On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: Ant-Man – Sweating The Small Stuff
Posted on July 22, 2015
July 22, 2015 | by Andrew Waterfield
Let’s get the verdict out of the way so those of you with short attention spans can bugger off early: Ant-Man is a really good film. You will probably enjoy it. See it if you can.
Now that the goldfish people have gone back to sharing photographs of cats in amusing poses, we can get down to a more developed consideration of this film. Just a heads up: there is some discussion of domestic violence in this review. Although none features in the film, there were incidents in the comics that are relevant to this piece.
First off, Ant-Man is genuinely a very good movie. It’s bright, airy, and lighter than any other Marvel Studios movie, with the possible exception of Guardians of the Galaxy. Paul Rudd is an excellent lead, giving the titular role a certain roguish charm and, apart from the apparently compulsory lingering ripped torso shot, is extremely relatable. His Scott Lang benefits enormously from excellent comic timing, and a half-smile which, were it ever weaponised, would be unstoppable. Scott is a recently released burglar who is trying to rebuild his life so he can be a better father to his young daughter Cassie, who lives with her mother and her mother’s new partner, a cop. Because of course.
The plot is a curious combination of redemption story, family drama, and heist flick, with Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym holding it all together. Without entering into too spoilery a territory, Pym’s relationship with his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is troubled, and much of the emotional weight of the movie comes from the pair working through their shared past. Combine that with Scott’s struggles to be worthy of his own daughter’s love and admiration, and the theme of the film is most certainly fatherhood and redemption.
Redemption, though, is a tricky concept where Hank Pym is concerned. In the comics, Hank was violently abusive to his wife Janet, a.k.a. The Wasp. The physical abuse (preceded by psychological abuse) was a one-off, and was revealed to have been triggered by a nervous breakdown, but the fact remains that Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, was a perpetrator of domestic violence, and the present iteration of the character takes ownership of, and full responsibility for his actions during that time, and is in treatment for his ongoing mental health problems, specifically bipolar disorder. The comics version of Hank Pym has been on a redemptive arc since the 1980s. Whether he deserves redemption is a matter for the individual reader to decide for themselves.
Given that history, though, it’s obvious why Marvel opted to put one of Hank’s successors, Scott Lang, in the suit, and instead remodel Hank for the cinematic universe as an older mentor figure. Disney were never about to put a wife-beater on a lunchbox, after all.
What’s interesting though, is that movie Hank, at least twice during Ant-Man, makes oblique references to his past, and his own personality flaws. At no point is the domestic abuse mentioned, or even implied, but Pym clearly sees himself as having deeper problems, and more to atone for, than is presented in the film. This ambiguity allows viewers to take from Douglas’ Pym what they want to, which is a smart choice in my opinion. A two hour action-comedy is not the best place to explore this particularly thorny and emotive topic, especially not one where the perpetrator is a supporting character and the victim has been dead for 28 years as the film begins.
It does serve to illustrate, however, the limitations of the cinematic model for these types of stories. Film is hampered by time constraints that long-running comic series are not. It is entirely possible for the comic book version of Pym to struggle for 30 years (our time) with the implications of what he did, and work to atone for those actions, insofar as he can. Pym’s sprawling story asks difficult and often uncomfortable questions of the reader about violence, mental illness, responsibility, and the possibility of true redemption.
Likewise, and I would argue more importantly, there are 30 years (and counting) of stories about the comic book version of Janet Van Dyne; a successful businesswoman, designer, Avenger, friend, wife, and mother. That she is a survivor of domestic abuse is a key part of her story, but not the defining part, and that’s entirely as it should be. It would have been great to see her on the big screen.
Christ, how am I going to segway back into talking about a fun popcorn flick after that? Sod it, here goes.
As I’ve already said, Ant-Man has heart and just the right amount of sentiment to stay on the right side of fun, but the main thing that lets it down is the villain. Corey Stoll’s turn as Pym’s apprentice-turned-bellend Darren Cross makes the most of things, but Marvel once again fail to create a complex and compelling villain. It’s a longstanding truism within superhero comics that the hero is only as good as their villain. You have to establish the intellect, power, and will of your villain, and you have to do it convincingly, otherwise the hero overcoming their machinations is no achievement at all, and the true promise of the heroic arc is unfulfilled.
Darren Cross is a solid villain, by Marvel standards (which isn’t saying much), but does feel like a bit of a damp squib. We’re now twelve films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the only villain with any real complexity and pathos is Loki. That’s a pretty shitty batting average.
Ant-Man also suffers from a fairly predictable plot, especially if you’re familiar with the mythos, or even the superhero genre in general; and a decade and a half into the genre dominating the blockbuster landscape, I’d wager most movie-goers are. Still, it’s a huge amount of fun, laugh out loud funny in places, and the gorgeous action set-pieces more than make up for a by-the-numbers final act.
For my money, it’s one of the most enjoyable films Marvel has made yet, and far and away the best for viewers unfamiliar with the MCU (despite the shoe-horning in of an Avenger halfway through). It’s no Guardians of the Galaxy (what is?), but it’s no Iron Man 2 either.
If you’re looking for a laugh, a punch-up, and a bit of heavy petting, go and see Ant-Man.
Alternatively, you could turn up at a Manchester orgy with a joke book and a Liverpool scarf.
To be honest, I think you’re better off with Ant-Man.
Andy Waterfield writes this column in a desperate effort to justify the amount he spends on comics. He was recently appointed to the British Comics Awards Committee, a position which, thus far, principally involves reading hundreds of comics and making notes about them. He hasn’t been this happy in years, the poor wretch. Follow his senseless blathering on Twitter at @andywritesstuff.