Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the run-up to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.
I’ll start with a minor disclaimer: Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man is a big budget film about a guy who puts on a magic suit that reduces the space between his atoms, thereby shrinking him. I love it because it’s ridiculous and funny, and I think I deserve all the props for valiantly attempting to plumb depths from this nonsense. I promised Ryan an essay, so I’m gunna get all serious for a minute about what is possibly the silliest Marvel film to date (Thor: Ragnarok, don’t look at me like that, you know how much I love you).
As I survey the Marvel cinematic canon (note: I haven’t yet seen Black Panther) I see a consistent striving for grandeur, for heady drama that leans hard on villains who are intent on global decimation, even galactic dominance. It’s when the films withdraw and portray individual struggles that they are strongest. I don’t care much about fending off aliens from other dimensions, or armies of robots that serve an AI intent on destroying humanity. These battles are so immense in scale that they become a bit meaningless for me. We already have Star Wars and its planet-killers. I’m disinterested in another franchise that believes that continually piling on apocalypses makes for compelling dramatic stakes.
When the films pull back and focus on personal emotional battles, they have my attention. Give me Captain America: The Winter Soldier and its emphasis on the importance of friendship and love. Give me Spider-Man: Homecoming and its blue-collar despair. Give me Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 and its revelation that the family we create is as essential as the family we are born into. And, give me Ant-Man, where even the most microscopic of personal tales are worth our two hours.
This is a film about lonely men. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant engineer whose greatest creation is a suit that can shrink its wearer to the size of an ant (or smaller), is largely motivated by grief at the loss of his wife. Grief and anger. We often stereotype scientists as socially stunted loners; here is a man who found love and came out the other end having learned that to open oneself up to another is to risk losing everything. He blames himself for his wife’s death, and he unwittingly encouraged a blossoming villain. What else to do but retreat into hard numbers, immutable facts, unkillable truths? Science is deathless.
Scott Lang, our Ant-Man, played with schlubby self-deprecating energy by Paul Rudd, mostly just wants to make enough money to stay alive long enough to participate in his daughter Cassie’s (Abby Ryder Fortson) childhood. Once he sees that he might also be able to help stop some bad guys, his inner Avenger awakens and his ambitions get a bit loftier – but it still boils down to building and protecting family. Scott has a dorky makeshift gang of brotherly pals, fellow crooks who specialize in sucking immensely at crime. They clearly love each other, interacting with gentle ribs and fond jokes. Scott uses humor to overcome his loneliness. His smallness. Comedy is a curative for social pain. A means of enlarging the self. (Or “embiggening,” to borrow from Jebediah Springfield and Ms. Marvel). Scott isn’t alone, so to speak, in his loneliness. His friend Luis, in his very first scene, announces that his girlfriend has left him, his mother died, and his father has been deported.
The Villain, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), began his career as Dr. Pym’s assistant; Dr. Pym mentored him and came to cherish him as “the son I never had.” Darren mostly just wants his pretend-daddy’s approval as he shows off the awesomeness of his adulting. He wants to show Dr. Pym that can do science now like a big boy.
When Dr. Pym rewards him with side-eye and warnings about outsizing britches, Darren falls deep into a Freudian hole and decides it’s time to sell his toys to Hydra, represented with slimy aplomb by Martin Donovan. Darren doesn’t want to blow up the world. Hydra might, but Darren just wants a hug and some money (and eventually to murder Scott Lang, the punk ex-con and future Ant-Man who Dr. Pym has taken a shine to). Dr. Pym has always cared less about nurturing young scientists than about building family. With Darren, he failed. He has another chance with Scott, and manipulates him into putting on the suit and embracing a new life as a superhero.
Size is a potent metaphor for social status. Figuratively, the lonelier we are, the smaller we feel. We often deploy phrases suggestive of size to describe our wellbeing. Those who are isolated for a period of time describe their world as “small.” Their social circles have shrunken. The depressed often tell us that they want to disappear, to be undetectable and left alone.
What’s lovely about Scott’s smallness is that it is largely self-inflicted in the interest of doing good; he has willingly reduced his life, sent himself to prison and eliminated his job prospects by playing Robin Hood in a previous life. Stealing from corrupt billionaires and returning money to those who need it most. He is a good man who is willing to shrink away from society if it means he can help people.
By embracing smallness and intimacy, Ant-Man is a blunt condemnation of loud, large late-stage capitalists. We’ve seen this elsewhere with Marvel; Tony Stark begins MCU life as a rambunctious socialite whose violent ambitions are in harmony with his public character. His arc sees him discovering that he is obligated to do good, given his means and talents. If Ant-Man and the rest of the MCU teach us one thing, it’s to distrust self-described alpha males. I can get behind this. I certainly share this distrust. I’m a quiet introverted sort who can play at big-mouthed confidence when I have to, but it hurts. I keep a small circle of close friends who know and tolerate my cycles of depression and withdrawal.
But I digress. Scott just wants to be there for his child. He is an absentee father who wants more than anything to do better. I have been this child. I have spent most of my life resenting my own father’s absence, and he didn’t have the excuses Scott has. He was never in prison. He certainly is no superhero. There were times when he and I would travel, and I would sit alone somewhere, on a beach, on a ferry, in a motel lobby, and convince myself that he had left. Just up and abandoned me to go shack up with someone. To drive home. To kill himself. The stories I created were uniformly awful and left me unmoving in a panic.
Scott tries. We see him work hard at overcoming obstacles that have kept him from his daughter. I want Scott to be there for her. I want him to do better than my own. I resent Scott his absences but admire his determination. This is the real heart of this film. Being the bigger person. Being the best parent he possibly can. Saving the world is cool too, but Scott, never let go of that little girl.
By the end of the film, Darren has eaten shit and Scott has a new dad, maybe a new girlfriend (Dr. Pym’s daughter Hope, played by Evangeline Lilly, engages in some thorough eye-fucking with Scott), and maybe a chance to spend more time with his daughter. These are personal victories, and they are far more momentous emotionally than running off some gold-plated galactic horde and smashing whole cities.
(Never minding the fact that his sweet climactic fight scene destroyed his ex-wife’s house; I’m surprised the credit stinger wasn’t about her visit to her insurer’s office. I mean how the hell do you code destruction by giant Thomas the Tank Engine?)
Small Intermission: Water Bear
Scott is a thief. He steals to feed himself because his deeds have kept him from holding down a job. He becomes an Avenger, ultimately, because he is a criminal. He stole the suit because he is a criminal. Scott is a good man whose crimes don’t curse him. Good people do bad things sometimes. Dr. Pym explicitly offers him a chance for redemption. As he transforms into a hero, Scott finds a way to rebuild his self-image. As a depressive comedian who has no biological family in his life and who is happy to disappear from the world, he sees himself as expendable; he sees himself as a tool for Dr. Pym to exploit. He may be right (at least at first), but Dr. Pym nevertheless wants to see him succeed. For the sake of the world, but also for Scott’s sake. Part of finding strength in his smallness is recognizing that he has value; that the world needs him.
Cassie asks his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer): “Is daddy a bad man?”
Maggie Responds: “No honey, daddy just gets confused sometimes.”
Darren Cross on the other hand is motivated by his hunger for recognition. He is the type of man who would welcome statues of his likeness. Size and volume are what matter to him. Size of crowds. Breadth of popular recognition. Where Scott is happy to live in a jail cell just to have given back to people what was taken from them, Darren is only happy when he takes more for himself.
Pym is on his own journey of redemption; he blames himself first for the death of his wife, and secondly for his unwitting mentorship of a blossoming villain. His advice to Scott is also advice to himself. They need each other. Pym needs to reconnect to the heroism that he feels he has lost. Scott needs someone to give him purpose, a mission, a means of doing good – even if he does a little bad along the way.
Honestly, none of this thoughtful nonsense is why I love this movie. I love it because it’s crazy fun. When I was a kid I saw films like Innerspace and Honey I Shrunk The Kids and, though I was able to suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy them, I always wanted a film that really nailed the absurdity of the premise with believable special effects and a keen sense of fun. Ant-Man’s action sequences are exhilarating. I can’t get enough of Scott in drain pipes among the rats, clinging to vinyl record grooves.
I love it because it blows a kiss at the greatest album of all time.
I grew up with superhero entertainments that tried to find grace in the heart of wackiness. Donner’s / Lester’s Superman films struck a memorable balance between absurdist action and dignified character development. The Marvel films, by and large, have attempted to tap into a similar vein, erring at times on the side of self-seriousness. Comedy is the secret soul of these films, but they thrive when they give themselves over, wholly and without embarrassment, to their conceits.
My favorite moment is a small one: Scott’s first meeting with Hank Pym on the morning after his first adventure in the suit, he raises his hand before asking a question. Dr. Pym responds “You don’t need to raise your hand, Scott.” It’s funny, and a social misfire that is typical of Scott, a man who, after all, gets confused sometimes.
The Winter Soldier aside, my favorite Marvel films tend to be the silly outliers. The corollary tales that can indulge wackier ideas and more inventive comedy. I hadn’t realized how much I value humor and heart in my action films until this franchise ate the world. I try not to complain about super-hero fatigue, but I do welcome self-contained stories such as this, without constant interlocking with other films. Ant-Man doesn’t feel like it is designed to satisfy some franchise blueprint. It is an earnest, tight little story about a guy who needs to make himself small in order to grow as a father, as a man, and as a hero.