’t make sense (let alone his very appearance in the quantum universe), and in so doing perpetuates a further racist notion about black male mental health. Yeah, that’s Disney’s new quantum vision for storytelling.