NEW YORK — Peyton Reed’s “Ant-Man” films have generally served as a kind of palate cleanser to the world-ending stakes of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang is just an ordinary dude, or so they keep telling us, who still can’t really believe that he’s part of the Avengers at all. He gets to be the wide-eyed middle-aged fanboy of the group in those films. In his own films, he’s just living a blue-sky life in San Francisco as an affable single dad and ex-con who was once fired from Baskin Robbins and who has occasional enemies to defeat.
In this third film, “Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania,” in theaters Thursday, he’s coasting on his own post-Blip celebrity with a best-selling memoir out, lots of fans around town and a generally sunny disposition —when he’s not breaking his teenage daughter Cassie (now played by Kathryn Newtown, always an enjoyable presence) out of jail for civil disobedience. There is a fun, light, sitcom-y touch to these early scenes in which he and his makeshift family, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) sit around the table for takeout pizza. They use their particle technology to blow up the tiny pie. “I just saved us $8,” Pym declares proudly.
But Ant-Man is part of the larger chess board of the MCU, so naturally he’s doomed to be sucked into the multiverse mess, setting up pieces for more Avengers films to come with the introduction of a new villain, Kang (played with a maniacal sorrow by the great Jonathan Majors). And the results are mixed. Reed has returned to direct with a new writer, Jeff Loveness, who has also been tapped to write “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty” and it’s hard not to empathize with both for the logic gymnastics required to back Ant-Man and his gang into this conflict.
Loveness, who cut his teeth in comedy and has an affinity for comic book and B-movie absurdities, gives Ant-Man his own “Star Wars”-adjacent adventure. There’s quite a bit of unrest in the Quantum Realm, with scrappy rebels battling against a powerful ruler with an army of faceless soldiers. But he takes that conceit further and gives the rebels some personality and humor, including William Jackson Harper as the mind-reading Quaz. The villains a killing machine, M.O.D.O.K., that looks (knowingly) straight out of a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” movie and it is quite entertaining. It’s both a nod to the fun of the ridiculous in sci-fi and a reminder that Serious Superhero Films are sometimes just one crazy special effect away from being Silly Superhero Films.
“Quantumania” also gives Pfeiffer a lot more to do as we, and Hank and Hope, learn a little bit more about Janet’s 30 years in the Quantum Realm and the various compromises and allegiances she made to stay alive. Pfeiffer is an unambiguous delight and the real center of the movie despite what the title might claim. Ant-Man just finds himself in the middle of the mess, which starts to drag on in a muddle of sci-fi furnishings that individually are probably quite inspired and interesting but together just blend into a dreary mess. It’s a shame because Reed’s films are generally so crisp and styled and are best when focused on characters, not worlds and Quantum Realms. “Quantumania” shines when it is keeping things light and quippy.
But Kang, for what we can assume are bigger story needs, needs to be more serious. Majors is certainly chilling and captivating, but Kang seems like a mismatched foe for a standalone Ant-Man film and the result is a “Quantumania” that is trying to be too many things. One thing it is not is a Wasp movie, though. Lilly gets a lot to do but not a lot of, or any, character development.
And fortunately, “Quantumania” sticks the ending.
“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” a Walt Disney release in theaters Thursday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “some sci-fi action violence.” Running time: 122 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.