The third Ant-Man movie has the right kind of start for the movie it could be. The John Sebastian song “Welcome Back” loops its chorus over Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, regularly jolly) cheerfully strutting down the street. The intro is light on its feet. It lightly ambles through the hangover of the last two films and ensemble movies, this tangled web of Marvel mythos that creates a sticky web for new storytelling. Problems are quickly routed to solutions. The world, it turns out, was worth saving this time. The sunny disposition of the opening matches with the mega-simplistic, reductive hook of the intro to the ’70s TV Show Welcome Back, Kotter, painting one idea of what the movie could be. But, embedded in that song is the real idea of how the movie operates. There is no bridge in the song, just a cheerful repetition of an easy-going phrase. No meat or substance, just a suspended arc of a greeting, looping incessantly — “welcome back, welcome back, welcome back,” and that is what the new Ant-Man is. A lightweight, meaningless recursion on something we already have, repeating itself incessantly.
The first Ant-Man promotes an engaging discourse. It’s the story of well-established director Edgar Wright working inside the most controlled system, being taken off the rare Marvel Cinematic Universe passion project, and being replaced by Peyton Reed, who had only made slight comedies. The resulting film falls between these lanes: an airy comedy with bigger ideas. This makes the first entry a movable chess piece in any Marvel debate. Do you feel that the outcomes of the formula and Keven Feige’s over-arcing plan overcome a lack of clear directorial vision in the MCU? That’s your touchpoint for that discourse. Likewise, suppose you feel that the MCU requires auteurs and that its chief goal should be to make individually great movies that stand alone outside the wider universe-building of the films. In that case, Ant-Man is your primary evidence in that argument. The second Ant-Man movie doesn’t work as evidence in this way, merely a fine expansion of a fun comic-book character with a central gimmick that continues to basically work. That these films, once helmed by a populist outsider, are then factored into the major events of the MCU, making their characters the weirdest inclusions in those ensemble movies. They seem to be something else. And taken apart from all that, those movies basically work, and it’s funny when they are included in a larger text in which their very existence is made out of a central tension with the Marvel machine.
The third movie is a total flattening of all that. Ant-Man, now, is merely a vessel for the serialized Marvelization of the films. It is entirely Kevin Feige’s plan. There is no further evidence of Edgar Wright, for sure, and very little evidence of even Peyton Reed (who continues to “direct”), after the bubbly introduction. Simple light-hearted comedy gives way to multiversal mush: space battles, quips, and nothing else. This is a two-hour trailer for future Marvel movies and not a very convincing one of those. This shows a desperate crisis of faith for the long-term outline at hand just as the movie industry begins to move on from these kinds of things working as the primary monocultural events at the multiplex.
What happens in the film is that the whole Ant-Family – Scott Lang, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, anti-vaxxer), Cassie Lang (Kathryn Newton, trying), and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, present) – venture into the Quantum Realm. A low-rent version of the Spy Kids movies transpires. Inside the Quantum Realm, the film is all blurry backdrops, and discount Star Wars or Dune caricatures of aliens. Whatever. The crew gets split up and tangled up in their own projects. The world is full of quirky shape-shifting creatures, goo that helps the team understand the alien language, and a weird Bill Murray cameo that seems to double down on the things he’s recently been accused of being on-set — at least do literally anything else with him. Making matters worse, folks will likely come to the film expecting Jonathan Majors to lend it some gravitas. He’s emerged as our great hope for a rising star. He certainly shows up and really gives it an actor’s effort but the whole movie around him is pulling away from whatever he is trying to do as Kang the Conqueror. Briefly, he is fearsome, tough, and a centering force of gravity for the story, but since there is no focus, his seriousness actually seems quite silly to the overall effect of the film, and at worst, superfluous to everything else happening inside it. Likewise, the film wastes the weirdest visual gag in its hand on Corey Stoll’s M.O.D.O.K., perhaps the most chaotically messy design, both visually and in plot circumstances, that these MCU movies have ever employed.
As the credits rolled, we note that the film is shot by Bill Pope, which is the funniest thing about the movie. Bill Pope, of course, has shot some fantastic action movies and even a pretty good MCU one with Shang-Chi (2021). Here is another case where the film has no auteur tendencies whatsoever: it feels like it could have been shot by anybody or nobody all at once. There is no focus to most of the shots. The action is hard to trace, mostly conveyed in CG, and cut so that none of it can really be tracked anyway. If cuts are fast, frequent, and frenzied enough, we might think some action is happening on-screen. Even when our characters become super-sized, they have no weight whatsoever, their perspective is not earned by their relationship to the environment, and the central sizing gimmick of Ant-Man doesn’t seem to be a factor whatsoever. There could not be any possible edit that solves the issue because what has been shot seems to be of little use. The CG now looks more polished than ever, of course, but now we just have highly polished CG unfolding in front of plain backgrounds. There is no context built into the environment, so the action sequences can’t truly mean anything in the world. The characters, even, seem so disconnected from one another, that it’s hard to find any kind of framework where their actions mean anything to the larger sequence of events at hand.
That a Marvel film is selling the future of the franchise is par for the course. What’s irregular is how incurious it is about what’s to come. It is a very long trailer for something else, sure, but then what does the film think of that something else? Seemingly it doesn’t have any ideas about what it’s selling us either. Here is the real sticking point, for a film that refuses to stand alone, and only bridges the gap between a series of films: there is nothing interesting about the way it does that. It seems to sell us, instead, on the very same thing happening in the next film, and the one after that. There is only the end of the road. There is nothing about this film that can be paid off by following it. This seems to be a dead end promising eternity. It fulfills neither end of the bargain: it’s not a great movie and it’s not even a functional cog in a series of movies meant to sell us more movies. When the film abruptly ends, you wonder what it was all for, and whether this is really a character and movie that’s moving forward as an essential piece of a continued story.