Everyone thought Guardians of the Galaxy was a huge risk for Marvel. Once that reached mega-success, however, it seemed like the folks in charge let Ant-Man roll right through. There was a brief chuckle, but then we all thought, “Well, they got a talking raccoon to work, so why not?!”
Objectively, Ant-Man strikes me as one of the stupidest character names and power sets in all of comic-dom. Spider-Man works, but Ant-Man just sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But subjectively, it’s a different story. True, that name is never going to get any better, but the man in the suit and that power set…
Well, we’ll get there. As a great ninja master once said, “You gotta know what a crumpet is to understand cricket.” In this case, the crumpet is a man named Dr. Henry “Hank” Pym. Pym was created by plotter Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, along with scripter Larry Lieber. (Marvel Comics worked in strange ways back in the day.) He first appeared in Tales to Astonish #27, an issue cover dated January 1962, actually making him older than Thor, Iron Man, or Hulk. Now, like any 50-year-old comic character, his backstory is a bit convoluted, but stick with me.
At first, Pym wasn’t a hero at all; he was just a scientist grieving over the murder of his wife. After her death under mysterious, politically intriguing circumstances, Pym was motivated to use his scientific acumen for the betterment of mankind. He redoubled his focus on working out a way to shrink things, inspired by a motto his father-in-law took from Proverbs 6:6: “Go to the ants, thou sluggard!” In other words, “Look at how hard those little dudes work, and they accomplish such massive things!”
I told you comics were really weird back in the day.
Anyway, Pym eventually discovered subatomic particles he dubbed Pym Particles (because scientists), which successfully shrunk a chair and returned it to normal size. Of course, his next move was to go ahead and try them on himself (because scientists), and wouldn’t you know it, he got himself stuck in an anthill. With the help of a particularly empathetic ant, Pym escaped and became fascinated with the insects. Being a super smart guy, he sussed out the electromagnetic wavelengths ants send out to communicate and created a helmet that allowed him to replicate those specific wavelengths. Suddenly, you’ve got Ant-Man.
Ant-Man began his career as a crime-solver more than a crime-fighter, using his big brain to track down and catch criminals. Of course, it wasn’t all about getting tiny to sneak around; Ant-Man actually retained his human-sized strength, just compacted down to three-quarters of an inch. So the obvious question of “couldn’t you just step on him?” is answered thusly: If you stepped on an average person, would it kill him? Now, imagine that average person is small enough to slip between your shoes’ treads and then suddenly grow to normal height. Not such a dumb superpower now, is it?
Eventually, Pym met Janet van Dyne, and though he was still getting over the death of his first wife, the pair fell in love. When van Dyne’s father, Pym’s colleague, was killed by an alien invader (uh, let’s just keep moving), Pym agreed to grant Janet some of his Pym Particles. What’s more, he had developed a way to attach microscopic wings to Janet that appeared when she shrunk down. She took on the name The Wasp, and after defeating her father’s killer together, the two became a team.
They went on to help form an even bigger team: The Avengers. In fact, Ant-Man was the one who defeated Loki the first time the team came together. On the other hand, he’s also the one who invented Ultron, arguably the Avengers’ greatest enemy. (Yes, in the films it was Tony Stark, but Pym wasn’t around in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet, so changes were made.) He may be a tiny dude, but he’s incredibly important to the comic lore.
Over the years, Pym went through a lot of character changes. There were moments of insanity, at least three other aliases and costumes, and some haunting episodes of spousal abuse. Yes, there were dark times for the hero, but there was someone else to step in and pick up the Ant-Man mantle. Or more like steal it.
First appearing in March 1979’s Avengers #181, Scott Lang was a smart guy who caught a few bad breaks. Married with a little daughter, Cassandra, his job as an electronics expert wasn’t paying the bills, so he turned to burglary. He was caught and sentenced to five years in prison. Spending most of his jail time studying and improving his skills, he was let out two years early due to good behavior.
But, like I said, Lang couldn’t catch a break. In Marvel Premiere #47, released in April ’79, Cassie was diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. When Lang discovered that the one doctor who could save her, Dr. Erica Sondheim, had been kidnapped by corporate evil dude Darren Cross so that she could solve his own heart problems, Lang turned back to crime. He broke into the home of Hank Pym, who was then operating as Yellow Jacket, and stole some Pym Particles and the Ant-Man suit. After rescuing Dr. Sondheim and saving his daughter, Lang was going to turn himself in. However, Pym was so impressed with his bravery and his handling of the Ant-Man armor that he allowed Lang to keep the identity so long as he only used it for good.
And he did. Like, a lot of good. He was at various times an Avenger and a member of the Fantastic Four, even leading the latter team for a time. (Of course, this will never happen on the big screen. Damn you, Fox!) Lang even out Pym-ed Pym, discovering a way to utilize the Pym Particles to increase his strength as he shrank. (Both Pym and Lang could already go the other direction and gain strength when they increased size, but Lang was the first to be a super-strong Ant-Man.)
That’s the brief version of things. There were actually two other guys to wear the suit, too. Comics are complicated, man. But that’s part of what makes Ant-Man look to be such a solid achievement.
Marvel’s become incredibly adept at turning C-rate characters into A-rate action stars. Seven years ago, you had no idea what a Tony Stark was, and don’t pretend you did just to seem cool. Ant-Man, however, is more C-minus-rate, on a good day. Put loveable Paul Rudd in the suit and stick him next to the iconic Michael Douglas, though, and he’s instantly at least in the B-range.
The real trick then is getting all that ridiculous character history into some sort of Marvel Cinematic shape. That’s where Kevin Feige and his crew — especially Edgar Wright, despite his being replaced in the director’s chair by Peyton Reed — seem to have really pulled off a neat move. They’ve distilled all that complicated, decades-long back-and-forth between two characters in one costume and found a way to slip it into an established universe in a way that not only connects to it, but furthers it.
Full disclosure: I’ve done my best to not watch too many clips or read more than a snippet of a review so as to go into the theater on Friday as fresh as possible. So you may already know more about some things than I do. But here’s what I’m thinking:
Obviously, you can’t have Pym be a founding Avenger, since that ship has sailed — twice. But there’s nothing saying you can’t have him be part of old-school S.H.I.E.L.D., which, considering the way Stark, the Avengers, and S.H.I.E.L.D. have become connected, doesn’t put him that far away from Ant-Man’s comic origins. Plus, you could always play around with him being so tiny that the Avengers didn’t even know he was helping them out. In a way, that’s similar to how DC has connected Batman v. Superman to Man of Steel: Bruce Wayne was in Metropolis the whole time! He saw the whole thing! Battle royale!
If you can’t have young Pym, you can’t have young Janet van Dyne, but you can still have Hope (Evangeline Lilly). As far as I can recall, the only Hope in Ant-Man comic lore comes from the MC2 universe, which is a whole other messy thing we don’t need to get into. Suffice to say, it’s a strange move to introduce this character as the van Dyne we all expect to become the Wasp, but it still works. With Janet gone, for whatever reason (no spoilers!), the family tension now comes between Pym and his daughter. Sure, it’s not going to present in the darker ways it does in the comics, but this is a family film, after all. The fact that they’ve worked at all to keep that character point in this vastly different version of Hank Pym is commendable. Plus, Ant-Man and Wasp can still get together, even if it’s Lang in the suit.
Lang himself isn’t so much an issue, as this is his origin story, and it’s adhering pretty close to the books, right down to the villain, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). The only thing is we haven’t heard anything about Cassandra having a congenital heart problem. It seems Lang’s motivation is more about making his daughter proud after being away in jail for so long. Which is fine, because that’s not the kind of thing we’ve seen in the MCU yet.
Iron Man wanted vengeance and to make up for his past deeds; Captain America was a soldier; Thor wanted to be a god again; Hulk was … the Hulk, he smashed things. No leading Marvel character has yet had family be their primary driving force. There’s even an argument that having Lang dealing with a heart problem is too close to Iron Man anyway. (The final battle does seem to be replicating a formula — just replace a busy freeway with a child’s bedroom.)
Perhaps the biggest thing separating this film from other MCU entries is the level of comedy. Guardians of the Galaxy was funny, and Iron Man is a witty dude, but you don’t bring on Edgar Wright unless you’re really going for the laughs. It’s sad that he couldn’t work out his differences (read: cede complete creative and story control) and stay on, but Peyton Reed’s not your average big action director, either. Rudd may look all fit and spiffy in costume, but he’s not an action star. He’s a comedy star in a superhero suit, and that’s exactly what Marvel wanted out of this.
And it might be exactly what they needed. Avengers: Age of Ultron was fun, but bloated. Marvel’s been chugging these things out for years now, and even the most staunch fans are starting to feel the fatigue from all the explosions and giant blue bolts of energy blasting into the sky. Ant-Man is the precise opposite of that. It’s a family comedy, just stuffed into a suit that lets someone control ants. It’s an action film, but as we learned in the first trailer, its climactic scene features a toy train being knocked off its tracks as a big moment of danger.
You’re also dealing with a power set unlike anything seen in superhero films before. Previously, it’s all been about getting big: big explosions, big ships, big hammers. Literally getting small with things provides a viewpoint that’s, by its very nature, completely different from the norm. It’s easy to make a big green guy who punches things seem like a worthy Avenger; doing it with a miniature guy and a swarm of ants is another story. But if they pull it off, they can add a much needed freshness to the MCU.
It’s true that this might be the first Marvel film not to top the box office on opening weekend (thanks, Minions), but that won’t be the real mark of success for Ant-Man. What this film needs to do is prove that a small, nobody character with ridiculous powers can breathe life into a stale, overcrowded market. At the same time, it needs to fit into a large, multi-franchise-based cinematic universe (something it’s reported to do quite deftly with a pair of post-ending scenes and an Avenger cameo).
The company’s been here before, back in 2008 with a guy in a tin suit. This time they’ve got a guy in a tiny suit and some insects, which only opens new avenues to have fun with. For the first time in a while, Marvel has gone small, and they’re just hoping not to get squashed. If they pull it off, Ant-Man will have earned his place in the MCU.