Quantumania Can’t Establish Kang as a Credible MCU Threat

Ant-Man the Wasp: Quantumania does not depict Kang the Conqueror as a viable MCU threat, lacking any long-term sense of danger after Scott Lang defeats him so easily and there is a generic happy ending.

This article contains spoilers for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in its discussion of Kang the Conqueror and his lack of credibility as an MCU threat.

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Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania marks the beginning of Phase 5 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). That comes with certain obligations. Most notably, Quantumania is tasked with establishing Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) as the shared universe’s next “big bad,” a successor to Thanos the Mad Titan (Josh Brolin) who was the antagonist of the Infinity Saga.

This isn’t a spoiler. Marvel Studios has made a big deal about Kang’s impending arrival. Jonathan Majors was cast as Kang in September 2020, before the third Ant-Man movie even had a title. He made a cameo as “He Who Remains,” an alternate version of Kang, in the first season finale of Loki. At San Diego Comic-Con in July 2022, producer Kevin Feige announced that the first part of the epic two-part finale to the company’s Phase 6 would be titled Avengers: The Kang Dynasty.

Perhaps motivated by the relative underperformance of Phase 4 critically and commercially, Marvel Studios has been bullish in signaling the importance of Quantumania. Director Peyton Reed compared it to a “big Avengers movie.” The posters entice the audience to “witness the beginning of a new dynasty,” signposting the film’s position as an on-ramp to The Kang Dynasty. Feige talked in press coverage about how this was a film that truly “connects to the bigger picture.”

As such, allowing for his brief appearance at the end of the first season of Loki, Quantumania feels like an underwhelming introduction to Kang the Conqueror. Quantumania does very little to establish Kang as a credible threat within its own narrative, let alone to position Kang as a figure who might loom large over the next two years of comic book movies. Majors is clearly having fun in the role — particularly the chance to play alternate versions of the same character — but Kang is a damp squib.

Ant-Man the Wasp: Quantumania does not depict Kang the Conqueror as a viable MCU threat, lacking any long-term sense of danger after Scott Lang defeats him so easily and there is a generic happy ending.

Quantumania expects the audience to take Kang seriously. The movie’s opening scene is a flashback within the Quantum Realm. An object crashes out of the sky, hurtling to the rock that serves as home to Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), a superhero who got lost in the subatomic space while trying to disarm an intercontinental ballistic missile. Janet moves to investigate the disturbance, finding a lone survivor crawling from the wreckage. The scene cuts away on the revelation that it is Kang.

It is an interesting introduction, in what it expects of the audience watching Quantumania. That teaser and the sharp cut at the end of it demonstrates that, despite all the paranoia about spoiler culture, the studio still expects the audience to be reasonably aware of pre-publicity material. Marvel Studios isn’t assuming that the audience is seeing Quantumania blind. It assumes the viewer has seen promotional material like cover stories in Entertainment Weekly or Empire.

There is an expectation that the audience knows (and cares) who Kang is before he even appears on screen. It’s just part of the meta-narrative in how people talk about movies now, like figuring out which stars were departing in Avengers: Endgame based on the high-profile contract negotiations around the film. It feels like Loki and Quantumania are less important to establishing Kang as a credible threat than explainer articles and the headlines of interviews with Kevin Feige.

It’s a fun illustration of how movies are packaged and sold these days, more as multimedia experiences rather than as actual movies. How Quantumania presents Kang the Conqueror is almost incidental to the audience’s experience of Kang the Conqueror. It is very difficult to separate the character within the movie from the narrative being spun about the character in press and publicity. Still, even allowing for this, Quantumania botches its introduction of Kang as a villain.

Ant-Man the Wasp: Quantumania does not depict Kang the Conqueror as a viable MCU threat, lacking any long-term sense of danger after Scott Lang defeats him so easily and there is a generic happy ending.

Quantumania talks a good game. The characters in the movie are afraid of Kang, which does a lot to establish his bad guy bona fides. Janet doesn’t want to talk about her time in the Quantum Realm, in particular her time with Kang. When Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and his friends are sucked into the Quantum Realm, characters talk in hushed tones about the threat of “the Conqueror.” Kang’s face adorns graffiti. He is a dictator and warlord who has turned the Quantum Realm into a hellscape.

Forced to discuss her experiences with the villain, Janet explains that Kang is a mass murderer on an unimaginable scale. He belonged to a group with access to the multiverse, and he used his power to destroy entire worlds and timelines. He was so bloodthirsty that his associates banded together to exile him to the Quantum Realm. If Kang were ever to escape from his prison, he would burn trillions upon trillions of lives. Quantumania does a lot of telling and not a lot of showing.

Kang positions himself well. When Scott reveals he belongs to a superhero team, Kang asks, “You’re an Avenger? Have I killed you before?” He explains that he has killed countless variations of the superheroes, so many that they all blur together. He idly wonders whether Scott is Thor (Chris Hemsworth). On paper, this is all fairly credible. Kang sounds like a big deal. He’s like a professional wrestler, with the entire shared universe serving as his hype man.

Unfortunately, Quantumania lacks any real follow-through. Kang is ultimately quite useless. It’s revealed that he needs Scott to recover a lost component from his machine, which he can’t do himself. At the climax of the movie, he is overrun by an alliance of rebels, a “technocratic” society of hyper-evolved ants, and his own lieutenant M.O.D.O.K. (Corey Stoll). Of course, this is just a defeat. Kang is overwhelmed, but he isn’t killed.

Ant-Man the Wasp: Quantumania does not depict Kang the Conqueror as a viable MCU threat, lacking any long-term sense of danger after Scott Lang defeats him so easily and there is a generic happy ending.

Instead, he survives to ambush Scott as Scott prepares to return to reality. Scott and Kang wrestle, with Kang needing to get through the portal to escape exile. For a brief moment, it appears that Scott might have to make a heroic sacrifice to keep the universe safe from Kang. When Kang goads him for the audacity of thinking he might win, Scott replies, “I don’t have to win. We both just have to lose.” However, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) makes a surprise return, saving Scott and killing Kang.

There’s something incredibly underwhelming in all of this. Kang was supposed to be the big bad of the shared universe. He seemingly killed entire armies of Avengers. However, he is handily defeated by a superhero who had trouble dealing with a criminal restaurateur (Walton Goggins) in Ant-Man and the Wasp. It really doesn’t do a lot to establish Kang as a credible threat. Why is the audience at all concerned about this villain?

Of course, there are some half-hearted justifications that might be offered. After all, Thanos’ schemes backfired in both The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, and he still proved a compelling antagonist. However, Thanos was somewhat insulated from failure in both cases, outsourcing those assignments to Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Ronan (Lee Pace). The fact that Thanos caused all that trouble just sitting in a chair cemented the idea he was not somebody to mess with.

The other argument that might be made is that Kang was never really the threat. After all, the first post-credits scene reveals that the force that exiled Kang is composed of an infinite number of alternate versions of Kang. They seem to take interest in the reality that just defeated one of their members. However, the version of Kang that Scott Lang defeated was such a menace that it took all these alternates just to exile him. As such, it doesn’t seem like a real escalation in scale.

It’s a shame, because it’s easy to imagine an alternate version of Quantumania that succeeds in establishing Kang as a viable long-term antagonist. Thanos makes an impression in the opening minutes of Avengers: Infinity War by killing off Loki. If Kang managed to kill Scott, or even just trap him for eternity, the movie would have created a tangible reason for the audience to fear and hate the Conqueror. It would be bold and provocative. It would demonstrate that Kang meant business.

Killing off or even just defeating a charming and well-liked low-tier Avenger at the start of Phase 5? That would signal that the audience should be paying attention. It would jolt them out of complacency and provide a sense of real stakes to the shared universe. Indeed, watching Quantumania, it feels like there was an alternate cut building to a similar ending, notably with Scott telling his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) how proud he is of her and later pushing her to safety.

This gets at one of the big problems with the modern MCU. Quantumania is unable to establish its new big bad as a credible threat because the films are terrified of making their audience feel uncomfortable. It’s a huge problem with establishing dramatic stakes, as the movies rush to punctuate every dramatic beat with goofy one-liners and are wary of anything that might be seen as a challenge to the power fantasy.

Quantumania is terrified of anything that even resembles a downer ending. Returning home, Scott contemplates whether something evil really is coming but chastises himself for “overthinking it.” The movie ends with a saccharine family reunion that is so uncomfortably upbeat that it seems like a potential Twilight Zone twist: Has Kang trapped Scott in some sort of weird uncanny time loop fantasy? However, the movie clearly intends the audience to take all this at face value.

Many of the best stories with many of the best villains are those willing to let the heroes lose in some sense, whether literally or metaphorically: The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, The Dark Knight. In contrast, the MCU is so afraid of upsetting its audience that even Captain America: Civil War ends with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) reassuring Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that they are still friends and allies who can call each other if they need to. There is no lose condition.

Kang the Conqueror is supposed to be a villain with untold control of the timeline, but it’s hard to take him seriously when it’s impossible to conceive of a timeline where he manages to best Ant-Man.

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Author
Darren Mooney
Darren Mooney is a pop culture critic at large for The Escapist. He writes the twice-weekly In the Frame column, writes and voices the In the Frame videos, provides film reviews and writes the weekly Out of Focus column. Plus, occasionally he has opinions about other things as well. Darren lives and works in Dublin, Ireland. He also writes for The Irish Independent, the country’s second largest broadsheet, and provides weekly film coverage for radio station Q102. He co-hosts the weekly 250 podcast and he has also written three published books of criticism on The X-Files, Christopher Nolan and Doctor Who. He somehow finds time to watch movies and television on top of that. Ironically, his superpowers are at their strongest when his glasses are on.