Iron Man and Black Widow are dead. Thor is busy parenting. New versions of Black Panther and Captain America are probably still attending Avengers orientation. So 2023 seems like a natural moment for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to promote Scott Lang from ex-con comic-relief third-stringer superhero to Avengers frontman. But the press over Scott’s big jump in narrative responsibility in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania overlooks the truth: The Ant-Man movies have been central to the MCU operation all along.
While the first and second Ant-Man movies functioned as light breathers following mega-team-up Avengers movies, the three-quel Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania got a prime position as the kickoff movie for the MCU’s “Phase 5,” introducing primary multiverse antagonist Kang (Jonathan Majors) to the big screen after a brief appearance in the Loki TV show. It seemed like a new direction for Ant-Man — especially with director Peyton Reed talking up his excitement over repositioning the series from post-Avengers
But there’s more to Ant-Man than even Reed is giving him credit for, and it goes back to his introduction in 2015’s Ant-Man. So many heroes have been inducted into the MCU via origin-story features and TV shows at this point that it’s easy to forget how early in the franchise that movie arrived. At the time of its release, almost all the Marvel-produced movies had focused on the original Avengers from The Avengers’ 2012 lineup, with several entries apiece for mini franchises centered on Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor. (There was also an Incredible Hulk movie in there, memory-holed via recasting.) Ant-Man was the first origin story outside of that circle.
Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy arrived in 2014, but that wasn’t a superhero solo joint: It’s a team-building movie in the Avengers vein and a space fantasy in the Star Wars vein. James Gunn made that film into something different from what the MCU was becoming at the time, while Ant-Man put the “more” into “more of the same.”
By 2014, Ant-Man seemed like it was being produced largely because director Edgar Wright had already done a fair amount of preproduction work on it before chafing at Marvel interference and departing the project, and because the profitable MCU brand could use a second movie that year. That also-ran status became oddly key to Ant-Man’s legacy. Movies like Ant-Man, 2016’s Doctor Strange, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings were never going to have the same seismic impact on cinema as 2008’s franchise-launching Iron Man.
But eight years later, Ant-Man looks like a crucial signpost on the MCU road — proof that where Iron Man didn’t need Batman-level popularity to lead a massive franchise, future installments in the franchise didn’t need to be Iron Man in order to be viable, crowd-pleasing hits. Casting an established star as a lower-tier superhero didn’t always have to mean a Robert Downey Jr.-level star giving a career-redefining performance as a Tony Stark-level character. Well-liked comic actor Paul Rudd affably playing barely known comics mainstay Scott Lang could do just fine. Ant-Man wasn’t a massive hit to end Phase 2, but it established a clear MCU baseline in a post-Iron Man world.
In retrospect, the first Ant-Man also established a default tone for the MCU as the company ramped up its production pipeline. That movie currently enjoys a reputation as one of the more comedic Marvel movies, and it certainly has a few more overt running gags than, say, Doctor Strange or Black Panther. But take another look at the movie: It doesn’t actually have that many jokes, especially for a screenplay co-credited to Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd.
Though the comic tone of the MCU is often attributed largely to some combination of Downey, Joss Whedon, and various attempts to imitate those two voices, the later movies drift away from anything truly resembling them. Whedon’s writing is carefully calibrated (sometimes downright calculated) to weave together genuine pathos, tension-breaking wisecracks, and catchy turns of phrase. The shortcut-heavy language of the weaker MCU entries — the language of “So that happened” or “I ruined the moment, didn’t I?” — is much more Ant-Man than Age of Ultron. And like Rudd as Lang, it landed with audiences on a level that made it a viable way to approach projects going forward.
Though Ant-Man feels like a template in a lot of ways, that templating process wasn’t immediate or absolute. Some of the Phase 3 movies that followed were among the studio’s best and least generic: Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and the triumph of the original Black Panther. Given the relative leeway afforded to directors Taika Waititi or Ryan Coogler, it might have followed that 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp
Instead, Ant-Man and the Wasp established even more MCU parameters — this time visually. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who shot Heat and L.A. Confidential, uses the same washed-out palette favored by the Russo brothers. It made sense for the grit of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but this style has come to flatten the look of movies all across the MCU, regardless of subject matter. Compared to Ant-Man and the Wasp’s drabness, the first Ant-Man looks like a model of vibrant contrast, shadow, and color — it looks like a real movie. Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and much of Shang-Chi, among other MCU movies, largely mimic the Wasp look, even though they’re coming from different (and in their other work, often highly distinctive) cinematographers.
Even more than its predecessor, Ant-Man and the Wasp now feels like a test balloon: It’s sort of a comedy-of-remarriage chase movie, with elements of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 screwball romance What’s Up, Doc? and the 1988 Robert De Niro/Charles Grodin action-comedy Midnight Run. Which sounds like a highly distinctive project — except that Reed folds all these elements into a standard-issue, color-drained superhero adventure with the lightness of a satisfying action-comedy, but not the actual laughs. It creates the impression of a good time with likable characters and inventive special effects, but it’s also helping build an MCU where even the most specific visions have to conform to the house look and feel.
Wasp also marks the spot where fans should have realized it was pointless to hope for individual MCU movies to skirt the franchise’s well-established boundaries. If the coupled-up title characters of Ant-Man and the Wasp can’t share more than the occasional chaste kiss, it seems vanishingly unlikely that other relationships in the MCU will be afforded any genuine romance. The Ant-Man movies aren’t the only MCU projects to suffer because they overpromised about genre experimentation. They do, however, feel influential in terms of establishing firm narrative limits for even the lowest-stakes projects.
The fact that Quantumania fully subsumes the supposed smallness and modesty of the Ant-Man series into cosmic MCU world-building might seem like a change of pace, and in a few superficial ways, it is. There’s no Michael Peña telling a long and comically detailed story, no giant Pez dispensers, and no small-scale villains. This movie tees up future Avengers opponent Kang, and even reinvents a past Ant-Man antagonist as a bigger, weirder bad guy. The movie turns on what should be a series of clever ironies: Scott opens the movie with narration about how he feels like he’s on top of the world after his outsized role in saving the universe in Avengers: Endgame, only to be sucked into another world of consequences he isn’t ready for. By shrinking its characters down to visit the Quantum Realm, the movie turns so “small” that it becomes big again.
But Quantumania isn’t really contorting itself to fit into the MCU better. It’s completing a process of conforming the MCU to the middling levels of an Ant-Man movie, to the point where a lightweight, mildly amusing adventure is more or less indistinguishable from a universe-altering, dimension-traversing epic. Is this movie pitting the complacency of an establishment superhero against the idealism of his youthful daughter or engineering a family-friendly adventure? Is it a quippier Star Wars riff, à la Guardians of the Galaxy, or a vehicle for Kang’s doomy sci-fi portent? The filmmakers would likely say yes to all of it: It’s another one-stop shop for MCU entertainment.
Yet Quantumania, like a lot of recent MCU movies, struggles with scale — and not in the fun, playful way that the original Ant-Man did with its satisfying action sequences (one of its strongest elements, and one that inexplicably didn’t carry over to any of the films it seems to have inspired and templated). Its weightless action happens in a physical and spiritual void. To loosely paraphrase Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd., Ant-Man hasn’t suddenly gotten big — it’s the pictures that have gradually gotten small.