Author’s note: This is an article I had originally published in July of 2015, as a movie review after seeing Marvel’s Ant-Man. I wanted to connect it to a few ideas I had drawn from other comics, and speculate on where the Marvel movie-verse was headed based on its direction. I’m porting it over here for posterity’s sake, although there’s certain things I would like to revisit in light of the Doctor Strange film that came out the next year.
My First Thoughts
I recently had the opportunity to watch Marvel’s new Ant-Man movie for its premiere this past Thursday. While apparently not shaping up to follow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s history of juggernaut releases (as of this writing, it “only” made $22.6 million for its premiere) due to a number of factors, such as an incredibly strong showing from Dreamworks’ competing family movie of Minions and controversy over the sudden departure of original direction Edgar Wright, it’s been thankfully receiving strong positive support from critics and audiences. And I hope that support continues via word of mouth, it’s a really fantastic summer movie that knows exactly what it wants and builds up and achieves those storytelling goals in an effective manner.
Ant-Man the movie knows how to balance smart heist plotting with effective characterization, some slick sci-fi concepts, good world-building within the MCU as a whole, and evens the whole thing out with good comedic relief that comes naturally and doesn’t wear out its welcome with overuse. However, while Ant-Man is getting good reviews because of its self-awareness without the self-deprecating attitude, the way it juxtaposes the big and small aspects of its movie can show some very interesting aspects of not only the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also its relation to the structure of the Marvel universe in comics, and give us a hint at what might be coming up in other MCU films. To effectively analyze this though, we need to look at a few things:
First, the surface aspects of the movie, major thematic material and characters that play a role in developing those themes. Secondly, the structure of the Marvel universe in comics by comparing it to its major counterpart and competitor, the DC universe. And finally, how it pulls off one of the most unexpectedly memorable film sequences I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.
Push and Pull
First of all, Ant-Man is a refreshing change of pace from the over-stuffed, over-promised and under-delivered disappointment that was Avengers: Age of Ultron, which ruined any credible on-screen presence of its main villain or sense of threat or urgency by grossly overusing that comedic relief. Ant-Man is (excuse the bad pun) a film on a much smaller scale. The villain only wants to exploit the technology of Pym Particles to gain money, influence, and to assuage his own ego and paranoid victim complex, not to take over the world or destroy the galaxy.
The main conflicts around Ant-Man revolve around issues of trust, assurance and recognition within families and other relationships. Scott Lang becomes Ant-Man and involves himself in the heist of his life in order to earn his way back into his daughter’s life, and to be able to live up to Cassie’s ideals of who he represents as a father. An ideal that was broken when he made a misstep into crime. Hank Pym’s major motivations are similar, he wants to reconnect with his daughter, Hope, in order to atone for his wife’s death from involving her in his Cold War super-heroics, and to prevent further harm being done with his scientific achievements by Cross misusing them for his own selfish gain.
Cross himself, Pym’s protégé, falls into his paranoid fits of delusion by obsessing himself with earning back a right that he believes was denied, to follow as Pym’s successor and be privy to the secrets of Pym particles. When he’s pushed away by Pym who “sees too much” of himself in Cross’ own obsession, it becomes a wound so deep, and so exacerbated by his fevered work into the subject, that it proves beyond healing, unlike the rift between Pym and his daughter, or Lang and his estranged family.
However, that’s only the main bulk of the character conflicts and driving motivations behind the movie. The main reason why I wanted to start off with this article is not just to give you a brief review of Ant-Man that you can read in any newspaper or on any fan site (it’s awesome, go watch it), but because there’s something else very interesting that the movie does in order to illustrate a deeper common factor between the continuous editorial direction of the MCU, and a very unique aspect of the Marvel universe as it stands in the comics. Merely summarizing the plot and main themes only scratches the surface, now we’re about to go quantum.
(Author’s note: Up to this point I have kept the spoilers to a minimum. Past this point, all bets are off. Go watch the movie first if you haven’t.)
Now bear with me, this is where things get weird.
Shrinking and Embiggening
Most people who know me and know of my habitual intake of comic books, also know that I’m a very devoted fan of DC comics, not so much of Marvel. It’s not that I have any particular animosity towards Marvel and their company, it’s simply that what originally got me into superhero comics was the rich history and legacy behind the DC Universe and its cosmological structure. While Marvel features a number of superheroes that I enjoy reading about and follow regularly (Daredevil and Moon Knight, to name a couple), I’ve never had the same drive to explore and delve deep into the events that shaped the Marvel universe and reach out through all the tendrils and connecting lines between different superheroes, teams, and how they interact with each other in the same way as I do with DC characters.
For example, probably the first superhero comic that got me interested in the genre was Grant Morrison’s Animal Man run. Even though it relies a bit on knowledge of history of the DC universe to illustrate its metafictional concepts, as someone who went into it with no idea of what occurred during events of Crisis on Infinite Earths, or what importance it had on the DCU, I was instantly hooked and fascinated by the barely-hinted, half-remembered histories of the story, and immediately started backtracking and continuing forward in order to fill in the blanks. Grant Morrison’s works within the DCU serve another point in this somewhat long-winded narrative that I want to explain, in regards to how the cosmology of the DCU is constructed. Well, “constructed” is probably a poor term to use. “Evolved” is a better one, because holding to Morrison’s concepts of the DCU and its multiversal structure, it’s much more like a growing, evolving, living organism.
In Biology when we discuss ecology, we talk about living organisms as fitting into a niche within a series of concentric levels of organization, spiraling out from single cells to organ systems to organisms, to populations, species, and even whole biomes. The individual plays its part within the whole system, and we can organize and analyze those systems on a more inclusive, larger level. Similarly, the narrative structure of the comic universe resembles those layers of organization. On smaller levels you have comic books, individual panels and story arcs, which comprise a character’s story, which fit into more inclusive levels of legacies, superhero teams, whole eras in between crisis events, and eventually the entirety of the universe and its publishing history itself.
“But don’t all ongoing narratives follow this structure?” you might ask. “Why does this only refer to the DCU and not Marvel?” The answer for that is simple, the DCU ‘s structure goes through fits and starts, expanding and contracting, forcibly extinguishing parts of its universe, the same way populations go through booms and declines, explosions of diversity and extinction events. However, if the DCU can be compared to a living ecology, the Marvel universe on the other hand is a deliberately constructed machine.
The defining events of that sculpt the history of the DCU and its structure are these Crisis stories and reboots. Marvel has no real equivalent to these violent upheavals and expulsions. Instead, it has a sliding timeline, one that is constantly being built onto while old, outdated parts are quietly excised and forgotten, or replaced entirely. The Punisher, originally a Vietnam veteran, now becomes a survivor of the Gulf Wars. Old events are compressed and streamlined, origins are updated, new operating systems installed as editorial direction changes over time.
Man and the Machine
So, I had to tell you that story in order to tell you this one. These differences in overall structure between Marvel and DC are also reflected in their in-universe cosmological structures. In the DCU, the further out in scope you get in a story, the more personal and intimate the themes become. The key laws that drive the DCU are ultimately laws of narratives rather than physical laws, i.e. the hero always wins in the end, good triumphs over evil, and everyone wants a happy ending. These are the rules that are adhered to, even if it means breaking the laws of physics as we understand them in order to make it happen. The empirical, rational laws of science are subject and subservient to the laws of storytelling. In short, the DCU is inherently a human-centric universe. We’re the ones who write the stories, so the universe revolves around Earth and the human beings that live on it.
Marvel, for the most part, does very nearly the opposite. The further out in scope stories go in the Marvel universe, the more impersonal and distant the themes become. Earth in the MCU ultimately doesn’t mean a lot, and neither do human beings. Superheroes in the Marvel universe win despite the universe conspiring against them, rather than in the DCU where the very influence of the audience invested in the story urges them on to victory.
Now, understanding this paradigm, let’s re-examine one of the biggest disappointments of the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe project thus far, the Thor movies. As other people have noted, the biggest failing of both the first Thor movie, and its sequel The Dark World, is mainly that both movies focus too much on Earth, and Earth is far more boring than Asgard, or the rest of the Nine Realms. As you can see, this runs counter to the main uniting concept behind cosmic-level Marvel, the fact that humanity and Earth means very little in the grand scope of things. While Thor chooses to fight for humanity and sees its value in spite of its small stature, that smallness in relation to the enormity of the rest of the universe is not reflected well within the movies themselves.
In contrast, look at Guardians of the Galaxy, which is very much a cosmic story in the vein of the comics themselves. Peter Quill, Starlord, is not treated any different because he’s human, he has no special abilities or value because of that identity, Earth is rarely mentioned and never even seen after the opening sequence where he’s originally abducted, and the main conflict of the movie revolves around a super weapon comprised of a fragment of an old universe that was never meant to be wielded by mortal hands. While this is not the only reason why Guardians is a better movie, it certainly puts it more in line with the traditional connecting concepts of cosmic Marvel than the two Thor films we’ve seen thus far.
So let’s compare that to one of the most visually stunning and mesmerizing features of any Marvel movie I’ve seen so far, the “subatomic” view of the Microverse in Ant-Man. During the climax of the movie, Scott Lang is forced to slip between individual atoms within Yellowjacket’s suit in order to get inside its power system to destroy it, before the deranged Cross kills his daughter. Unfortunately, as was warned earlier in the movie, this requires disabling the regulatory mechanism on the Ant-Man suit, and Lang is now unable to stop himself from shrinking down so far that he passes into the realm where classical laws of physics cease and quantum physics take over. It’s an eerily beautiful CGI sequence, as Lang has saved the day, stopped the Yellowjacket prototype, saved his daughter, but is now caught in a surreal realm that he has no escape from. What is really highlighted, instead of that victory, is the absolute, empty isolation of the Microverse. Ironic that it’s a movie that focuses on people shrinking that really captures that feeling of the hostile coldness of the structure of the outer reaches of the Marvel universe.
What does this mean for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Well, one upcoming movie is going to be a solo introduction for Doctor Strange, premiere representative of magic, and Sorcerer Supreme within Marvel. The difference in how magic is portrayed in DCU and Marvel reflects the concepts we talked about already; magic in the DCU is very focused around individual mind-sets and beliefs, and is very subjective as a result of that. For example, you can disbelieve the existence of magic so hard that you not only cannot see things relating to magic, but magical qualities or spells simply ceases to work.
On the opposite side, Marvel magic is unconcerned with any special quality of our plane of existence and usually involves extra-dimensional energies and entities, and spells and magical abilities often involve striking deals and invoking the power of these dimensional powers. Understanding these invocations and connections and how these energies flow through our own dimension is really Doctor Strange’s subject of study and profession. Similarly, Kevin Feige the main creative producer behind keeping the MCU internally consistent in tone and continuity, has gone on record saying that they’re using the visuals of Ant-Man’s Microverse sequence much more extensively in the Doctor Strange movie to represent the extra-planar weirdness that comprises much of Marvel’s magic and mystical side.
So, in the end, Ant-Man represents a lot of positive things for the MCU as a whole. It’s modest in scope, yet so competently and solidly constructed that it makes for a welcome respite after the hyper-inflated event that was Age of Ultron. Yet at the same time, it strongly utilizes the basic underpinning structure of the Marvel Universe at basement level, and one that the higher-ups in Marvel’s movie division have an intention of exploring further in upcoming movies. Ant-Man is a lot of things in a small, unassuming package, but as it closes out Phase 2 within the MCU’s overarching structure, it leaves things off with a bang, not a whimper, and a very hopeful bang at that. One that celebrates maybe the start of something even greater for the brand line.