Green Arrow posters hang prominently in Jeremy Cahnmann’s Chicago apartment, but he graciously agreed to contribute to The Marvel Decade regardless. A true trivia master, Jeremy has hosted / competed in trivia for more than a decade, appeared on national TV, and was part of the winning team at Geek Bowl X in 2016. He is the creator and operator of Brain Bash Trivia, Chicago’s premier interactive bar trivia company. Check out their schedule online or follow Brain Bash on Facebook or Twitter.
I’m a DC guy.
I’ve always been a DC guy, from my first Teen Titans comic book to the Justice League of America and Batman and all the rest. I read some Marvel titles here and there, but DC constituted 80% of my childhood. In fact, as Marvel grew in popularity, so did my resentment for them. I didn’t like the fact more people read X-Men than JLA or that the Avengers were more popular than the Titans.
But in this new age of cinema where all these superheroes I grew up with are now getting their own movies … well, those feelings of resentment I had as a kid have come back. Let’s call a spade a spade: The DC Cinematic Universe is a steaming pile of horse manure next to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There isn’t even really a comparison to be made between them.
Still, you can imagine how I felt when Ant-Man — long in the works as part of the MCU’s Phase Two — was formally announced. “Ant-Man. They are making a movie about FREAKING ANT-MAN?! A guy who talks to ants is getting his own film and I can’t get a decent Green Lantern or Flash movie?” I also thought: Finally. This will be Marvel’s dud. There is no way anyone would find this superhero compelling.
I was wrong. Even I found it compelling. More than compelling. Though it’s one of the less-hyped and often-forgotten MCU films, Ant-Man represents, in many respects, the finest aspects of the superhero genre. It has all the right elements — action, humor, characters who are both interesting and complex. Despite my misgivings, Marvel took one of their most ridiculous concepts for a film and delivered one of their best.
So … who is Ant-Man? As it goes with many superheroes, multiple people have worn his mantle. Here, Marvel finds a way to pay tribute to two of them — Hank Pym and Scott Lang, with Hank as the inventor of the Ant-Man shrinking technology and Scott as that tech’s unlikely inheritor. Scott isn’t a billionaire, hasn’t been blessed with superhuman abilities and is not an alien with super-strength. He’s just a guy … and the lower end of just a guy at that.
When we first meet Scott, he’s being released from prison. He’s a thief. A noble and smart thief (although not smart enough to avoid capture), but a thief nonetheless. Further complicating matters: Scott left behind a young daughter. Scott is clearly a conflicted man, eager to make things right with his little girl and estranged wife but aware of how his mistakes have only made life harder. It’s harder to get a job. It’s harder to have a relationship with his daughter. It’s harder to stay on the straight and narrow.
Scott’s old cellmate, Luis (excellently portrayed by Michael Peña for comic relief) is both his best friend and worst influence. Luis encourages Scott to use his skills for another robbery. Scott doesn’t want to risk a return to prison, but he also wants to support his daughter. And that rap sheet even gets him bounced from the counter at Baskin Robbins.
In most superhero films, the lead is often a reluctant hero — chosen to serve or gifted with supernatural abilities, then forced to figure out what to do and / or how to use them. The classic example is, of course, Spider-Man and the “With great power comes great responsibility line.” Scott is also a reluctant hero … but the interesting dynamic is that he’s also a reluctant criminal before that. His initial thievery was a choice through which he lost it all. His return finds him with nothing to lose.
Luis ropes Scott into the job … but it’s all a setup. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man, has manipulated Scott into the job as an audition. Hank needs Scott to wear the Ant-Man suit, infiltrate the lab of Hank’s old protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), and steal the Yellowjacket prototype — a weaponized super-suit version of Hank’s technology that Cross will use to throw the world into chaos.
At least initially, Hank sees Scott as everyone else sees him — a criminal, albeit now tricked out with technology. As a man out of options, Scott sees the suit as a chance at redemption. Not only could he do some good in the world, but his new ability to sneak into any space can gain him time with his daughter. Here is an estranged dad ex-con looking at the life he’s lead and deciding to live it in a way that is not totally about himself. This requires a more serious Paul Rudd than we’re used to, but he is a perfect choice for Scott.
Last year, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri generated a lot of controversy for taking the character of a thoroughly unlikable racist cop and, in some people’s eyes, redeeming him by film’s end. I think those people missed the point. That’s not redemption. That’s statistics. Even selfish assholes do the right thing once in a while. One good, or selfless, act does not redeem anyone. Redemption occurs only when someone sees the error in their ways and makes a conscious, complete effort to change. Eventually, Hank starts to see this, too. Through Scott’s actions, Ant-Man is truly a story of redemption.
This complexity of character trumps the inherent ridiculousness of Ant-Man’s powers —still a source of humorous moments, but you roll with the absurdity of a man communicating with ants. That Marvel could take a mid-tier character like Scott Lang and put him at the center of a better movie than almost anything DC has done — even with well-reported creative turmoil — shows the disparity between the companies’ film work. Ant-Man is fun and the effects are great, but Ant-Man himself is the reason to watch.
Were I to offer any criticism, it would be that Yellowjacket is a pretty weak bad guy. The X-Men without Magneto, Superman without Lex Luthor, Batman without the Joker, Thor without Loki. None would work. Ant-Man simply doesn’t need Yellowjacket when the inner battle is so captivating. Scott’s complexities and his developing relationship with Hank make Ant-Man work even without a great villain. Moving beyond Scott’s redemptive journey, though, Ant-Man and the Wasp — this summer’s forthcoming sequel — will have to improve on that front. It will also be interesting to watch how Scott works with a partner as Hank’s daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), suits up as the Wasp.
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer — some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us again next week as guest writer John Derrick deep-dives into the dramatic divisions of Captain America: Civil War.
PREVIOUSLY IN “THE MARVEL DECADE”
Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey
The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers
Iron Man 2 (2010) — Joe Shearer
Thor (2011) — Aly Caviness
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — Sy Stiner
The Avengers (2012) — Craig McQuinn
Iron Man 3 (2013) — Rachael Derrick
Thor: The Dark World (2013) — Will Norris
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) — Salem
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) — Mitch Ringenberg
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Daniel Fidler & Evan Dossey