Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Not all heroes wear capes. In fact, very few of them wear anything special whatsoever. For many of us, the first heroes in our lives are our parents. This idea is represented clear as day on Cassie’s (Abby Ryder Fortson) face as she beams at her father, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) throughout the film. She’s proud of her father’s super-heroics to be sure, but he was her hero long before he donned the tights and will be long after he’s hung them up.
In the first Ant-Man (2015) recent ex-con and former Robin Hood-style thief Scott Lang struggles to win the trust of his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new cop husband (Bobby Cannavale) while also helping reclusive eccentric inventor Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) stop greedy CEO Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from stealing Pym’s incredible shrinking technology and selling it on the black market. After having accomplished these daunting tasks, Lang settles into a happy life with his family and a promising new romance with Hope Van Dyne.
Unfortunately for Mr. Lang, the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016) conspired to throw a wrench in these works. The emotional stakes from the first film have now been reversed. After having made his public debut in Germany fighting alongside Cap and his followers, Lang’s friends and benefactors, the Pyms, were pursued by the FBI and forced to go underground. A mysterious connection between Scott and Pym’s wife, Janet (who was lost to the infinitesimally small “Quantum Realm” decades ago) forces the Pyms and Scott to work together again in order to rescue her. The father and daughter feel betrayed by Scott and he struggles to repair this rift throughout the film.
They say comic book superheroes are our modern mythology. Certainly DC Comics once leaned into the grandiose with stories like Gods and Monsters or Kingdom Come and unironically referring to the trio of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman as “the Trinity”. Our historical tales of demons and gods, however, are actually far more pedestrian and relatable. Once stripped of their archaic flowery language and infamous names these stories read less like heroic epic poems and look far more like Shakespearean melodramas or even daytime soaps with their elaborate family squabbles full of deception, violence, and ancient grudges. Now that “Phase 4” of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is wrapping up, it’s become clear that the studio has intentionally tapped into this rich vein to fuel and ground their slate of films.
These past several movies have dealt intimately with the age-old concept of Sins of the Father, though this is an idea has been baked into Marvel Studios’ DNA from the beginning. In 2008, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) was forced to reconcile his dead father’s arms manufacturing business with his newfound conscience while simultaneously fending off his homicidal surrogate father Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) is a father so misguided that he’s often Hulk’s primary antagonist. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) struggled to avenge and live up to his father-figure Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) who happened to create Captain America’s greatest nemesis: The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston’s) turn to villainy in Thor (2011) falls on the shoulders of his adoptive father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) who took him as a baby. These are the foundational films of the MCU. But it’s in Phase 4 that this idea has really been given its opportunity to shine.
It’s a theme I’ve talked about at length in other reviews, so I’ll keep it brief here, but each recent Marvel protagonist has had to struggle with the mortality and fallibility of their fathers while dealing with the reckoning that has sprung from their parent’s checkered past. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) fought his father to the death in order to save the galaxy and avenge his mother’s painful passing. Simultaneously, Peter had to reconcile with and lose a surrogate father in Yondu (Michael Rooker) whose past bad decisions cost him his reputation, his crew, and put Peter’s life in jeopardy. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) watched his father die in his arms and honored him as a fallen hero, apprehensive of his ability to step into such a great man’s shoes only to learn the peace and prosperity his father achieved for Wakanda came at the cost of the lives of millions of young black men around the world, including T’Challa’s own uncle and cousin. Similarly, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was forced to reckon with revelations about his father’s violent past after the man’s death and the unleashing of his imprisoned and brutal sister. Once again in Ant-Man and the Wasp the damage wrought by the previous generation is haunting the present. Dr. Pym’s acerbic nature and refusal to share his technology for fear of it being abused has left behind a trail of enemies that imperil his livelihood and his family.
In keeping with recent tradition, these villains are remarkably sympathetic. A troubled young girl named Ava (Hannah John-Kamen) is struggling to find a cure for her accidental affliction, which turned her into the super-villain Ghost, with the help of her surrogate father Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) one of Pym’s many estranged former colleagues. Both men are after the same thing but decades of bad blood have come to a head to create a dangerous and life-threatening situation for everyone involved.
Unfortunately, the tortuous sequence of exposition where Ghost and Foster’s motivations are explained, though shouldered admirably by John-Kamen and Fishburne, grinds the film to a halt and might leave viewers checking the time as character biographies are slowly read aloud for minutes on end. Luckily, the rest of film is entirely enjoyable. The special effects are once again beautifully engaging, though there are few new tricks introduced in this outing.
It would be remiss of me to not give a shout out to one of our favorite actors: the inimitable Walton Goggins who appears in the film as black-market middleman Sonny Burch. Driven by greed, Burch attempts to swindle and then rob the Pyms of their quantum technology on the behalf of an unknown buyer. Sadly, playing a fairly mundane role, Goggins is upstaged by the supporting cast. It’s a thankless role and Goggins seemingly gives it his all, breathing his special brand of unctuous charm into the one-note “bad guy”.
Superhero films, especially Marvel’s, are going to be around for a long time, and their enduring popularity makes them obvious targets for criticism. While these films are easily dismissed as pablum, all of us are being shaped at least in part by this new pop-culture behemoth. For some, these characters are dangerously paternalistic, even fascist. But despite the gaggle of practically interchangeable witty man-children leading these films, watching these characters face literally what we all must face figuratively with the death of the Father and our reckoning with his simple humanity is perhaps urging these characters and the audience to grow up. Whether this newfound maturity bears any fruit remains to be seen but until then there are far worse messages out there than forgiving our forebears for their mistakes and sympathizing with our mortal enemies.
After the dour time had by all during Infinity War (2018) earlier this year, this new film is marvelously light-hearted. Tragically, however, a mid-credits sequence reveals that although Scott Lang escaped Thanos’ purge while within the Quantum Realm, the death of the Pym family on the outside has left Scott perilously trapped there. The off-hand mention that he should avoid being sucked into a “time vortex” while shrunken is perhaps the only clue to Lang’s potential salvation. Next year will gift us Captain Marvel and Avengers 4 which will hopefully wrap things up and establish a new status quo before any future installments in the Ant-Man franchise.