Marvel misses the mark with Kang the Conqueror: A review of ‘Ant-man and the Wasp: Quatumania’
Throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe, villains make or break their movies; Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, and Josh Brolin’s Thanos all were carefully developed antagonists who facilitated massive character development for the protagonists. During February break, I decided to treat myself to the movies by way of “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantamania” and thought I would enjoy it because Kang was the main villain. However, I was disappointed. Jonathan Major’s Kang the Conqueror in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantamania” is phenomenal as a singularity. We’re introduced to this variant of Kang at the beginning of the film during one of Janet’s (Michelle Pfeiffer) first flashbacks to her initial arrival in the Quantum Realm. Kang appears as a meek exile with a broken multiverse transportation machine. He tells Janet of his exile from his home, masquerading as an innocent charmer who wants to stop countless realities from being destroyed. Janet believes him until she touches the Time Crystal in the temporal gateway core she repaired and she’s flooded with visions of Kang’s countless genocides. Upon finding this out, Janet sabotages the machine, causing Kang to be stuck in the Quantum Realm with a maniacal desperation to escape.
Later on, Kang captures Cassie Lang (Kathyrn Newton) and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), forcing Scott to jump into the temporal gateway core Janet disrupted and fix it from within. We watch as Kang telekinetically chokes Cassie while Scott is pinned against the wall, helplessly watching life slowly fade from his daughter’s eyes. During this scene, Kang apathetically looks at the two as they are mere stepping stones in his ambitious plan. Scott stops resisting and agrees to fix the temporal gateway core.
Kang’s tenacity and motive, which contrasts with the once charming, lost soul the audience saw in other Marvel villains, makes him a compelling villain. His darkness is highlighted by his humanity. He was forced to be an outcast by people he was brethren with — other variants of himself — and now seeks to thwart their plans of multiversal domination while feeding into his own desire for conquest. However, ultimately Kang’s potential as a new kind of Marvel villain is squandered by his character’s interactions and how he failed to push the character development for the protagonists as well.
Kang’s purpose in the grand scheme of the film is to push the protagonists to their breaking point. Kang’s opposition placed Scott and Cassie at odds with one another, revealing their ideologies when it comes to heroics, especially when family is involved. Scott and Cassie’s father-daughter dynamic in the movie parallels the old generation transitioning into the new. Scott’s an old Avenger, and Cassie is a new avenger and part of the Young Avengers. Cassie’s altruistic mindset of “save everyone” contradicts Scott is “let these quantum realmers fight Kang on their own” worldview. Scott’s care for his family supersedes his duty as a hero, whereas Cassie sees the opportunity to help those in need just as important as family. In the end, Scott helps the Quantum Realmers fight against Kang to save Cassie. Scott’s duty as a hero, more so the altruistic sacrifice that comes with being a hero, isn’t focused on through the antagonism of Kang until the movie’s conclusion — even then, the execution was poor.
Scott and Kang have their final battle, and Scott’s sense of heroism is put to the test. After watching Scott get pummeled and stomped on by Kang, the audience witnesses Scott’s heroism evolve, for he chooses to stay in the Quantum Realm to protect his family and Earth from Kang while simultaneously assisting the people of the Quantum Realm. Hope’s (Evangeline Lilly) intervention stopped Kang from running through the temporal gate that Cassie, Janet, and Hank (Michael Douglass) opened up for Scott at the very last second, blasting Kang into the temporal gate core where he gets sealed away. The portal closes, and Scott and Hope stare off into the ruined but liberated Quantum Realm. Scott’s altruism for strangers matches his desire to protect his family, but the sacrifice is undermined by Cassie and her grandparents reopening the portal to bring Scott and Hope home a couple of seconds later. The audience isn’t even given time to wrestle with the idea that Kang tore Scott’s family apart, just as Thanos did with a snap. Scott doesn’t authentically get to engage with this heightened altruism his daughter inspired within him to help fix the Quantum Realm. They leave, and the movie ends similarly to a Disney Channel “happily ever after,” with the threat of more Kang's on the rise in post-credit scenes.
Moreover, Cassie isn’t challenged and given enough of a reality check for the consequences of her actions. At the beginning of the movie, she gets arrested for breaking and entering into her school to get a device for her suit. Scott bails her out, and she’s brought home without any tangible consequences besides a stern scolding. The movie follows this trend all throughout: Cassie fails to do Scott’s signature upper-cut — where he shrinks down and then enlarges to upper-cut an adversary — and barely has harm come her way because Scott saved her. She never falls flat and has to pick herself up without help, and she continues to see heroics through rose-colored glasses. Cassie is a naïve young adult, yet with a foe like Kang, who has killed versions of Cassie in alternate timelines, the stakes for her should match that of the antagonist. She never has her reality checked, and her rosy shades aren’t shattered by Kang in the end. The closest we get to such a moment of realization for Cassie is when Kang is choking Cassie in front of Scott. More moments where Kang could’ve given Cassie a reality check would’ve elevated Cassie’s maturity and outlook on her own heroic philosophy. A scene where he is simply beating Cassie to a pulp where she’s alone and has to fend for herself would have skyrocketed her character development. She would have realized that there are direct consequences for playing the hero and that sometimes the only one who can save her is herself. She’s supposed to be one to take up the mantle of an Avenger, yet she lacks the foundation and experience to — truly — fill Ant-Man’s shoes in the future. Kang was the missed opportunity to create that foundation.
Kang was a vehicle of adversity that could have challenged the way Scott and Cassie perceived their roles as heroes, but he wasn’t capitalized upon by the creators of the movie. The Marvel Cinematic Universe as of Phase 4 has been on a trend of fast-food movies: These fast, quirky pseudo-comedies don’t lean into more serious themes and fleshed-out characters. Perhaps if the MCU took its time to thoroughly create movies, they’d end up with high-quality, full-entrée movies that audiences can sink their teeth into.