Ant-Man just does not work.
That’s not me giving away my opinion on the movie in the first line of the review (what kind of slut do you take me for?) I mean that fundamentally, as a superhero concept, Ant-Man is broken. The best superheroes are power fantasies, that’s their essential appeal. We all want to fly, that’s why we love Superman. We all want to be righteous, that’s why we love Captain America. We all want to be the richest, handsomest, smartest, coolest person on earth with an awesome car, that’s why we love Idris Elba.
Now, of course, that’s not enough on its own. But that has to be your starting point. Even the superheroes whose lives are legitimately, genuinely awful have to have some kind of vicarious appeal. Sure, logically it would suck to be the Hulk, but who, stuck in early morning traffic, hasn’t wished they couldn’t just pick up that bus that’s holding everyone up and fling it into the sun?
But waking up and discovering that you’ve shrunk to the size of an insect isn’t anyone’s idea of a power fantasy. That’s the start of a horror story. Which, of course, is what the story of Hank Pym originally was. The character was created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby in a one-off story for Tales to Astonish in 1962. Scientist Hank Pym accidentally shrinks himself (sixties comic book scientists: buncha ditzes) gets trapped in an ants’ nest (where else?) before escaping and returning to normal size and vowing never to use the technology again.
The story was popular enough that Stan decided to bring Pym back as a superhero named Ant-Man, whose powers were getting small and talking to ants. It is, at the risk of angering die-hard Ant-Man fans of which I’m sure there are…some, not a strong concept for a superhero. Aside from the essential “meh-ness” of his power set, Hank Pym just wasn’t that interesting. He was in many ways a relic of fifties Marvel, when the comics were full of square, white-bread scientists battling monsters and aliens. Hank Pym was essentially Reed Richards with less interesting powers and without the fantastic villains and colourful supporting characters. And so, Hank Pym’s history in comics has been one long attempt to fix the character. To start with, Marvel tried to make Hank likeable the same way Scientology tried to make Tom Cruise likeable; by getting him a girlfriend.
Tales to Astonish #44 debuted Janet Van Dyne, who also gained size-changing powers and joined Hank’s crimefighting as The Wasp. Janet and Hank joined The Avengers at its founding, and since then there have only been rare gaps where one or both of them has not been on the team. But whereas Jan’s distinct personality (and, let’s face it, the fact that she was the only female member for two whole years) helped her stand out from the pack, Hank didn’t really bring anything to the team that wasn’t already brought by Tony Stark or Bruce Banner.
And so began a seemingly endless series of attempts to remake the character into something halfway cool. He got the power to become bigger and changed his name to Giant-Man. Then to Goliath. Then to Yellowjacket. In comics, like in life, you only really get one chance to make a first impression. If you think of the sublime purity of: “Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and became Spider-Man” then Hank Pym’s wild shuffling of powers and identities is the opposite of that.
And then there was…the incident.
In the eighties, Hank started suffering from mental instability and was booted from the Avengers as a result. Driven by feelings of inadequacy and suffering a complete nervous breakdown, Hank concocted a plan to programme a robot to attack the Avengers which he could then save them from and be welcomed back on the team. Janet was all “Oooookay, let’s put that idea in the maybe pile.” And then Hank hit her.
And that one panel is probably the single most famous panel featuring Hank Pym. Now, for context, the character was suffering from schizophrenia, had never laid a hand on Jan before or since and his guilt over this has been one of the character’s few consistent traits over the years. But this panel is the reason why, if anyone outside of comics fandom knew anything about Hank Pym prior to the movie, it was that he was a serial wife beater. And, because I haven’t gone skating on thin ice in a while, I would say that that’s not entirely fair when you consider how many better known superheroes like Reed Richards and even Peter Parker, have hit their wives or children and it never gets brought up.
Not helping matters, when Mark Millar did his revamped version of the Avengers in 2002, the hugely popular Ultimates, which is set in an alternate continuity, he made Hank a full on psychopath who almost kills Jan by siccing his ants on her.
Sooooo, in case this hasn’t already become apparent, this character has some baggage.
Marvel’s original plan for their cinematic universe was to do movies of all the founding Avengers, Ant-Man included (there is even dialogue in Thor meant to subtly set up Ant-Man’s movie). But Ant-Man had by far the most troubled production of any of the MCU films, and after losing its director and undergoing multiple re-shoots and re-writes, it finally debuted in 2015, years later than intended and to possibly the most hostile pre-release of any Marvel movie to date.
You see, by 2015 the clamour for a female or minority led Marvel movie was becoming deafening and instead of that Marvel was giving us another origin story headlined by a handsome white dude (not a blonde named Chris though, so progress?). And of course, it wasn’t just any white dude superhero, but the white dude superhero was who was most famous for…
But, against all odds, Ant-Man not only opened at number 1 but also earned a very respectable 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. Interestingly, it also attracted a larger female audience than any previous Marvel movie, indicating that female movie-goers either didn’t care about the character’s reputation or didn’t know about it to begin with. You might say that’s because girl’s don’t read comics, but I’d counter that it’s more that girls don’t read Ant-Man, because nobody does. Because, as I’ve already spent over a thousand words explaining; Ant-Man doesn’t work. But does Ant-Man?
Let’s take a look.