This article contains some spoilers for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in its discussion of how this movie approaches “looking out for the little guy.”
There are interesting ideas simmering just beneath the surface of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, struggling to get out. Quantumania is a movie that contemplates what it means to stand up for “the little guy” in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
As the title implies, much of the action in Quantumania takes place in “the Quantum Realm.” It is a place that exists beneath everyday reality. This universe has its own inhabitants, cultures, and laws. As revealed in the original Ant-Man, superhero Janet van Dyne (Hayley Lovitt) was stranded there during a mission to disarm a rogue intercontinental ballistic missile in 1987. Unable to return to her universe, Janet had to make compromises to survive.
Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) found her way home in Ant-Man and the Wasp, the result of a rescue masterminded by her husband Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and her daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). Returning to reality, Janet refused to talk about the years that she spent in that other world. However, Janet cannot escape her past. When Cassie Lang (Kathryn Newton) sends a beacon into the Quantum Realm early in Quantumania, something responds.
Janet and her family find themselves pulled into this pocket dimension. They discover that it is in chaos. It is a world of warlords and freedom fighters, of oppression and revolution. A dictator known as Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) has established dominion over the Quantum Realm, while Jentorra (Katy O’Brian) leads the resistance against him. Although reluctant to explain why, Janet feels some measure of guilt and responsibility for what has happened to the Quantum Realm.
As critics have pointed out, Quantumania owes a lot to the Star Wars franchise. Director Peyton Reed acknowledges this debt, explaining that the sequel’s use of Disney’s Volume technology was inspired by his directorial work on Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian. However, it’s more than just an aesthetic. This is a story of revolution and oppression. Such stories are inherently political. After all, George Lucas conceived of Star Wars as a parable about the Vietnam War. Quantumania has similar ambitions.
Superheroes are inherently political. This is especially true of the modern cinematic superhero boom, which is heavily defined by the trauma of 9/11. In particular, superheroes are often a manifestation of American self-identity. Captain America (Chris Evans) dresses in the flag. Superman (Christopher Reeve) has historically fought for “truth, justice, and the American Way.” The genre has explored the War on Terror through movies like X2: X-Men United, The Dark Knight, and The Avengers.
With the recent American withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been a renewed interest in the legacy of the War on Terror in popular culture, reflected in everything from The Rings of Power to The Bad Batch. Given that the original Iron Man literally rooted the MCU in the Afghanistan War, it makes sense that the shared universe would want to contemplate the legacy of that conflict. In its own clumsy way, Quantumania is a story about the consequences of interventionism.
After all, America has a long and storied history of foreign interventions to serve its own self-interest. Ant-Man establishes that Hank and Janet were both soldiers engaged in overseas operations during the Cold War. In the film’s opening scene, Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan) reminds Hank that he is “a soldier,” even though Hank protests that he is “a scientist.” Allowing for the limited glimpses that Ant-Man offers of Hank in action via flashback and newsreel, he sure does a lot of fighting for a scientist.
Pfeiffer and Douglas do a lot to tether the Ant-Man franchise to an earlier period of American history. The pair’s careers appear to intersect with Janet and Hank’s work in service of the American government, which would overlap with American involvement in regime change in countries like Argentina, Afghanistan, Chad, and Nicaragua, often fighting communism. Interestingly, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is also engaged with the legacy of this era.
The Quantum Realm evokes the postcolonial wastelands of modern blockbuster science fiction. Donning visors and rags to blend in, Janet and her family might as well be visiting Tatooine from Star Wars or Arrakis from Dune. There is violence, disorder, and corruption. Janet arranges a meeting with her old friend and lover Krylar (Bill Murray), who has shifted from revolutionary to local governor. Like Douglas and Pfeiffer, Murray is another invocation of 1970s and 1980s Americana.
Janet eventually confesses that she feels some responsibility for all the suffering that the Quantum Realm has endured under Kang. Janet found Kang in the wreckage of his crashed ship and helped him to repair his armor in the hope that he could use his technology to get her home. Kang served her interests, so she enabled him. However, she didn’t have to deal with the consequences. “I unleashed a monster,” she confesses, “and ran away.” Krylar accuses her, “You left us. With him.”
It’s an interesting and charged allegory for American foreign policy. After all, there is a long history of the military and intelligence communities supporting horrific regimes when their interests align with stated foreign policy goals, based on the understanding that the terrible consequences will accrue thousands of miles away. The horrors taking place in countries like Afghanistan and Nicaragua as a result of American intervention might as well be unfolding on another plane of existence.
Quantumania hedges its bets. As with a lot of MCU movies, it is afraid to follow its ideas to their logical conclusions. Janet feels guilty for what she did, acting like it is a shameful secret. However, the flashbacks work hard to avoid implicating Janet in any moral transgression. She didn’t realize Kang was a monster until it was too late. When she did realize, she immediately sacrificed any possibility of getting home herself to strand him in the Quantum Realm. She didn’t do anything unforgivable.
That said, Janet’s silence about these horrors may be a crime in itself. Returning to her life, Janet never tells anybody about what happened. She never makes any effort to help the people oppressed by Kang using the armor that she repaired. Once her own comfort was assured, she was happy to look the other way. In some ways, it recalls Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) arc in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, sacrificing an immigrant (Xochitl Gomez) for her own happiness.
The trailers for Quantumania certainly hint at a much more pointed narrative than the final cut, as Kang tries to entice hero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to assist him. Kang promises to give Scott time with his daughter, something that Scott desperately needs and wants. He appeals to Scott’s self-interest. “I don’t care who this guy is,” Scott states in lines cut from the movie. “I just lost so much. He can give us a second chance.” The implication is that Scott is willing to consider a moral compromise.
This subplot has been trimmed from the film itself, but there are still echoes in the final cut. During their final battle, Kang is disappointed that Scott has chosen to stand against him rather than to cut and run. “You should have looked the other way,” Kang admonishes Scott. However, that would be a betrayal of what makes Scott Lang a hero. The film opens with Scott reading from his autobiography, Look Out for the Little Guy; in fighting Kang for the Quantum Realm, Scott is looking out for the littlest of guys.
The Ant-Man films are in some way about Hank Pym rejecting the cynical logic of Cold War foreign policy. Hank is one of the few characters in the shared universe to place themselves firmly outside the genre’s very militaristic understanding of superheroism. In his first scene, he walks away from S.H.I.E.L.D. He holds the Stark family in contempt. He never joins the Avengers. Douglas appears in Avengers: Endgame, but Pym sits out the climactic battle. (Both Hope and Scott do show up to fight.)
There is something slightly provocative in the climax of Quantumania, in which Hank leads an army of hyper-evolved “technocratic” ants into battle. Michael Douglas, the avatar of American capitalism in 1980s cinema, pauses to advocate for revolution. “I know socialism is a charged word,” he begins to speechify before being cut off. It might be a charged word, but it also seems that it’s an accurate one — and Hank embraces it. Hank presumably spent the 1980s fighting socialism’s spread. Indeed, the ant itself is a symbol of socialism.
It is perhaps notable that one of the movie’s big set pieces feels weirdly evocative of Cold War fears of socialism. Trying to recover a key component for Kang, Scott finds himself split into infinite versions of himself, an army of identical duplicates. Kang can’t figure out how Scott manages to accomplish his impossible task, but Scott explains that this horde of perfect copies are all pulling in the same direction because they all want the same thing. They’ve discarded their individualism for the collective good: like ants — or communists.
One moment at the climax of Quantumania speaks directly to the revolutionary politics of Andor. As Kang prepares to lead his army into battle, Cassie seizes a broadcast control room, like Kino Loy (Andy Serkis) did in “One Way Out.” Like Maarva (Fiona Shaw) in “Rix Road,” Cassie projects a gigantic holographic image of herself, imploring the local population to rise up against their oppressors. It’s likely a coincidence, but it’s certainly an interesting one.
These themes do not exist in a vacuum. In the movie’s opening scenes, Cassie is introduced fighting oppression in the “real” world. She is arrested for standing up to the San Francisco Police Department, who tear-gassed peaceful protestors who were trying to protect the city’s homeless population. As above, so below. Superhero movies are metaphors. After all, Cassian Andor’s (Diego Luna) path to revolution also began with police harassment.
Quantumania is an imperfect movie, to say the least. These themes are somewhat muddled and suffer from a lack of commitment. After all, it’s hard to take Scott and Cassie arguing about what it means to “look out for the little guy” seriously when they are doing so from inside a product-placement Volkswagen ID.4. Still, it’s an interesting approach to Ant-Man as a superhero. For all its flaws, with its narrative of Quantum Realm revolution, it is about a hero standing tall for the little guys.