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What is the Quantum Realm? Looking inside Marvel's microversal part of the MCU multiverse

What can we learn about the MCU's Quantum Realm from the comics?

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
Image credit: Marvel Studios

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania opens in theaters February 17, and while the cast looks tremendous— Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonathan Majors, Bill Murray — the real star of the show is going to be the Quantum Realm. While we've only had glimpses of it so far in the MCU, it’s a fascinating, but mostly forgotten, part of the mythology of the Marvel Universe.

Here’s everything you need to know.

The Quantum Realm didn't start with Ant-Man

You might think that the hero who discovers a universe that exists at a million times smaller than an atom would have to be Ant-Man, the Wasp, or maybe the Fantastic Four. But the truth is far weirder.

The Quantum Realm — or as it would come to be known in Marvel Comics, the 'Microverse,' actually precedes Ant-Man by more than 20 years. Way back in 1943, science fiction writer Ray Cummings adopted his 1919 short story, 'The Girl in the Golden Atom,' with artist Syd Shores in early issues of Captain America.

A race of bald green troll-like beings are set to invade a planet called Mita in a microscopic universe existing within an atom of a stone. When they come to Earth intent on capturing the princess of Mita, who had been sent their by her parents for her own protection, they encounter Captain America and Bucky, who quickly find themselves drawn into the larger drama of saving Mita.

Captain America #25-26 is a crazy story, with Captain America and Bucky repeatedly shrinking down (and also embiggening up) to fight the trolls. It also features a version of Captain America who has the smarts to “whip up” his own shrinking pill within five minutes of getting a hold of the princess’ last dose, and the wonderfully brilliant idea of simply stealing the rock in which Mita’s universe exists in order to protect it.

Strikingly, right from its origins this microscopic realm was conceived of as an entire universe, complete with planets, stars, and space ships to travel amongst them.

Until recently Ant-Man has only had an ant-sized part in the Quantum Realm

The Microverse would reappear in 1962, the year that Ant-Man debuted in Tales to Astonish #27, but in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. In issue 16, the Fantastic Four call on Hank Pym for help after they find themselves randomly shrinking and then returning to their normal height. Pym gives them his formula for shrinking and growth, which they soon after use to shrink down into a microscopic world, where they hypothesize that Doctor Doom must have disappeared to after he was hit by a shrinking ray in issue 10.

The team discovers that Doom has made himself ruler of the peaceful 'Micro-World,' and is set to force a different princess to marry him. (Princesses play a weirdly outsized role in the Microverse.) As the Fantastic Four fight to escape Doom’s clutches, Hank Pym returns to the Baxter Building, discovers the tiny remnants of the test tubes they used to drink his formula and follows them down. He’s captured as soon as he arrives on Micro-World, and eventually has to be rescued by the Fantastic Four before helping the Fantastic Four to defeat Doom’s forces.

Meanwhile in Tales to Astonish (by Larry Lieber, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), Pym never returned to or even acknowledged the existence of a microverse. It’s not until 1982, in Marvel Two-in-One #87, that Ant-Man actually returns to the Microworld. But this time it’s Scott Lang who goes at Reed Richards’ request to save the Thing. And by this point the Microverse has become enormously popular on its own.

Most of the characters associated with the Quantum Realm aren't available to Marvel any more

In 1979, Marvel Comics launched the Bill Mantlo/Michael Golden book Micronauts. Inspired by the super-popular scifi-esque Micronaut toy line from the Japanese company Mego, half the time the comic series was basically merchandising for the toyline, with Micronauts showing up on Earth and teaming up with kids or popular super heroes.

But the other half of the time, Mantlo and Golden created their own Star Wars-esque soap opera, with a group of heroes led by Arcturus Rann, an explorer and adventurer who flies a ship that looks a lot like the Millennium Falcon, trying to defeat Baron Karza, a fascist in black armor who is trying to take over the universe.

The book was very popular, at times beating the X-Men and Teen Titans in sales. But then Mego went bankrupt in 1982, and Marvel’s license to tell Micronauts stories lapsed in 1986.

As a result, Marvel lost the ability to tell stories about the Micronauts, except for three characters that they had created for the series: Rann, Marionette (a princess with strong Dazzler vibes, whose parents were murdered by Karza), and Bug (an insect-like being with great agility, sight, and thieving abilities). Bug in particular has remained so popular that over the years that he has occasionally found his way into other books, including a run on Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the entire run of Micronauts, Ant-Man is in just one issue. In issue #20, while investigating someone who is experimenting on insects, Scott Lang meets one of the Micronauts. Later miniseries and comics would see the Micronauts visited by the X-Men, Captain Marvel, Rick Jones, and Alpha Flight. (Peter David made it the place that Rick Jones and Captain Marvel went when they swapped places, in fact.) But Ant-Man only visits in that Marvel Two-In-One, and only to the Micro-World the FF visited in the '60s.

So did Ant-Man ever have adventures in the Microverse?

In the last 10 years, a number of comics have finally seen Ant-Man traveling to the Microverse. In 2013 at the end of Avengers volume 4, Brian Michael Bendis and Terry Dodson have Hank Pym and the Avengers travel into the Microverse to rescue Janet van Dyne, who they thought had died during the 2008 Secret Invasion miniseries, but in fact had gotten trapped in the Microverse. Though their adventure there took place in just one city, once again there was a scifi fantasy feel, complete with space ships, alien races, and an armored centaur who looks an awful lot like Baron Karza as the bad guy.

Then in 2018, Mark Waid and Javier Garron’ Ant-Man & Wasp mini saw Scott Lang team up with the new Wasp, Hank Pym’s then-recently revealed Russian daughter Nadia. Together they spend five issues exploring the Microverse, and for the first time in the history of the concept, the Microverse is imagined not just as a sort of parallel universe, but as having completely different set of physical laws. Scott and Nadia meet creatures made out of color who are murdered by a being that devours the color red; and a race of space-faring aliens whose bodies are made up of hundreds of eyes and mouths.

Their time spent at the quantum level transforms them, as well, into living quantum particles, able to create infinite duplicates (because quantum particles don’t exist in any one state but rather in all possible states at once).

Then things start getting really weird, with the two having to fight their way through cheerleaders on roller skates shooting lasers from their eyes, and Ultrons in cargo shorts throwing soccer balls. (Nadia believes one level of the Microverse is basically a mirror of things drawn from human imaginations.) It is a delightfully weird and madcap run that offers a lot of possibilities for the future.

So what is the Quantum Realm in the MCU?

Ah, we thought you might ask that.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
Image credit: Marvel Studios

The Quantum Realm first appeared in the MCU in the first Ant-Man movie, when it was revealed that Janet van Dyne was marooned there while difussing a missile. In that same movie, Scott Lang was temporarily sent to the Quantum Realm himself, but was able to escape, having brought a Pym Particle regulator with him.

Janet van Dyne was eventually rescued from the Quantum Realm, but Scott Lang himself was stranded there for five years during the Blip, though the time he spent in the Quantum Realm only felt like hours for him. As Lang puts it, "See, the rules of the Quantum Realm aren't like they are up here. Everything is unpredictable."

In Agents of SHIELD, the Quantum Realm was used as a way to travel to alternate universes within the Marvel Multiverse.

Does any of this give us any hints about Quantumania?

The trailers definitely suggest that the MCU’s Quantum Realm has its own weird physics. Some shots from the trailers, like the floating islands of rock that Cassie and Scott watch, seem to come directly from the Waid/Garron mini. The second trailer also features what seem to be a million Ant-Mans working together, which may again be playing on concepts Waid and Garron originated.

The first trailer also includes this mysterious group of people who confront Scott and the others. Is this the MCU’s version of the Micronauts?

We’ll find out soon.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania opens in theaters February 17, 2023. Buy tickets on Fandango or Atom Tickets.

Read our Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania review.

Get up to speed on everything coming with our Ant-Man 3 guide.

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