SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses major plot points, including the ending, of “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” currently playing in theaters.
One day in early 2020, Jeff Loveness got a call from his agent telling him to go to the Marvel Studios offices in Burbank by 3 p.m. that day, with no further information. It wasn’t until he walked into the meeting room and saw director Peyton Reed — who’d helmed Marvel’s “Ant-Man” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp” — that Loveness understood that he was there to talk about a third movie starring Paul Rudd’s incredible shrinking superhero.
But then Loveness was asked a surprising question: “Do you have a take on Kang the Conqueror?”
Loveness had never written a screenplay that had become a finished film, but as a veteran writer on the beloved Adult Swim series “Rick and Morty,” he did have extensive experience with writing outré science fiction steeped in the mind-bending realms of time travel and multiple dimensions. Those are crucial skills for anyone writing about Kang, an autocratically inclined human from the future who has zig-zagged throughout the multiverse — often in ferocious conflict with versions of himself.
More to the point, “Marvel comics basically taught me how to read,” Loveness says. “They were pretty integral to my morality growing up.”
Needless to say, Loveness did have a take on Kang, and Ant-Man, and what could be done by sending Rudd’s Scott Lang — along with his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), girlfriend Hope (Evangeline Lilly), and Hope’s parents Hank (Michael Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) — deep into the Quantum Realm for the bulk of the movie’s runtime.
“I wanted to make a type of adventure movie that I love growing up,” he says. “With Paul Rudd, we had the opportunity to do this throwback ’90s dad protagonist, the way Robin Williams in ‘Hook’ or ‘Jumanji’ feels. You have this playful superhero that most people think is pretty low stakes, and the pitch we had was what if he’s accidentally in an ‘Avengers’ movie basically by himself, completely out of his depth? That felt like a really fun challenge for Peyton to tackle.”
Not only did he get the gig to write the movie, now titled “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” but Marvel was so impressed with Loveness’ work that they hired him to write 2025’s “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty,” establishing Kang as the Thanos-level Big Bad for the Multiverse Saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” director Destin Daniel Cretton is set to direct the film.)
“It feels like a huge fluke,” Loveness says of his time with Marvel. “I feel like I’m like a Make-A-Wish kid or some Dickensian street waif who got pulled into something. I feel really lucky.”
With Variety, Loveness talks about bringing more of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Janet van Dyne into the movie, who else might have played Bill Murray’s role, how he conceived of Kang’s wider arc and what we might expect to see in “The Kang Dynasty.”
It’s no secret that most people felt like there was not enough Michelle Pfeiffer in “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” but she’s so front and center in “Quantumania,” guiding Hope and Hank through the Quantum Realm, where she’d spent the previous 30 years. How’d that come about?
I mean, I don’t have to say this — I think everyone knows — she’s one of the most iconic movie stars of all time. It was great for them to introduce her in that second movie, but then you got Michelle Pfeiffer just on the table there with so much to explore. So once Peyton said, “We want this to be a Quantum Realm-based adventure,” it just seemed like the obvious choice for Michelle Pfeiffer to be leading the way there. We’ve seen plenty of movies where, like, Dad’s got a mysterious past. Half of every superhero movie is a father-son allegory. I thought it was actually a pretty natural and easy flip to make it a mother-daughter story as well and to give a mother figure in a superhero movie more of that baggage and regret.
And then the X-Men fan of me, there’s nothing I love more than a villain who has a deep personal relationship with the protagonist. To build out this Magneto-Charles Xavier energy with Kang and Janet, that just felt like a lot of fun. That’s when the story really felt electric to me.
Bill Murray plays one of Janet’s old flames from her time in the Quantum Realm. He’s notorious for being impossible to pin down, though, so if he hadn’t shown up, did you have a backup plan?
Yes. There was a couple of names tossed about. I don’t know if I can even say. I think in my in the back of my head, I had [“What We Do in the Shadows” star] Matt Berry in mind. I just love that guy so much. But obviously once Bill Murray came around, you kind of molded the voice to him. It’s almost like a Bob Hope cameo in an old movie: Just give him four minutes of runway, let him do his thing, boost the elevation a little bit, and let him get out. Matt Berry was a choice, and I’m just a big Steve Martin fan, but I don’t think that ever got too far. I think Murray pulled it off pretty great.
Let’s talk about Kang. When you were first taking him on, how much did you understand that you were helping to establish the Thanos of the Multiverse Saga?
It’s always fluid at Marvel. And again, I don’t know how much I can say of all the inner realpolitik and all that. It was on the table, but it was not definitive. I think it was up to me to prove that this is going to be the next Thanos going forward. There’s no shortage of big Marvel villains they could have gone with, and so I feel very proud of Peyton and Jonathan for really nailing down that character. I mean, day one, first day of rehearsal, Jonathan shows up. I come from a background in comedy, so you’ve always got that insecurity in the back of your head of like, “Oh man, I’m writing a classical supervillain. Is this going to work or is this going to come off like a weird, UPN, early 2000s show or something?” But Jonathan was so completely on board and so dedicated, just the most committed actor I’ve ever seen.
What made Kang unique to you, especially with Jonathan Majors playing him?
Obviously, Thanos has proven himself as a fantastic screen villain. But the joy of Kang, I think, is the fact that he is not a purple CGI alien from space. He’s a human being and so you actually get to see, in my opinion, the best actor of his generation with the most expressive face actually do this tortured supervillain performance. I’m right in the middle of “Avengers” — no ideas! Please, pitch out ideas! But I think we’re in for a real treat with this guy, because he’s such a diverse actor, and he’s only shown us a taste of what he can do.
You get a sense in “Quantumania” that there’s been an extensive story happening with Kang and his variants well before the events of the movie. How much of that storytelling iceberg did you know was under the water?
Ooh, yeah, how much can I say? Kang is a super complicated character, even in comic book terms. Even I am pretty well steeped in this stuff, and I had a hard time getting his full A-to-Z story. But then I found that, oh, no, that’s the joy of the character. That’s where that line sprang up, “I don’t live in a straight line.” This is a nonlinear person who’s traveled so far across time and universes that he doesn’t know where he ends and he begins. He’s been fighting himself across time for so long that his other versions don’t even know why. You’re almost meeting him at the end. He’s more like Napoleon in exile. I got really excited about not making him this from-the-bat apex supervillain, but introducing him in a shipwrecked kind of Paradise Lost, fallen Lucifer vibe, and have him in a weak, vulnerable place. Give him that camaraderie and friendship with Michelle Pfeiffer, and then slowly reveal that, oh no, this guy has a past that we can’t imagine.
It was very fun to not start from point A, because the Avengers are going to have plenty of time travel shenanigans. But I love “Lord of the Rings” or “Game of Thrones,” because they have a whole story that happened before the books even began. The Baratheons have already taken over. The dragon kings have already been killed off a century ago. It felt fun to give it a little bit of weight and something else has been going on that we don’t know about and now the story is going to accelerate.
You talk about Kang the Conqueror being at the end of his reign, so to speak, and in “Quantumania,” we see him be obliterated in some fashion. The post-credits scene makes clear that there are thousands of Kangs waiting in the wings, but should we expect to never see the Conqueror version again?
Well, that’s the beautiful thing about Kang in the comics. He is defeated a lot. In fact, it’s almost comedic how often he loses. The scary thing is that he’s not defined by his failure, and he can keep coming back stronger and stronger. It’s not like you can just blow up the mothership, just beat him once and you’re done. He is almost an existential threat, and the more you fight him the worse he’s going to get. That is a fun, post-modernist challenge that is different for a superhero movie, and it’s going to present a very complicated challenge for them going forward. It was very hard beating one of these guys. What’s going to happen when suddenly the rest of them are aware of what we’re doing?
Many people who’ve worked for Marvel Studios have talked about how collaborative and iterative it can be — which is to say that things change creatively a lot over there. What was your experience of it?
It didn’t strike me as too different from “Rick and Morty” or even The Onion, one of my first comedy jobs, or especially Jimmy Kimmel. I was a writer there for many years. If there’s a last-minute joke that can make it better and you can get it to the prompter, it’s going to go on the show that night. If you can get that sketch edited by 5 p.m., it’s going on the show — and if it can’t, better luck next time. You just got to keep swimming and try not to get swallowed up.
Was there a version where Scott and Hope remain trapped in the Quantum Realm at the end?
It was certainly discussed. I don’t know if I’m allowed to discuss that. As we got close to production, we certainly went through every beat of that and thought of which ways to go. [Staying behind] to me feels a little repetitive. I don’t know if that would have been satisfying. That feels a little reductive to the second movie, like oh, they’re just trapped again and they’ll get out in the next “Endgame” or something. It would have not been as good if we repeated the beats of the second movie.
What have you learned from this process that you’re now applying to “The Kang Dynasty”?
I just feel like we have such a great launching pad with Jonathan Majors. He’s so down for stuff. Every time I talk to him, he’s got a new insight. We’re trying to build out new and engaging forms [of Kang] that are hopefully just as good as the ones we that we saw. I’m trying to make this a revenge story and a bit of a self-discovery story. I’m trying to make him more vulnerable than Thanos, more human than Thanos.
I guess it’s the “X-Men” fan in me, but Magneto is maybe my favorite villain in storytelling. He’s such a compelling villain, because you just bleed for this guy and you sympathize with him so much. So I think we really have an opportunity [with Kang] to have a passionate, vulnerable villain on a crusade against himself, and the Avengers are in the way. That’s kind of the fun thing about Kang in the comics. The Avengers are more just a thorn in his side. He’s basically trying to handle his own shit, but it’s always like, Thor kind of gets in his way. He’s more about the bigger game. He represents a fun existential challenge to even the idea of superheroes — and if they’re necessary or not.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.