When we first decided to buy a house, I had one requirement. I wanted a basketball goal. It’s not that I was a serious basketball player or anything, but having an outdoor goal seemed necessary—like the 21st century equivalent of the proverbial white-picket-fence. It promised a romanticized, phony lifestyle where “imaginary me” might come home from work and sink a 20-foot jump shot before having dinner with June, Wally, and the Beaver.
But a funny thing happens when you extend one of those adjustable goals to its full height. Since the backboard is smaller than what you would find in a gymnasium, when you raise it to 10 feet, the whole contraption looks twice as high. So I wound up doing what most people do—I lowered it. Having kids meant lowering it even further. Pretty soon, the goal was low enough that even at 5’ 8” with a vertical leap of little more than four inches, I could still attack the basket like Lebron. That was fun for a while, but gradually I started to lose interest. The goal was so low that it didn’t pose enough of a challenge.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that basketball goal this week after seeing the new movie, Ant-Man. The movie is a lot of fun—one of the most enjoyable of all the Marvel movies. It offers lightweight, breezy escapism, and unlike many other high-profile movies, Ant-Man is extremely well executed. But I can’t escape the nagging feeling that one of the reasons it works so well is that it tries for so little. It’s like playing a raucous game of basketball with only an eight-foot goal.
In terms of execution and craftsmanship, Ant-Man accomplishes nearly everything it attempts. The actors are pleasant and charming, the story is clear and coherent, and the jokes are mostly funny. The story includes a modest political subtext—the military-industrial complex is bad—and there are some relatively interesting family subplots. Despite the movie’s well-documented and tortuous path to the screen, the final product gets most of the fundamentals right.
I hope this doesn’t sound like faint praise, because it’s not. We’ve all seen more than our fair share of big-studio movies that fail to cross their t’s and dot their i’s, but Ant-Man has none of the disjointedness that plagued The Age of Ultron or The Dark Knight Rises. So part of me wants to just stop thinking about it right here. No offense, but it is only an Ant-Man movie. It’s far better than it has any right to be. So, ‘nuff said, right?
Maybe. But I keep thinking about the way Winter Soldier made me think about foreign policy, about how Heath Ledger’s Joker raised questions about chaos and identity in the Postmodern world, about how both Superman Returns and The Man of Steel explored the isolation inherent in the superhero concept. Ant-Man flirts with all sorts of ideas—corporate corruption, the stigma of prison, dysfunctional family relations—but it doesn’t really develop any of them. Even the visual aesthetics of seeing the world from an ant’s perspective seem underused.
Of course, it’s hard to get terribly upset about these shortcomings. Perhaps there were greater ambitions when Edgar Wright was still attached to the project, but the finished film doesn’t seem to aspire for much besides offering pleasant escapism. It’s a slick movie about a glib hero with a heart—the sort of picture that Guardians of the Galaxy wanted to be but failed at so miserably—at least in my viewing.
But like Guardians, it also playfully begs the question, “Has Marvel run out of superheroes?” Had you told me 10 years ago that Disney would be producing a live-action Ant-Man movie, my first thought would’ve been, “Isn’t Rick Moranis too old for that?” Not only is Ant-Man not a top-tier character, he’s not really even second-tier. Save for a brief run back in the ‘60s as one of the features in Tales to Astonish, there has never been a long-running Ant-Man monthly series, and summarizing the character’s tangled history requires an advanced degree in convoluted narrative theory.
And yet, despite his (ahem) diminutive status, I was surprised to discover that Ant-Man actually pre-dates all the Silver Age Marvel heroes save the Fantastic Four. So this week, as I sat down to read his first appearance in Tales to Astonish #27, I was even more surprised to discover that he wasn’t originally conceived as a superhero at all.
Tales to Astonish was an anthology of science fiction and horror—far more a product of the comic book sensibilities of the ‘50s than the ‘60s. The story that introduces Hank Pym was drawn by Jack Kirby and written by Stan Lee and his brother, Larry Lieber. Pym is a rebellious scientist, resentful of the established community. There is some confused differentiating between practical and theoretical science in the beginning, with Pym being scorned for not pursuing practical experiments, though when he later thinks about his shrinking serum, he does so in the context of practical applications.
But the thrust of the story is the horror of becoming ant-sized. When Pym shrinks, he is unable to do anything and must run for his life, stumbling into an anthill and facing off against a horde of monstrous ants. The tone here is like one of those post-nuclear, giant bug movies from the ‘50s such as Them!. Pym manages to find one friendly ant that saves him, and he returns to full size, vowing never again to use the shrinking serum.
When Pym returns eight issues later, it’s clear that the landscape of Marvel Comics has changed substantially. The Hulk, Spider-Man, and Thor had all made their debuts, and Hank Pym—the shrinking man from the earlier, pulpy science fiction story—is repurposed as a costumed superhero. The cover promises the return of “Ant-Man,” though he was never called that in the original story. Lee, Lieber, and Kirby introduce a costume and a helmet enabling Pym to communicate with and control ants, and the plot includes a Cold War fight with communist agents looking to steal technology.
But those pulp roots have never fully left the character. While DC’s shrinking superhero, the Atom, rests comfortably within the world of science fiction, Ant-Man remains a hybrid—like a superhero formed out of the plot of a low-grade Vincent Price movie.
Consequently, given the character’s rather dubious and haphazard origins, it’s remarkable to see him headlining such a successful motion picture. That’s why I ultimately remain so ambivalent about it. Seeing one of these superhero movies that gets so many of the fundamentals right makes its weaknesses all the more frustrating.
Watching a great film, with its ability to indulge all the senses as well as the intellect, is a genuinely decadent experience, much like eating a luxurious dessert. Movies like The Godfather, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Citizen Kane are like New York cheesecake, crème brulee, or even my Grandma’s homemade chocolate pie. Ant-Man, on the other hand, is more like a Twinkie. I like Twinkies. They’re consistent and they taste pretty good. There’s nothing wrong with a Twinkie. Nothing at all.
Except, of course, that it’s … a Twinkie.