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MOVIE REVIEW

‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’ — with a Kang but also a whimper

Jonathan Majors plays a very bad baddie in the third go-round for Paul Rudd’s size-shifting superhero

Jonathan Majors as Kang the Conqueror surveys the Quantum Realm in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania." .Marvel Studios

Wait, the Quantum Realm is . . . inhabited?

That’s the big news in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” and the Quantum Realm is where most of the movie takes place. Yes, there are a few scenes in San Francisco, the home base of Paul Rudd’s amiable size-shifting Marvel superhero, Scott Lang. This is his third go-round, after “Ant-Man” (2015) and “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018). But the Quantum Realm is definitely where the action is. Too much of it.

Kathryn Newton and Paul Rudd in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania."Jay Maidment

Evangeline Lilly, now sporting a nifty punky haircut, also returns. She’s the Wasp, a.k.a. Hope Van Dyne, Scott’s love interest. Both Ant-Man and the Wasp can shrink to bug scale or expand to giant economy size, owing to special suits designed by Hope’s scientist dad, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Hope’s mom, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), is a scientist, too. The challenge in the second movie was getting her sprung from the Quantum Realm (hereafter “QR,” and no code jokes, please), where Janet had been trapped for 30 years.

So now the four of them head back there — don’t ask why — along with Scott’s now-teenage daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton, “Big Little Lies”). Much to Scott’s surprise, Cassie has a suit, too. For now, though, she lacks a zippy arthropod moniker. Well, that’s what more sequels are for.

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Evangeline Lilly in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania."Marvel Studios

The QR poses all kinds of problems for Scott and company. Chief among them is the presence of the villainous Kang the Conqueror. It’s probably unnecessary to call a character named Kang the Conqueror “villainous.” As played by Jonathan Majors (“The Harder They Fall,” “Devotion”), Kang has a mournful majesty that makes his ruthlessness all the more potent. Kang’s easily the most formidable Marvel baddie since Josh Brolin’s Thanos, in the “Avengers” movies. He’s the most menacing, too.

Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Douglas in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania."Marvel Studios

The QR poses even more problems for “Ant-Man.” In the realm, the movie becomes as much sci-fi or fantasy feature as superhero outing. The QR is definitely an alternate reality but it’s visually incoherent. (Come to think of it, the story’s basically incoherent, too.) When “Ant-Man” is in San Francisco, it’s a setting viewers know. When a movie presents a different, imagined world — whether it’s Pandora or Dune or Middle-earth or, yes, the QR — it needs to feel whole. Variety is fine. It’s even welcome, but only within some larger coherence. This the QR never has. It’s a hodge-podge of weirdness and coolness. Some of the coolness is quite cool — giant flying manta ray taxis! a telepath whose forehead glows pink! — but too much of it is just CGI that’s all dressed up with too many places to go.

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Visually, things start out pretty wild in the QR. With “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” emphasis is definitely on the “mania.” For a while, there seems to be a competition going on with “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (2022) for the title of trippiest Marvel movie. Soon enough the visuals settle into a general biomorphic cheesiness. True, there’s a gleaming futuristic city toward the end of the movie where your basic battle for the future of the multiverse takes place, but said metropolis seems to have wandered in from another movie.

Jonathan Majors in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania."Marvel Studios

Speaking of other movies, this one includes a fairly shameless knock-off of the cantina scene in the first “Star Wars.” That’s OK, since this enables a cameo from a much-loved “SNL” old-timer. Unfortunately, the title characters’ loosey-goosey pals from the first two movies (Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, and T.I.) are nowhere to be seen. At least Dastmalchian is heard. Providing the voice of a particularly oddball QR denizen, he’s quite amusing.

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Humor, or its downplaying, is an issue in the QR. Rudd is neck and neck with Robert Downey Jr. for highest quippiness quotient of any Marvel star. The quips are noticeably fewer here, even if this has to be the only superhero movie to have a BabyBjörn joke. Instead of comedy, what takes precedence is implausible, and confusing, plot sorting-out. Of course the BabyBjörn joke might be seen as qualifying as implausible in both categories. Peyton Reed, who directed the first two movies with a nicely light touch, goes the bombast route here. Or maybe he’s just trying to distract the audience from the holes in Jeff Loveness’s script. Where, exactly, did that ant army come from?

Paul Rudd, left, and Jonathan Majors in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania."Jay Maidment

There’s another possibility, though it’s so unthinkable one hesitates to bring it up. Is superhero-osity finally exceeding its shelf life? I know, I know, that sounds ridiculous, but think of how ridiculous a similar question about westerns would have sounded, circa 1955.

So just to be on the safe side, let’s leave the final word on such speculation to an expert, Mr. Kang the Conqueror. When Ant-Man threatens him with retaliation from the Avengers, Kang shrugs. He’s killed “many” of them, he says. Which ones, an angry Ant-Man wants to know. Kang shrugs again. “They all blur together after a while.”

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★★

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA

Directed by Peyton Reed. Written by Jeff Loveness; based on comic book characters created by Jack Kirby. Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, Kathryn Newton. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 125 minutes. PG-13 (violence/action, a couple of casual excremental expostulations)




Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.