Turning a Bug into a Feature:
Ant Man and the History of Marvel Comics
0— You’re making a movie about who, now?
Ant Man has occupied a peculiar, paradoxical place in the Marvel universe since he first appeared in 1961. That hasn’t changed. Someone I know said to me the week before the movie came out, that they thought Ant Man was stupid… how could you take the character seriously? You can’t blame him — not only is the character actually pretty stupid to begin with, the first trailer pretty much coaches you to react that way. But the same person texted me opening day to say “whoo hoo that was the best! Ant Man is awesome!” The interesting bit is not that he changed his opinion, but that he went to see a movie about a character he thought was stupid on the first day. There has always been an inherent conflict in the very existence of the character between insignificance and centrality — he has been simultaneously no one’s favorite and entirely indispensable to so much of the Marvel “history” — and this friction may be the best thing about the character.
To understand Ant Man, you need to know what happened to Marvel in the early 60s. To comprehend that, you need to appreciate where Marvel was at the time, which requires a working knowledge prior comic book history, a specific familiarity with the immediately preceding Marvel epoch, and, maybe most importantly, you need to “get” Stan Lee. The following section (I) will be an attempt at a heavily condensed history of these things. Note that the purpose is not to produce an exhaustive account — I could probably write a good sized essay on each sentence — but to get you familiar enough with the basis of the character as rooted in history and personality.
Following that will be specific stabs at discussing the first Ant Man in the comics (II), the subsequent Ant Men in the comics (III), a discussion of the movie in an attempt to collect the thematic threads (IV), and maybe, if I’m lucky, some sort of conclusion (V).
I — Comics, Marvel, and the Man
Comics as an industry started in the early 1930s as an afterthought — the byproduct of an excuse for shady dealings. During prohibition, the mob needed to run presses to legitimize booze smuggling via disguised paper trucks and needed cheap and easy material to print. Replace booze with IP and mob with corporations and this still describes the disreputable pall of the industry today. Post 21st amendment, the comics companies started focusing on comics as a primary business. In the mid 30s, companies making comics began to generate new content instead of newspaper reprints, the form evolved quickly to utilize the page size and count, and the content mostly settled into a kind of B movie, kid friendly version of the genres seen in the pulps: detectives, adventure, and (“normal” man hero) action (note how these one word genre names were literally the first comics DC published). Most pop-cultural phenomenon work by slow accrual and a “bang” moment when everyone snaps to attention and comics had their big bang in 1938 with the first appearance of Superman in the pages of Action Comics #1. By 1940, the industry was predominantly publishing superheroes.
The war years were good for superheroes and comics in general. They were a perfect personification of an unmediated exercise of will and national identity, depicted as a sock in the jaw to the enemy. The immediate post war years were a peak for the long underwear set but, as a cultural transition began to take place in the late 40s, comics scattered back to their pulp roots. We got crime, horror, sci fi, war, western, and romance comics, both in pure forms, specific iterations (doctor/nurse romance was a defined subgenre), and hybrids (horror/sci fi, crime/romance, etc.). Much of this output got increasingly lurid, adult, and dark but some was artistically accomplished and boundary pushing. By the mid 50s, generalized ideological panic resulted in the 1954 Kefauver hearings (think the McCarthy hearings focused on comics with moral degeneracy as the target in place of communism) and the comics code, ensuring comics would we tame and insipid for the foreseeable future.
The resulting landscape was odd. National periodical publications/DC was the only company still publishing superheroes and, despite gobbling up all the superhero companies that folded in the late 40s, they were only putting out books of the DC trinity: Superman, Bat Man, and Wonder Woman. Some companies, such as Dell, Harvey, and Archie, had always been clean kid stuff and survived fine, but do not warrant discussion for our purposes. The genres that were the backbone of the industry a few years before converted from flirting with the dark edges of pulp to a full embrace of a B movie ethos. Westerns and War just had to keep it clean, but horror comics became monster comics, sci fi got less speculative/weird and more flying saucer-y, romance transitioned to Archie-esque character drama (no more pregnancy scares), and crime pretty much died out in death rattles of noble cops and faceless robbers with crime never paying. The entire comics industry as we know it nearly died out except for strongman DC, continuing to gobble up the remains of dying properties, and a shambling, seemingly unkillable circus geek named Atlas.
Let’s back up. Atlas is, in fact, Marvel. They kept changing their name, starting as Marvel (just as DC is named after its first on-the-nose title, Detective Comics, Marvel was/is named after its first, but both the title and the company were immediately renamed), quickly becoming Timely which stuck throughout the superhero boom of the 40s, switching to Atlas for the 50s, and back to Marvel with their silver age stab at reviving superheroes. The company was founded and run by Martin Goodman but his nephew Stan Lee was there nearly from the beginning (nepotism… that’s a thing). The company, from the beginning, had a legible business style: you could call it trend chasing or being a scavenger of the table scraps of larger companies, but it was more than that.
They were the way some people describe Microsoft in the 80s — they followed the tail lights of the company who seemed to know what they are doing and, when the road was better defined, passed them, solid yellow line be damned. They were not the first company to publish a patriotic hero — that was Archie Comics’ the Shield — but they copied it (down to the shied itself) and took some risks. I am not sure Marvel would be around today if they hadn’t got in front of the curve being the first to have a hero punch Hitler in the face (on the cover of Captain America Comics #1) when the US pubic was still divided on whether to join the war or not. In addition to its fluid identity and light on its feet, steal and run scrappiness, there was a try anything looseness, a run lean attitude towards wasting nothing, and a kind of underdog pride. This company character owes something to Goodman’s thriftiness and cautious leader-following, but most of this was pure Stan Lee, a company of the “pump up your chest no matter how tough times are” outer boroughs.
Atlas had scraped by while other publishers folded and were close to the only other game in town by 1960. Marvel had good working relationships with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, two very talented artists on the cusp of their creative primes, and Lee was a id-tastic writing dynamo. But the company was on the ropes and Stan was the only creative employee (sometimes he had a secretary, but the artists worked freelance). They had a distribution deal with DC which only allowed them so many titles a month, so their output was essentially controlled by the competition. DC had had some success with superheroes again, with reboots of the Flash and Green Lantern starting in 1956 being relatively popular, but Atlas had had nothing. At this point, history gives way to legend but, you know, “print the legend.”
The mythology goes like this. Stan was about to quit, and Goodman was close to throwing in the towel too. Goodman played golf with Jack Leibowitz, DC’s publisher, sometime in 1961. Leibowitz told Goodman that their new team book Justice League of America was selling incredibly well. Goodman told Lee to deliver him a superhero team book. Lee talked to his wife about whether he should go down that road one more time or quit and she counseled him to give it one last try, but to do it his way. As a result, he and Kirby turned out Fantastic Four #1, which was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. It was successful, and slowly they began building the Marvel Universe we know today, every move making the company more popular. Soon Stan’s personality literally became the personality of the company.
II — The Man in the Ant Hill
The very first Marvel silver age comics owe much to the Atlas years before it. The creative teams (Stan and either Jack, Steve, or Don Heck) started working on the new stuff while still producing the genre material at first, and the first few issues of the Fantastic Four really feel like a monster/sci fi book with the hyperemotionalism of a romance and, you know, super powers (this changes as things progressed but is part of the Marvel silver and bronze age flavor throughout, and Marvel has never entirely lost it). Tales to Astonish #27 was published concurrently with FF #2, and contained a monster/sci fi story about a scientist, Hank Pym, who discovers a formula to shrink to the size of an ant. This is a typical Atlas story in its Twilight Zone-ish thematic concerns and in it being a thinly veiled rip-off (of the Incredible Shrinking Man). Pym barely escapes with his life and vows not to never again play god, or some such.
As the Marvel train got rolling they couldn’t add characters fast enough. The Hulk was introduced 5 months after FF #1, then Thor and Spider-Man the same month 4 months after that. The following month, they decided (for the above mentioned corporate efficiency reasons) rip the Hank Pym character and the shrinking concept from what would have been monster book obscurity and make him a superhero, the Astonishing Ant Man. This makes Ant Man the 2nd or 5th marvel silver age franchise, depending on how you count. The pilfering of Atlas characters for the Marvel universe didn’t begin or end here. Aunt May and Uncle been were taken from an Atlas story, monsters from the era reappeared as villains (Fin Fang Foom) and prototypes were lifted (the Mandarin), sometimes later being later legitimized (Dr. Droom became Dr. Druid canonically). Waste not, want not.
But Ant Man/Hank Pym is just different. He was the misfit that they just couldn’t shake, who didn’t work in the universe quite right, but was sort of in the middle of everything. He was a remnant and constant reminder of what they were before, a tie to the monster book past which was in the company’s DNA, but was mostly hidden and blended. And there was always a seeming hostility towards him by Marvel — they kind of hated him in a way you only hate something that reminds you of a part of yourself you want to suppress. Before we go down that road, a brief history of the character:
His first appearance (Tales to Astonish #27, 1961) is just a “honey, I shrunk myself” horror comic. The second appearance (TtA #32, 8 months later) gives him a superhero name, outfit, and helmet that lets him control ants. The 11th appearance (TtA #44, one year) adds the Wasp. Three months later, he and the Wasp help found the Avengers (#1). Three months after that he begins to grow instead of shrink, and becomes Giant-Man (TtA #50). He leaves the Avengers with #16, 16 months later, then loses his half of the Tales to Astonish anthology to the Submariner 3 months after that (last issue TtA #69). For an interval he and the Wasp appear not at all. When Roy Thomas (the original fanboy turned creator) started writing the Avengers, he immediately brought him back with a name change to Goliath (Avengers #28, so 8 months MIA). From this point on, Pym really only appears as an Avenger, and not a solo character.
Over this time, Hank Pym had accrued certain traits. He lacks self-confidence, feels inferior to the other Avengers, and is kind of whiny. His growth destabilized his molecular structure and growing too big was depicted as dangerous (Goliath is smaller than Giant-Man was, and when he has to get bigger, he clutches his chest like Fred Sanford… so, there’s your stakes). He changes his name a lot and is eventually revealed as mentally unstable. Like all Marvel relationships of the time, he and the Wasp’s shtick is pretty sexist, but unlike any of the others, the Wasp proves to have higher status than her male counterpart (more popular with the fans, is a better leader, is a more stable team member). This adds an undeniable patina of emasculation.
A lot of craziness happens at this point. Pym creates Ultron, who nearly destroys the world. He goes psycho and become the superconfident d-bag Yellowjacket (back to shrinking, but gaining the Wasp’s extra powers, essentially) a caricature of Stan Lee style overcompensating. Hawkeye becomes Goliath (for whatever reason). Hank resolves the split personality and is more confident, but continues to work on Ultron, who comes back and nearly ruins everything again. Ultron creates his “grandson” the Vision (and later a bride named Jocasta), so there is literally Oedipal stuff going on. He and the Wasp get married because 60’s Marvel logic = confident d-bag “fixes” him as a man. For over 10 years the wasp is a more important character with Hank more a scientist who mainly works on accidental but thankfully flawed world ending menaces and the Wasp a successful Avengers leader.
Let’s unpack the subliminal component of this, if it’s not clear. The real story here is that Hank Pym is a psychological dumping ground for the dark side Marvel’s self-image. He personifies the imposter syndrome and the psychological issues of comics editorial, party with respect to being responsible what Marvel had become, partly personal insecurity stuff of being nerds in a third rate industry making things for children and never getting over girls not liking them in high school. He changes names (just like Marvel), starts small but becomes the powerful one who still feels like the downtrodden underdog (just like Marvel), he doesn’t have defining principles except “experiment, survive” (just like Marvel), and growth fills him with angst and weakness even as he becomes more objectively powerful (just like Marvel). The character’s early career reflects the insecurity hidden by the bluster of Stan Lee (that he still overcompensates for) and of consistently being the outsider that has to get by. You look at Stan today and cut back the posturing, you can still see that guy in there, the guy who feels second rate for doing comics and left to go to Hollywood and write the great American novel (both of which he failed at). The guy who feels like a fraud despite the self-promotion. Hank’s failure as a character is a dark fear fulfilled. As things progress, you see in Pym Roy Thomas’ failing marriage, emasculation, and not being able to handle Marvel’s growth.
Not to flog this to death but he key point is that Marvel is a paradox. The underdog that became the most powerful force but whose identity is tied up with its “oppressed” status. Marvel got really good at playing this game, and you can still see it all over everything Marvel. But at this point, this attitude is everywhere. The nerds won. Self-identified geek/outsider culture has taken over the entertainment, if not the world, and the tension of that split personality is readily apparent. We owe that to Marvel. Avengers Age of Ultron is partially about this — Whedon feels this tension.
The “over 10 years” I mentioned (roughly the 70s) saw numerous editorial changes for Marvel, but the undertone of the Wasp/Pym marriage was that she was too good for him. She was independently rich, wore new, fantastic costumes all the time, had charisma he lacked, and was a commanding figure despite her “winsome” stature. So this is generic emasculation by the era’s “modern woman,” sure, but it’s also Marvel feeling like it lucked into success it didn’t deserve.
Just look at the comic that started it all, Ant Man’s origin and first appearance. The story, like the B movie it ripped off, was about man feeling emasculated and impotent in the late 50s. He is small and powerless in the home and at work, but it’s not like he can cut it outdoors either. This fear of powerlessness exists on several axes: Fear of women controlling the domestic space or world (the flip of which is Attack of the 50 foot woman), fear of technology making men obsolete by taking his work and identity, fear of losing some intrinsic maleness in modernity, and fear of society (including business) crushing individuality and making a man insignificant. 50’s style alienation. An ode to male self-pity.
As the 70’s began to wane, along came Jim Shooter, taking over as editor in chief in 1978. Shooter had different personal issues, but ones which dovetail with the ones of earlier Marvel chiefs. Shooter was tall, self-possessed to the point of arrogance, and trained by DCs tyrannical editor Mort Weisinger. At DC, the head editor ran the show so Shooter was brought up a buck stops here guy. He was also a writer who thought he knew the secret to great stories. Shooter gets a bad rap, but he ran Marvel well especially given the chaos that preceded him, even if he did have a tendency to piss off the best talent. But he was also a nerd, had disfiguring acne, and looked kind of creepy. As a result, his writing reflecs a complex about women and power. And if something in a comic tickled his deep, dark muse, he would muscle the writer aside and take over.
The prototype Marvel Jim Shooter script is — man gets ultimate power, a woman loves (and supports him) him almost cosmically despite him being a jerk, everyone else is jealous, man loses all because the world can’t tolerate such magnificence (on the surface)/there is a fatal flaw in even the most powerful so maybe they need to be stopped (submerged). To Shooter, lack of confidence was an inherent defect of being a freak that needed to be buried deeply in an unmarked grave. This tragedy of utopia lost because it is too good the world is best accomplished by the Korvak Saga, but by the time of Secret Wars, the “perfect isn’t perfect if it doubts it perfect” was more baked in (Dr. Doom, the Shooter character, gets ultimate power and essentially lets it be taken from him because of repressed self-doubt). This is a strong misreading of the original Marvel outsider ethos, but is interesting. Here, the power now held is acknowledged, but everyone else wants to bring you down because the king of the outsiders is god but a tempting target. But the ultimate issue is you can’t shake the nerd flaw and that weakness will let them take you down. He despised the flaw in himself, in the universe. As it had been from the start, these negative feelings map to Pym.
In 1981, Shooter, who famously states that he was misinterpreted by the artist, wrote an Avengers issue where Pym backhands his wife (Janet, the Wasp) in the face. As a result, the character was thrown out of the Avengers, eventually got divorced, and has been an impossible to rehabilitate character ever since (though many have tried). I interpret this as the most blatant kind of self-hatred on Shooter’s part– the thermonuclear option to the flaw he saw in himself. He was the man, he was smart, he should be revered, but instead he was a low status failure, and he saw it in everyone’s eyes. Again, the Editor-in-chief mapping the core of their worst fears about themselves. Prior ones had tried to grapple with the continued existence of a character that represented their self-esteem nightmares (and Marvel’s as a company, for that matter). Shooter took care of business and made this subconscious worry so ugly that it was rejected forever.
So, to gather some of this up, Hank Pym was the part of Marvel that can’t get past feeling like a mistake, like a fraud. He is the Marvel character equivalent to the song “Creep.” But he is also the receptacle for the nerdy part of corporate identity, embarrassing though it is, that allows a multibillion dollar company to feel like David and not… Now that’s weird — the whole Pym as Goliath thing kind of is like telling the Biblical story in a way that emphasizes that Goliath had medical problems, and was probably ready to fall over anyway, and David was some cool bro taking shots at him. Pym starts small, is always afraid of getting large (its pity-provoking), develops a split personality, makes a lot of mistakes that he takes hard, acts out, and treats his people who love him badly. Sounds like a certain company with an underdog complex.
III — Is This the Real Ant Man or an Imposter?
It is no surprise that Marvel didn’t use Pym as the Ant Man in this movie. The movie people are past the nerd complex stuff and there is some odious stuff for the media to get on Pym that would have made PR harder if he was the main character. Scott Lang is a much better fit, especially given the post-Chris-Pratt dynamic where likability is key (who is more likable than Paul Rudd?). The underlying baggage of the non-Pym Ant Man iterations, especially Scott, is a bit different but there is a kind of connection. Instead of a single scientist making a discovery and running with it, we have a thief fighting corporate greed to save his daughter. In the process, he earns Pym’s respect as a surrogate son, with Pym passing on the Ant Man Identity to him. Lang was also a bit of a nonstarter who hung around the universe like someone waiting for the 7–11 to open (what do you know — Ant Man is a hard sell) so he has the same “loser” aura, he just takes it a lot better. He eventually died, as you do in the MU, and later got brought back, as you do in the MU. The intervening Ant Mans aren’t as big a topic for us but, for the record, there is Lang’s daughter Cassie, struggling with guilt and legacy, and Eric O’Grady, written by Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman as an ambulatory pisstake (horrible borderline sociopath, with the necessity to preform good acts working to soften his selfishness… really slowly).
Lang’s character in the comics moves the chains away from self-loathing into an update of the modern powerlessness motif. Here, it is a corporation and an ex who doesn’t trust him with their daughter that make him insignificant but, as a contemporary man, he can cope with effort. Male alienation of the dawning 80s. These themes play well currently so, in the movie it goes. In the comic, it kinda reads more like Marvel may be the corporation who denies a heart (real stories not product) to a child (an immature readership). There is also a “maybe you won’t make my mistakes” handing of the legacy, a sense that a man divorced from being a provider (gotta have a j-o-b) needs to find something meaningful to do to have self-respect and be a candidate for a relationship, and the idea of being criminalized by your situation (booo, capitalism). And he’s a nice guy, down on his luck. All this made it into the film.
It’s worth noting that the non-Pym Ant Mans are creator-against-company analogues rather than creator-is-the-company ones, but that’s OK because Pym (like Family Circus in the paper) is always there somewhere, filling the original role, waiting to suck (for Marvel’s sins — Judas goat type of deal). You could argue that Pym’s increasing irrelevance and ultimate irredemability as a character is tied to Marvel ceasing to be people and becoming a corporation which did not nerd-identify. In this way Scott Lang et al are from a time where the creators felt alienated from a company with no “feelings” at all, much less angst. Darren Cross’ power up in the comics makes him look acromegalic (like Shooter), so…
In this light, Scott is the creator surrogate, struggling against a company denies them basic human dignity and adequate benefits, and they have to break the rules to get by and get something of substance on the page. Here’s a song Marvel incorporated stole from Stan and Jack. We’re staling it back. Thus the original creative force passes the torch. Cassie is the subsequent generation’s fear of taking on the legacy of those that have come before and not being worthy, or stealing their legacy without earning it. Eric is the modern creator with a chip on his shoulder, contemptuous of the stuffy rules, looking for the “out” and a payday, discovering something about themselves along the way, but with no illusions of corporate loyally (why would you need that? Kirkman is now at Image and the richest working comic creator. Eric won.).
Let’s cut bait and move on to the movie, since this stuff is in there.
IV — One Question. Is it Too Late to Change the Name?
Like the Age of Ultron, it is impossible to approach the movie the same way once you know its production details. The movie was developed for close to 5 years by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, who were looking for a moment when both they and Marvel were ready. The script was for a funny caper movie, centered on Scott Lang as a lovable thief. The movie that Wright would have made would have been tight, funny, and visually arresting. But Marvel demanded a level of changes to the film that they could not work with, so they walked. Enter Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, who wrote an entirely new script that accentuated the elements Marvel wanted to see and softened both the character and the tone of the film. At some point, elements of the original script were inserted back in. The nature of this last part is rumor but the script definitely shows the strain of an inadequately blended hybrid script.
Any bottom line assessment of the movie has to acknowledge that the script shows a split personality. The elements of Scott’s backstory make no sense without mental plot hammering on the part of the viewer. We are told he is in prison for being a successful electrical engineer who Robin Hooded (by hacking means) his company to repay the people they ripped off. This cost him his family because Judy Greer plays killjoy bitches exclusively now. But somehow he is the most savvy and skilled burglar ever, knowing everything about safes, how to dupe fingerprints, cut complex alarms, etc. This is a credibility issue, and they don’t even give you a flimsy life raft like “when I was a kid…” You can’t be a straight arrow who winds up in prison for helping people and a gifted career criminal at the same time.
The whole movie is like this, a plot/character motivation salad. Some tracks develop certain themes while others don’t. It fails at real unity and parts of the plot (the stuff with the husband investigating) make absolutely no sense. But, but, but, it has all this stuff in there competing. It gives the movie a split personality that, just maybe, fits the character. So what do we have?
Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is streamlined into a brilliant guy who told the modern corporate environment bye-bye because it ill-suited him. His self-image can’t stand the thought of bureaucracy or the existence of a CEO. He is the company of one. He quits S.H.I.E.L.D., not wanting control of his work to be used by a faceless (OK, admittedly Hydra infected) entity, and he becomes Ant Man as an expression of defection from this world (Douglas is hippie-age and this stuff happens in the 80s). He doesn’t get the baby-boomer memo to sell out his deepest principles and he tries to help the world, but resigns himself to being unable to effect change. On one level, this is midcentury male control stuff. He needs to control the inventions… him, one man. He loses his wife because she broke his rules (to save lives, of course). He failed to control her. His answer is to stop trying to do anything positive at all since he can’t control it. But on another it is the alienation of a prior generation who can’t feel good about themselves in the new world order of corporatization.
He is bitter, the dream of self-determination over, and he withdraws, letting his company go but hoarding the game changer as a last vestige of his values. If people had just listened. He had a protégée, but that was just his morally bankrupt modern replacement, the new corporate will-master. He won’t let his daughter replace him because loss of control cost him his wife. His experiences tell him, keep a tight grip. Enter Scott, probably getting Pym’s attention because of the Robin Hood angle, who he tricks into the idea that going strait is what “the man” wants you to do. He has chosen a replacement surrogate son that is 180 degrees away from the old one, but the opposite of Pym too in many ways. Scott doesn’t hold on tight to anything except his daughter. Maybe Pym recognizes that he needs his operating mode challenged to fix himself.
Scott (Paul Rudd) is the embodiment of a contemporary young maleness of a sort. He easygoing, kind of immature, smart and skilled, but not ambitious. He is accepting of having no control and is docile (low status, not an alpha), but kind of has no interest in that game anyway. He just wants to do stuff that feels good because he’s good at it. However, he loves his daughter and that drives him to act. His arc, interestingly, is to learn to act as who you are — not change the person you are internally but change the way you affect the world by seizing the opportunity to do the right thing. The message is if you get off your ass, you are no longer powerless.
This movie treats Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly — the character is Pym’s daughter but has her mother’s surname — not addressed, I don’t think) badly, but… Look, I loved Lost, and will act as an apologist all day, but she is not a good actress. I hypothesize that her part was initially smaller, anticipating bigger appearances coming up in later movies, but she pushed, got more scenes, and they didn’t have budgeted for her to become the Wasp in the building attack sequence (which would have only made sense) and she’s kind of acting-skill limited in the dramatic scenes she got. That said, how do you not pay off that arc in the body of the movie? I mean, the issue is Pym is stuck in the past, feeling like he should have “controlled” his wife better, and he needs to “protect” his daughter, so in a Marvel movie, that would have best been resolved with her in the costume (which = agency), not some chat and a post credit tease. Her main arc (that is not really her father’s arc she is living through) is to learn to get turned on by nice men who don’t try to control you (the “new man”) or maybe just to not hate men period long enough to get a little somethin’? But this is developed as a scowl scene, some building up to a smile during training scenes, and kiss scene… not a lot of depth.
The main through line of the movie hinges on all this. The two Ant Mans have the same kind of problem, but from opposite directions. The issue is the classic one from the first comic: modern life has stolen our ability to affect the world in any meaningful way. The movie is from 2015, so this means ”corporatization stole my agency” first and foremost. The 2 men have opposite approaches. The “old” man forged his identity from having impact on the world as an individual, but the current power systems make that impossible, illuminating the control freak dark side of the old model of masculinity/individuality. He checks out of the world thinking it has passed him by. The other “new” man has accepted the futility of trying to affect things and just goes with the flow. This bypasses the problems of the old man, but gives up on affecting the world at all. The current environment offers us frustration vs. apathy.
Scott teaches Hank to go with the flow while Hank teaches Scott the importance of the “go” part. Like Age of Ultron, this is about letting the new and the old embrace, heal each other’s flaws, and demonstrating the hybrid vigor of the blend. Even though the script is a bit whack, it does show something similar, taking important elements of Wrights version to strengthen the other stuff. You have to believe Scott can surf if he’d just get on the board and I think Wright brought that. In this metaphor, Hank needs to learn that surfing works better than driving now and it’s OK that there’s no steering wheel.
That’s the throughline but the movie is about more than this. It’s about the value of the little things. We all feel insignificant and ineffectual at times. But when you are tiny, you can see that it’s the little things that are important. Friendship, acting on your beliefs, having the courage to act on what you can, the serenity to accept what you can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference. Simple affection for your fellow man… fighting to help not for control. There is a macro/micro level thing going on where things look different at different scales, but the small scale is where the important stuff is. At the head of a company, people are units to be used… just numbers. The movie does a lot with this visually, showing how nothing looks “big” at normal scale, but feels very big at ant size, so you have to scale your perspective.
It’s about the collective as the best way. Pym and Cross both have different ideas of control (individual vs. corporate) but their outlooks are both predicated on needing to control other people and exert will on the world. The ants are a collective. They act in concert, but their leader is one of them who guides them through personal bonds. Pym just had numbers, Lang names them. A leader is still necessary, but there is a feeling of guiding a collective will, not giving orders.
It’s about accepting who you are and others accepting you, despite what roles are proscribed, or what your weaknesses may be. It’s about not needing to dominate and control. It’s about corporations being inhuman and bad. It’s about letting your children teach you to repair your flaws. It’s about how being a criminal is necessary as a moral individual when society is broken. It’s about testing limits by breaking rules since that’s how we grow.
One way of stating the meta theme is that of letting go of toxic patterns of control (gender this if you will) in a world that somebody else owns, but acting to make things better without becoming despondent or quitting, together, with love. This is rather sweet, and delivers Pym the redemption the comics couldn’t, and I feel that maybe what we get, lack of visual panache and coherence aside, something subliminally richer than the Wright/Cornish movie would have been. The irony that this is Disney/Marvel movie is not lost one me and neither is that Wright left because he couldn’t follow orders.
Pena and T.I. are great in this, for reasons that don’t need discussion. All of the above discussion aside, this was, on screen, Marvel’s flattest villain, though I know some people liked him. The end battle was nice to watch, but not because of the weight the villain brought to it — the real heft in that scene was that the most dangerous thing in your bedroom as a kid is the branded merchandise which is scary, fake, and potentially deadly when you are the little guy. The science did legitimately bother me during the movie, but not enough to take me out of it (I’m taking about the splotched guy not weighing 150 pounds, the way they denting/cracking a surface was done only when the producers felt like it). In many ways, Ant Man’s action felt more like the DC shrinking heroes (the density thing is Atom-like, and I always thought the Scott Lang Ant Man was employed similarly to Shrinking Violet) but all the messaging was Marvel.
I didn’t like Bobby Cannivale in the movie as a character and the stuff concerning why he was investigating Scott at any point was really stupid, but he makes the building heist stuff work by running around, being surprised and confused in a grounded way. I like the way they have accepted Paul Rudd into the family at the end, but as a child. The gigantic Thomas and ant at the end were perfect (this will blow your mind — Thomas is a model of an implied full sized train that doesn’t exist but by enlarging him they made a full sized Thomas fulfilling the implication… Pshewm, mind blown), but I’m seriously worried about Cassie getting digested and slurped up (that can’t be safe). Many of the performances are winning, but Evangeline Lilly, turning a classic Wasp do into the standard issue current “corporate ballbuster” cut with her joylessness, and that eastern European hacker guy bummed me out, while the cop partner was useless, Cannivale was too close to the most braindead lapses in writing, and Judy Greer needs to stretch a bit. The Falcon scene, though, was frigging great!
V — You’re Always Welcome Here, Loser
I like a lot about this movie — many performances, its tone, its humor, its message — but to get there you have to pick through some really confused crap. There were flat parts, too-fanservicey parts (I liked Agent Carter the show, but I’m cameoed out), and some non-entertaining performances in the way. Much of the plot made so little sense that it seems just 10 minutes more work on the screenplay would have raised the movie a whole star rating. But the likability factor is through the roof when the right characters are on screen, and it made me feel pretty good.
Marvel’s history is one of turning a seeming bug — being the underdog, being a geek, being a loser — into its biggest feature and conquering the world as a result. Marvel: making freaks sexy since 1961! Hank Pym has always absorbed the stress of never resolving the paradox of everyone loving you for being unloved. In the comics, he acted out the defensiveness, the insecurity, and the feeling of being a fake inherent to the psyches of those that breathed life into the MU. He embodied the self-loathing of Marvel as an “organ.” Cap’s the spirit, Peter Parker’s the heart, Pym’s the spleen, filtering out the immune system’s garbage.
It seems to be that the cinematic universe has left the baggage of Marvel Comic’s insecurity behind, and acknowledges and resolves a lot of its unusually high concentration in Hank Pym (the comic character) on screen. At the end of the day, we still have all the positive aspects of a character which, if you think about it, is the most close to the Marvel core — he’s the real misfit among alleged misfits that are actually awesome. Do you feel marginalized by the world? That’s OK… that’s why we’ll never quit on you. We are like you, and we value you whether you perform or not, whether you fit in or not. You are always welcome here, loser. Make yourself at home.