This past weekend, the 31st (!) Marvel movie, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumaniawas released to thunderous indifference. While the film grossed over $100 million at the box officethe critical and audience response has been tepid. It’s the lowest-ranking Marvel film on Rotten Tomatoes and didn’t achieve the “A” Cinemascore that was almost customary with every MCU release prior to the pandemic.
Marvel fans have been here before. Phase Four, which started with Black Widow and ended with Black Panther: Wakanda Foreverwas a notoriously rocky period when the broken cogs began to show in Marvel’s well-oiled machine. Kevin Feige, the grand architect behind Disney’s lucrative product line, er, movie division, recognized this and promised that Phase 5which would start with the third Ant-Man film, would offer a clarity of purpose and, everyone hoped, a restoration of the quality and enthusiasm seen in past Marvel movies. What everyone got instead was an overstuffed CGI fest that was more intent on vaguely teasing future movies and promoting Disney+ content than telling an entertaining story.
I’m a lifelong Marvel fan. I have collected thousands of their comics, from the sublime (Chris Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men) to the ridiculous (at one point, I had every issue of Dazzlerthe roller-skating disco superstar who can turn sound into light). I watched Marvel movies and TV shows before they were cool, like Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher movie, that awful Nick Fury TV movie with David Hasselhoff and Lisa Rinna, and Roger Corman’s unreleased Fantastic Four movie (which is still the best movie iteration of Marvel’s First Family; sorry, Jessica Alba.) Hell, I even worked at Marvel Comics from 2010 to 2013. I love Marvel, but after seeing QuantumI’ve grown weary of all the Easter eggs, the teases, the grand narratives, the quippy dialogue, the still-constant mocking of code names (Doctor Octopus? Whatever, nerd!), and the lazy storytelling. I’m now tired of the Marvel machine, and I want it to stop.
Marvel’s post-Endgame victory lap came at the expense of narrative momentum
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My discontent about Marvel has been brewing for some time. Like many others, I questioned the need for a Black Widow solo movie immediately after Endgame. It’s not that I didn’t want Natasha Romanoff to have her own starring vehicle; it was just too little, too late. Why launch the next chapter of the MCU with a movie about a dead character set in the past with no real payoff? Still, I’ll give credit where credit is due; the movie was enjoyable, and it gave a beloved Avenger a proper, if long overdue, spotlight.
In fact, no film besides Thor: Love and Thunder in Phase Four was outright bad; all have been at least passably entertaining, and some, like Shang-Chi and No Way Homereached the heights of peak MCU movies like Civil War. Yet all have been united by a common flaw that is crystallized in Quantum; they seem to be coasting off the highs of Endgame and the Infinity Saga and, as a result, have lost the accessibility and relatability that made the MCU so inviting in the first place.
In a phase dominated by sequels, threequels, spinoffs, and Disney+ shows, the only directive shared by all the films seem to be to reference “The Snap” at every opportunity and shoehorn in as many Easter eggs to other, more successful properties as possible. Don’t like the ponderous tone of Eternals? Don’t worry, there will be some reference to Thanos or a humorous joke about the Avengers soon enough. You can’t understand why Scarlet Witch is so mad and depressed in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? Well, that’s because you need to watch WandaVisionwhich heavily references the events in Endgameand also brings in vague allusions to other properties like Evan Peters’ stunt casting as a not-at-all-Quicksilver surrogate named Ralph Bohner. (Yes, you read that right; Ralph Bohner exists in the MCU.)
While one could argue this is just regular Marvel worldbuilding, I’d counter that with this: this wasn’t worldbuilding so much as taking a victory lap over past triumphs. There was no sense of momentum in Phase Four, or even an acknowledged sense of the MCU’s deliberate fractured state. Instead, it felt like Marvel was coasting. After a decade of sustained success, they didn’t need to try. You can’t blame them, except, yes, you absolutely can blame them, especially when it results in something as synthetic and lifeless as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
Quantumania is less a movie than it is a product made by ChatGPT
What is it about Quantum that sent me over the edge? It’s not like it’s a bad film or, worse, a DCEU movie. (That’s right, Snyder fans; the DCEU is and always has been awful. Deal with it.) It’s competently made, the CGI is mostly appealing (with one notable exception), it sets up the stakes adequately, and gives Michelle Pfeiffer a sizable role to actually do something, which is sadly still too rare for an older female actress in Hollywood.
The problem with Quantum is pretty much everything else. It takes what was most appealing about the first two Ant-Man movies (low-stakes action, a relatively realistic approach to superheroics, lowbrow humor) and throws it out the window. Instead, it shoehorns in a “rebels versus empire” plot straight out of an abandoned Babylon 5 script and awkwardly places its “everyman” and “everywoman” heroes in roles ill-suited for them.
Why is Ant-Man, an ex-con just trying do right by his daughter, now the savior of an alien world? It’s like someone typed in “How to make a Fantastic Four movie except with none of the actual characters” in ChatGPT and came up with whatever passes for Quantum‘s script instead. I don’t mind sequels mixing it up (I was one of the few who actually liked Halloween Ends), but not at the expense of what made those properties, and characters, so appealing to begin with. I don’t want to see Scott Lang as the leader of a family team of superheroes venturing into another dimension; that’s what Reed Richards and his fantastic family is for!
End credits that promise an exhausting eternity of never-ending stories
It’s not just Quantum‘s by-the-numbers story or misuse of its central characters that put the stake through the MCU’s heart for me. I’ve suffered through enough middling comic book movies to forgive the sins of one movie or show that’s in a larger franchise. Surprisingly, it was Quantum‘s relatively innocent end credits scenes that made me realize my love for the MCU was over.
One end credits scene has Quantum‘s lead villain, Kang, giving a speech in a crowded theater in the early 19th century. The camera gradually reveals that Loki and Mobius M. Mobius are sitting in the audience, whispering to each other that they have finally found Kang. This is an obvious a lead-in to the second season of Lokithe acclaimed Disney+ show that first introduced the time-traveling villain.
So what’s wrong? I liked Lokiand it makes sense to include those characters in a movie that featured their chief nemesis. Maybe it’s just a case of “too much, too soon,” but it struck me as more of a crass advertisement for future content than a genuine tease. Loki has nothing to do with Ant-Man, of course, and the tone of the scene was completely out of sync with the rest of the movie.
The second end credits scene had a far worse effect on me, though. After Marvel’s next Big Bad is seemingly defeated by an army of overgrown, intelligent ants in Quantum‘s climax, the scene picks up right after Kang’s death with three ominous men –Rama-Tut, Immortus, and the Scarlet Centurion — discussing his demise. These men, of course, are all variants of Kang, and as they discuss protecting the Multiverse, the camera pans to a stadium full of Kang variants, thousands of them, all screaming and ready to be unleashed in the MCU.
This was supposed to be a “Eureka!” moment, akin to the shocking reveal of the villainous Thanos in the first Avengers film, yet reader, I just sighed very heavily as the scene played out. I’m tried. The prospect of all of these different versions of the same villain battling an untold number of heroes doesn’t excite me; instead, it exhausts me.
How many more movies and shows do I have to watch to make all of the variants, these conflicting timelines, these endless multiverses, make sense? Watching a Marvel movie used to be fun; now, it just feels like homework, and I’m too old to do that anymore. I just want to be entertained, and Marvel seems to have forgotten how to do that.
Can the MCU be saved?
Has Marvel passed the point of no return? Probably not. There’s too much money at stake for it to complete crater and, it must be acknowledged, MCU movies still make enough money for it to continue to chug along. But this former fan needs a break, and I won’t return unless they do something to return the MCU to its former glory.
First, they should stop with the sequels and threequels from the Infinity Saga. No one needed Ant-Man to have a complete trilogy. Hell, I’d argue that Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t need a threequel either. (And please, for the love of Odin, do not make a fifth Thor movie). Unnecessary sequels that linger in the past prevent the franchise from moving forward.
Second, ditch the cosmos and go back to focusing on street-level heroes. That’s what made Marvel so appealing to me and why it’s consistently bested its Distinguished Competition (that’s DC for non-nerds). Marvel’s 2023 movie slate is pretty much a wash with the intergalactic Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and the space romp that is The Marvelsbut 2024 has Thunderbolts and Captain America: New World Orderwhich promises less Kang and more relatable stories (at least, I hope).
Third, dial back the movies and shows. I realize this is an impossible request since Disney likes money, but too much content dilutes the brand. The Mouse House realized this far too late with Star Wars and look what happened? One very public box office disappointment, 2018’s Soloand the negative fan reception to 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker caused the franchise to sit on the sidelines at Disney+. No Star Wars movie has been released since then, and the earliest one is scheduled is 2027. Marvel seems to be taking baby steps in this directionwith only Loki season 2 and Secret Invasion scheduled to release this year. That’s a good thing, Mr. Feige; now do it for Marvel’s movies so fans can catch their breath.
What’s a former MCU fan to do?
While Quantum was the tipping point for me, I can’t opt of seeing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 or any of the other endless Marvel movies and TV shows slated for release. Professional obligations prevent me from doing this, and so what’s left for a former MCU fan to do is hope that the declining audience scores, coupled with ever-so-slightly diminishing returns at the box office, will cause Marvel to wake up.
Nothing lasts forever, especially in Hollywood, and Marvel would be wise to look at their franchise brethren like Star Wars and apply the hard lessons learned by their beleaguered creatives before it’s too late. I still love Marvel, and hope that one day I can return to the multiplex with the same mixture of fanboy glee and anticipation that I had when Iron Man first flew the friendly skies.