So we went to see Ant-Man. And you know what? It’s a good film! You should go see it. Here's why: (There are a few eeensy spoilers below; forewarned is forearmed. Six-armed. You know. Ants.)
Following the bloated, gaseous corpse that was Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man is a breath of fresh air, a delightfully uncomplicated (relatively speaking) superhero origin story about a guy looking for redemption, and finding it in an unlikely place (namely, some old dude’s basement). Also, there's shrinking down to the size of a small bug, and being able to communicate with small bugs. There’s action, there’s adventure, there are some cool effects, there’s a death that’s at once hilarious and poignant, and there’s Paul Rudd, who I think many people of a certain age have squishy feelings about for reasons that boil down to ‘Josh from Clueless’.
Following the news that Ant-Man did fine on its opening weekend but not Avengers-fine or Guardians of the Galaxy-fine, the doomsayers have moved in, muttering dark things about Marvel having finally grown too big for its own britches, etc. This despite the fact that Ant-Man made $116 million world-wide in two days, because the blockbuster industry is freaking ridiculous and we actually live in a time when a film not making a billion dollars in like seven and a half minutes is a failure, but that’s a point for another day.
There are other dark mutterings, though. There’s a corner at the intersection of the Marvel Comics Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe fandoms (I’m going to give it the totally random name ‘Tumblr’) that has some feelings about Ant-Man. But I’m not going to lie. I have spent some time there myself. It’s the corner that has some feelings about Hank Pym, in particular.1
The AV Club ran a fascinating piece about Ant-Man (book and character), Hank Pym and Scott Lang recently, one that touches on the issues at stake. Basically, in a 1981 comic book, the Pym character hits his wife, Janet van Dyne (aka Wasp), really hard: ‘Pym merely pushing his wife aside was reinterpreted dynamically by the artist as him assaulting her.’ (It’s worth noting, too, that he’s portrayed in his full Yellowjacket gear and she’s in a negligee, because comics.) And yes, people are still arguing about whether this act makes him abusive.
I never read Ant-Man’s original books. I came to the character through Ultimate Avengers, where Pym really beats the shit out of Wasp, and tries to murder her: ‘he attacked Wasp with a can of Raid… and also infamously had his ants attack her while she was wasp-sized.’ (Source) It was not an easy introduction to the character, and it’s one that I – and apparently, a lot of people – have struggled with.
Plenty of comics characters have done awful things. The Comedian in Watchmen is an attempted rapist; Tony Stark is a womanizing alcoholic arms dealer; Jean Gray destroyed an entire solar system. A lot of beloved characters have left a trail of bodies behind them, with . And it’s not like comics have ever been especially progressive when it comes to portraying women as anything other than fragile bodies, to be beaten and savaged and broken in order to motivate male characters into action.
But my point here is not to examine violence in comics. The point is that I knew this one thing about Ant-Man and it made me much less inclined to get excited about an Ant-Man movie. But Marvel started off right; they hired Edgar Wright to script and direct, and brought in likeable not-quite-an-A-lister Paul Rudd to star, and did some cute marketing and promotional stuff, and also, you know. I like explosions and superheroes and it’s all part of an interconnected world and I’m a completist and it wasn’t like I wasn’t going to go see Ant-Man. Not really.
Wisely, the film never even remotely touches on anything that might cause even the shadow of a momentary fragment of concern about Hank Pym, wife-beater. The Pym of the film is played with neutered avunicularity by Michael Douglas (who I have trouble taking seriously since the whole ‘cunnilingus causes throat cancer’ thing, but maybe I’m the only one?).
(Tiny spoilers start here.) He’s estranged from his clever, accomplished, not-remotely-helpless daughter. His wife is long dead, and the emotional reveal about how and when she died is all about self-sacrifice and love and protecting people and stuff. There is no beating of any wives. Only baddies get punched in Ant-Man, and also Scott Lang, when he’s fighting someone in prison, but it’s a good punch, pinky-swear. (Spoilers end!)
Obviously Marvel made the right call. Coming hard on the heels of Ultron’s hideously poorly considered ‘Black Widow is sad because she can’t have children’ nonsense, Ant-Man’s refusal to even acknowledge the problematic backstory associated with Pym’s character was a safe move and a canny one. Ant-Man isn’t the most well-known character in the Avengers universe; for many, the film will be their introduction to him. Best to let that awful backstory lie.
Of course, there are still people who are upset about Ant-Man getting a movie.2 And some of that upset has to do with what happened in 1981 (and then again in Ultimates). Most of the criticisms in this vein, however, seem to be from folks who haven’t actually seen Ant-Man.
Ant-Man is not without its problems. Women are almost an afterthought in the film, even more so than is usual with comic-book adaptations. A mcguffin-y, two-dimensional afterthought. And don’t get me started on the physics, because we’re all just going to pretend that Ant-Man can shrink with the same amazing movie-physics that sends Iron Man flying to Afghanistan from Malibu in like 20 minutes and that the big New York battle of Avengers didn’t result in a single human death.
Because Ant-Man gets a lot right: it’s funny and it’s fun and, again, it’s a breath of fresh air after the fetid, overdone bullshit of Ultron. It’s not the full-frontal nostalgia-tinged batshit-wierdness of Guardians of the Galaxy, but that’s okay. Where that was a joyfully campy space-opera, this is a darker, more human (dare I say smaller-scale?) story about a reasonably normal person with reasonably normal person problems. That the solution to those problems lies in being able to control ants… well, come on. This is a comic book movie, after all.
Ant-Man also features some sterling action sequences, showcasing brilliant camera-work and superb effects. And some really delightfully weird throw-away gags. And you know what Ant-Man has? People of colour. And a lot of ‘em. It’s not exactly Donald Glover playing Miles Morales, but it’s a start.
So don’t pay too much attention to the doom-and-gloom crowd, whether they’re the ‘Marvel is just too big! Too big!’ folks or the ‘Hank Pym is a wife-beating asshole’ folks. Ant-Man the film stands very firmly on its own and has all the fun of the best of the MCU films with almost none of the convoluted nonsense that’s weighing down the tentpole franchises these days.
Also, Paul Rudd: vampire or ageless demi-god?
1. In case you're not at all familiar with Ant-Man mythology, Ant-Man is originally the superhero persona of Hank Pym, and then a guy called Scott Lang takes over. This is basically how it works in the film, too.↩
2. A lot of that very justified upset has to do with this: it’s totally fucking ridiculous that Ant-Man – Ant-Man, ffs – gets a feature film before any major female character. We won’t get our first female-led Marvel film until 2018. For the record, that’s six years after the first Avengers film grossed all the money in the world and a full decade after Iron Man proved that Marvel was finally getting serious about the film business.↩