When ‘Ant-Man’ Director Peyton Reed Needed Marvel’s Next Villain, Only Jonathan Majors Would Do

"Jonathan is the real deal. I think he's the most exciting actor of his generation," the director told IndieWire of his crucial Kang the Conquerer casting.
Jonathan Majors as Kang The Conqueror in Marvel Studios' ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA. Photo by Jay Maidment. © 2022 MARVEL.
"Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania"
Jay Maidment

When “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” director Peyton Reed started thinking about what a third “Ant-Man” film might look like with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and producer Stephen Broussard, the trio had a few different ideas that seemed of great importance. Mostly, two films into the franchise-within-a-franchise, Reed wanted to do “something really different,” he wanted to treat it as a “trilogy capper” that paid off on elements from the first two movies, he wanted to go to the Quantum Realm, and he wanted to give co-star Michelle Pfeiffer a truly heroic role.

And they needed a really big villain to help bring all that together. “It was like, ‘And I’d love to put Ant-Man and the Wasp, these two sort of unlikely Avengers, up against a really formidable foe in this movie,'” the director said in a recent interview with IndieWire.

The answer: Kang the Conquerer, a classic Marvel villain battling superheroes since his first comic book appearance in 1963. And he wasn’t just a fierce baddie; his tricks and treats spoke to the direction the Marvel Cinematic Universe was going. “I knew of Kang from reading the comics as a kid, and he was one of the great untapped villains in the MCU,” Reed said. “It made sense [to introduce him] as the MCU is moving into these multiverse stories. In the comics, Kang is sort of a time traveler, and it worked well with the multiverse stories.”

Reed signed on to direct “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” in November 2019, along with stars Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, and Michael Douglas (Pfeiffer confirmed her return later). Just before the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, Jeff Loveness was tapped to write the film’s script, which required a trip to the Quantum Realm for Rudd’s Ant-Man, Lilly’s The Wasp, and the rest of their cohort, and the introduction of Kang the Conquerer.

But who could play Kang? Given the increasing interconnectedness of the MCU — including not just the films but also the Disney+ television series — casting a big bad in one film would inevitably have ripple effects on the rest of the franchise. And once Feige and co. decided that Kang would be the bad guy in what has come to be known as “The Multiverse Saga,” needless to say, not just anyone would do.

Paul Rudd as Scott Lang/Ant-Man and Jonathan Majors as Kang the Conqueror in Marvel Studios' ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA. Photo by Jay Maidment. © 2022 MARVEL.
“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”Jay Maidment

There was only one choice for Reed, who cast Majors (alongside Feige, Broussard, other Marvel brass, and “Loki” director Kate Herron and writer Michael Waldron). “Of course, casting Jonathan Majors was just a dream,” Reed said. “I’ve seen everything Jonathan’s ever done, and I am such a huge admirer of his as an actor and as a human being. … Jonathan is the real deal. I think he’s the most exciting actor of his generation.”

Well-known to indie film fans since his breakout turn in Sundance favorite “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Majors has built a remarkable career for himself in just a few short years (he graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 2016; in 2017, Scott Cooper cast him in “Hostiles,” marking Majors’ first film role). Marvel got in there kind of early, casting Majors in September of 2020 for “Quantumania,” eventually signing him for a deal that will include starring roles in Phase 6 features “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty” (in 2025) and “Avengers: Secret Wars” (in 2026). In 2021, he made his Marvel debut in an episode of “Loki,” appearing as one of Kang’s many, many variants.

For Reed, the casting for “Quantumania” specifically was thrilling. “One of the things that we liked about this was bringing Jonathan’s energy and what he might call his vibration, a very different vibration than the Ant-Man vibration, and putting that energy up against Paul Rudd’s,” he said.

And the director and his new star took to each other quickly. “We bonded early on; we did a bunch of conversations and Zooms as we were starting to just formulate this movie,” Reed said. “I was just drawn to him. We both grew up in the South, and there’s a Southerness about Jonathan and a warmth about him. He’s a soulful guy, and we’ll talk about anything, everything. As we started talking about what this character could be and how this character could differentiate itself from some of the other Marvel villains, we both got really excited about what Kang could be in the movie.”

Reed readily admits that introducing any kind of villain into a Marvel film is tough, but introducing the guy who will lord over the next two phases of the multi-billion-dollar franchise? That’s another ask entirely. His way in: building a relationship between Kang and Pfeiffer’s Janet van Dyne, care of a series of flashbacks that explain how Kang came to be in the Quantum Realm (his ship crashed), and how exactly he came to bond with Janet (she helped fix it, with him promising to use it to help her get back to the human realm).

Jonathan Majors as Kang The Conqueror in Marvel Studios' ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA. Photo by Jay Maidment. © 2022 MARVEL.
“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”Jay Maidment

“Thanos throws a long shadow when you’re doing one of these movies,” he said. “We liked the idea of introducing them basically as two people shipwrecked on an island and the idea that they needed each other: He needed her scientific acumen to help fix this thing. They saved each other’s lives, and they were working at this common purpose and formed this unlikely bond and, dare we say even, friendship.”

But Kang’s real nature — in short, as a conquerer, and a pretty mean one at that — is eventually revealed to Janet and the audience. “When his true nature is revealed, she obviously feels betrayed, but he also feels betrayed because he’s made this promise to her, ‘I’m going to get you out of here. We’re going to fix that. I’m going to take you home,’ and now she’s not going to take him up on that and worse, she’s not going to let him out,” Reed said.

There’s lots of emotion inherent to that plot, and that’s what really got Reed excited. “I always love the villains, and they’re always the most effective to me when you not only know their backstory, but you empathize with them in some way, even though they’re going to do some bad stuff,” he said. “That’s compelling to me. We worked, and we peeled back the layers of this character. Finding Kang’s voice was really a big part of breaking the spine of this movie.”

And, yes, Majors’ Kang did almost get a different look and feel in the film, but Reed and Loveness eventually opted for something else, honing in on the pain of his existence (a pain that will have to lord over the MCU for the foreseeable future).

“There were versions early on where Kang had almost a more contemporary vibe to him, and then we found very quickly that we didn’t want him playing in that arena with Scott Lang. We wanted him to be something totally different,” the director said. “We talked a lot about what would it be like conversing with a character who didn’t experience time in a linear fashion but lives time in these sort of endless loops. And if this person had trauma in their life, what would it be like to have multiple traumas and timelines? The idea that Kang’s a bit of a broken man, a man out of time, that was appealing.”

Walt Disney Pictures will release “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” in theaters on Friday, February 17.

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