A heavy burden rests on Ant-Man’s (Paul Rudd) diminutive shoulders: not only the fate of Earth-616, but perhaps the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) itself.
Over the past 15 years, the MCU has redefined the Hollywood franchise blockbuster through their pioneering use of transmedia storytelling, in which a unified narrative unfolds systematically across multiple media forms and platforms. This rich world building has resulted in both cultural ubiquity and immense financial returns.
But with a release schedule mapped out many years in advance, the limitations of this production line model (in particular a lack of quality control and over reliance on CGI) have become clear, especially in contrast to the impact of Top Gun: Maverick’s (2022) thrillingly real stunts and the long-gestating CGI hit Avatar: The Way of Water (2022).
Marvel’s solution? To rewrite time itself. Enter Kang the Conqueror, a Marvel comics villain of longstanding and fearsome reputation. Kang is more than another rote super villain. His ability to shatter timelines plays a key role in bringing the Marvel Multiverse (a potentially infinite series of alternative realities and dimensions) to the fore of the MCU.
Dreams of alternative realities have long fuelled imaginations. The question “What if…?” is the starting point for any work of science fiction, facilitating the depiction of altered pasts, transformed presents, or possible futures.
Such realities have long existed in Marvel comics and are now manifesting themselves in the MCU. There are the alternate timelines of Endgame’s (2019) “Time Heist”, the animated series What If…? (2021) and the many character “variants” in Loki (2021).
This includes “He Who Remains,” creator of the Time Variance Authority (a bureaucratic organisation tasked with protecting the “sacred timeline”), who is himself a variant of Kang and whose death at the hands of a female variant of Loki shatters space and time and births the multiverse.
If all this sounds confusing, then herein lies both the potential and the problem of the multiverse. With the introduction of Kang (or at least, one Kang of an infinite possibility of Kangs), anything and everything will be possible. Whether the already imposing MCU can keep a grip on its exponential expansion into infinite realms is another matter.
Just as the Time Variance Authority monitors all realities and prunes timelines that threaten universal stability, Marvel will now have inordinate tangled narrative threads and reality-crossing characters to keep in check.
Disney’s Kang-like desire for dominance
Much like Kang’s desire to conquer all realities, the multiverse is propelled by Disney’s industry dominance. The recent procurement of 20th Century Fox has offered up many worlds of intellectual property to plunder (though the monetisation of nostalgia is hardly new for Hollywood).
Justified by long-established comic ties to Kang’s intricate web of identities, The Fantastic Four and X-Men franchises will likely be making future MCU appearances. The multiverse helps Marvel to neatly sidestep origin stories and “where have you been?” continuity issues – we already know these characters, so they’ve been here all along, just in another (cinematic) reality.
Though the team up of iterations of Spider-Man in No Way Home was joyously received, one consequence of the multiverse is a changing of the stakes. Death is now of little consequence.
With an infinite number of character variants waiting in the alternate universe wings (we’ve already seen a reanimated Gamora in Endgame and a deceased Wolverine will return in 2024’s Deadpool 3), the multiverse may become self-reflexive, rather than a portal to new possibilities.
On this front, Quantumania largely sits on the fence, but in doing so performs some interesting meditations on its own purpose. As objects of mass consumption that resonate with vast audiences, Hollywood blockbusters are indicators of the ideological predicaments of our societies.
In these terms, while the film’s primary selling point is to introduce Kang to the MCU as an omnipotent threat, beneath this lies a fairly mundane melodrama concerning the Pym family finding their place in the world (or indeed, worlds).
The stakes are surprisingly small and personal, despite their universal resonance. At Quantumania’s heart is a melancholic lament for things lost – time, purpose, identity, loved ones. The film’s message is that even in the face of unknowable existential threat, life can be given meaning through collective social justice, accepting responsibility towards our fellow creatures, sticking to one’s word and by (in a repeated refrain) “not being a dick”.
Not to mention the vital lessons that can be learned from socialist ants and the importance of not striking Faustian bargains with villainous despots (time travelling or otherwise).
Of course, as with any MCU offering, in order to court audiences across the political spectrum a careful balance is struck between preaching the power of collective social justice and lionising the figure of the individualistic superhero employing militaristic might to get the job done.
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Despite Marvel’s grand proclamations as to Quantumania’s importance and purpose, it is not a definitive statement of intent either in terms of its narrative, or ideologically. It remains unclear whether Phase 5 will put the MCU back on track. But this film is only a first tentative step across an infinite threshold and, with the Multiverse Saga due to stretch way into 2026, there’s still a long way to go.
Whether Kang will lead the MCU – and its fans – into a nostalgic past or an infinite future, only time will tell.
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