At the beginning of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, our hero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) are warped in a quantum universe. It’s filled with alien biology and vistas that wouldn’t be out of place on distant planets. But while it seems like the perfect setup for a fun sci-fi adventure, I never bought it. And, sadly, the cast didn’t seem to buy it either. The backgrounds looked like psychedelic screensavers and, like the star wars prequels, there was a strange disconnect between living humans and their mostly digital surroundings.
I found the aesthetic so viscerally ugly that it made me fearful for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and anything done with ILM’s StageCraft technology (aka “the volume”). This realization surprised me, because I especially appreciated the way in which this technology contributed to make The Mandalorian unique worlds come to life. The volume is a series of huge LED walls that can display images in real time. Together with the interactive lighting, it gives the impression that the actors are walking through artificial environments. Another plus? It also helps the lighting look much more realistic, which was especially noticeable on Mando’s polished armor.
So what happened to Quantum? Its artificiality seems partially intentional, as it tries to evoke pulp fantasy and even a bit of Star Wars. But somewhere along the line, director Peyton Reed forgot to base his fantastical visuals on anything resembling human emotion. When Ant-Man, his daughter, or their tiny compatriots, Hank Pym (Michael Douglass) and Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), enter the Quantum Realm, there’s little room for wonder and wonder. Of course, sometimes they joke about something weird: moving buildings! An alien intrigued by body holes! But we quickly switch to a rote sci-fi tale of rebellion against an evil conqueror (in this case, it’s Kang, played by Jonathan Majors.)
Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, who calls the film “a cry for help”, succinctly describes why Quantum falls flat: “The action is tired, the universe unconvincing and no one on screen seems to want to be there. They don’t even seem to know where he is.
Obviously, we can’t blame “the volume” for all the film’s flaws, it’s just another tool in a director’s kit. In an interview with ColliderReed said he wasn’t sure the technology would work for Quantum, but ultimately found it to be “great for some environments, but not necessarily good for others”. He later added “There are limits to that (the volume), and we’re pushing that system to the limit on this film…What works so well in mandalorian is that they have a lot of time, because they do a whole series, to invest and create these environments, and according to the schedule that we had, it is not always adapted to this situation.
Several anonymous VFX workers said Vulture that Quantumania’s busy production schedule was one of the reasons its computer-generated worlds fall so flat. The upper profile Black Panther following, wakanda forever, was a higher priority for Marvel (no surprise when that first movie grossed over $1.3 billion worldwide) when it came to VFX work. And there were apparently late changes to Quantum this led to some rushed work – though it’s worth noting that’s not unusual for a major Marvel movie.
“Making big pivots late in the game has consequences, and there’s a constant scramble of VFX houses to keep up,” a former VFX worker told Engadget. (They requested anonymity due to confidentiality agreements around their work.) “And towards the end, it’s almost always a disaster. Many wonders. Lots of clever solutions, not based on improving art, but simply being able to do a week’s work in 24 hours.