Producers: Kevin Feige and Stephen Broussard   Director: Peyton Reed   Screenplay: Jeff Loveness   Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonathan Majors, Kathryn Newton, Corey Stoll, Bill Murray, Katy O’Brian, William Jackson Harper, James Cutler, David Dastmalchian, Randall Park, Gregg Turkington and Ruben Rabasa   Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Grade: D

Disney is asking critics to avoid spoilers in their reviews of this third installment in the MCU Ant-Man series.  To which one might ask: What’s there to spoil?  “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” has a story so threadbare that it might have been written on a napkin, gussied up with a cascade of CGI effects that are splashy but rather ugly and exhausting to endure.  The movie reeks of desperation.

The plot takes place after order has been restored following the events of “Avengers: Endgame.”  Now a celebrity and hero, erstwhile thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), aka Ant-Man, is enjoying family time with his now eighteen-year old daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), his girlfriend Hope (Evangeline Lilly), aka The Wasp, and Hope’s father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man, and mother Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the original Wasp.  Janet had been imprisoned for decades in the subatomic Quantum Realm but was freed in “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” 

Cassie, one of those insufferable teen geniuses who are fixtures in the MCU (presumably to appeal to the target audience), has invented am amazing super-microscope than can peer into the Quantum Realm.  Unfortunately it sucks all of them into that realm, where they encounter a multiplicity of weird-looking creatures; it’s as though the “Star Wars” Cantina scene had multiplied a thousandfold.

But there are some humanoid-looking folks as well.  One is Kang (Jonathan Majors), a stranded time-traveler whom Janet knew from her long previous stay; he’s now a cruel tyrant looking to escape the Quantum Realm so he can hop from one part of the multiverse to another to do mischief.  A second is a sleazy associate of Kang’s named Krylar (Bill Murray, bringing his patented bemusement to his cameo, and little else).  And still others are freedom-fighters, like telepath Quaz (William Jackson Harper) and his warrior friend Jentorra (Katy O’Brian).

The whole plot of “Quantumania” involves the heroes’ efforts to find one another—they were separated when thrust into the microworld—and to defeat Kang and his minions, the most notable of whom is Scott’s old frenemy Darren (Corey Stoll), who’s been transformed into MODOK, a murderous mechanical thingy with a huge human head and tiny metal arms and legs.  Both story threads are subject to tiresome repetition—there’s loads of running around in front of elaborately cartoonish backgrounds, and Scott spends most of his time demanding to find out where Cassie is, while Kang issues stern commands about killing people and such. 

Neither Rudd nor Majors comes off well amidst the hubbub.  Rudd is an ingratiating fellow, but apart from the bookending segments in the “normal” world, where he interacts with adoring dopes like an elderly coffee shop owner (Ruben Rabasa) and the boobish Baskin Robbins manager (Gregg Turkington) who once fired him, he’s not given much opportunity to use his comic chops to much effect.  Majors has presence to burn, but he too is poorly used, except for the early flashbacks where he and Janet collaborate to repair his ship.  As Kang the Conqueror, as he comes to call himself, however, he just glowers and curls his lips contemptuously while making threats.  There is multiplication in the cards for both characters, but to reverse the old phrase, in this case more turns out to be less, especially in a movie where the math runs to Quantum Realm times Multiverse.  The result goes the chaotic “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” one better.

Elsewhere both Pfeiffer and Douglas appear to be walking through the film trying to keep a straight face, while Murray just does his usual shtick, content to do as little as possible to collect what was probably a big paycheck, though he does arch an eyebrow at one point.  Newton seems a pleasant girl, but she tries too hard; as a result Cassie is irritating rather than endearing, and Scott’s “Where is Cassie?” refrain becomes nearly unbearable after a while.  It’s Stoll who actually comes off best as the malevolent but absurd MODOK, though even those who find the character amusing may cringe when he becomes the object of what passes for a jokey moral—“It’s never too late to stop being a dick.”

Of course the movie is opulent visually, but while the effects are big, they’re woefully short of the wonder they aim for, and neither the production design (Will Htay) nor the costumes (Sammy Sheldon Differ) create a sense of awe.  Bill Pope’s cinematography fails to meld the live action and CGI convincingly—there seems to be a lot of green screen work here, perfunctorily done—and though editors Adam Gerstel and Laura Jennings have delivered a cut that actually comes in at well under two hours if you ignore the opening and closing credits, the result still seems interminable.  Christophe Beck’s bombastic score adds to the sense of heaviness.

In the end “Quantumania” simply lacks the lighthearted touch director Peyton Reed brought to the first two Ant-Man movies; it’s a heavy slog, more akin to most of the other MCU pictures than to its more genial predecessors.  That probably derives from its place as the inaugural installment of what’s called Phase 5 of that cinematic universe, in which—if the two end-credit preview scenes are any indication—Kang will play a major role (pun intended).  As such MCU cultists, who revel in the minutiae of the blockbuster movies and array of related Disney+ TV series that make up the intricate storyline being cobbled together, will embrace it; it might be about a guy who shrinks down to ant size, but it will no doubt be a big hit.

Occasional viewers who don’t devote themselves obsessively to how everything is interrelated in this long-running, increasingly convoluted comic-book extravaganza will likely be more bored than enthralled, and wonder how long this epic-sized fantasy can be sustained.  Another laughable line that stands out here comes toward the start, when the folks from above are encouraged to quaff down a liquid that will serve as a sort of universal language translator with the words “Drink the ooze.”  If one’s unkind, that injunction might make you think of the kool-aid Disney’s serving about this whole MCU enterprise being fun and inventive; increasingly it’s not, as this frantic but tedious entry demonstrates. 

If “Quantumania” is what Phase 5 is all about, perhaps Phase 5 should be phased out.