When Marvel released the first trailer for its upcoming Ant-Man film yesterday, it was followed by an echo of the same question many asked when the movie was initially announced: Who? Allow me to explain.
[Content Warning: domestic violence]
[Note: This article is mostly about the Marvel Comics version of Ant-Man. I haven't looked at a script or dug into spoilers for the upcoming film version. Marvel has released a small, spoiler-free plot synopsis of the film that I will refer to, but otherwise this is all about the comics.]
From the beginning
If this is your first time hearing of Ant-Man, the first thing I want to assure you of is that he's not a new character by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Hank Pym, the scientist who first steps into the role of Ant-Man, made his Marvel Comics debut all the way back in 1962's Tales to Astonish #27.
He wasn't yet a superhero at this point, though, and his first story was more of a Twilight Zone-esque horror tale.
The story, titled "The Man in the Ant Hill," introduces Pym as a scientist obsessed with creating a special serum that can shrink objects and return them to their original size at will. Naturally, as any good scientist would do, Pym decides to test the serum on himself, and lo and behold, it works!
As the story continues, Pym goes into an ant hill and almost dies in the grasp of a massive (compared to his shrunken state) ant. Thankfully, he isn't just a man of science — Pym also knows judo and uses it to toss the attacking ant off of a cliff. Comic books are the best.
After this adventure, Pym dumps all of his serum, deeming it "far too dangerous to be ever used by any human again." He even tells all of his scientist buddies that they were right to make fun of him and the experiment was a failure. End of story, right?
Of course not. Jump ahead later in the year 1962 to Tales to Astonish #35, and the lead story is:
Hank Pym is back! And suddenly a superhero named Ant-Man?
After a quick recap of the events of the previous story, the comic reveals that Pym later decided to make his serum once again but hide it very carefully. So, as it turns out, not "far too dangerous to be ever used by any human again" after all.
We're also presented with some questionable science factoids.
After intensive studying, Pym becomes convinced that ants communicate through their antennae and creates a special, goofy-looking helmet that he hopes will allow him to simulate that process and talk to ants. This guy sure does love ants!
Before he can test the helmet, Pym is contracted by the government to create "a gas to make people immune to radioactivity." Being the good guy he is, he agrees, only to find his lab invaded by Russian gangsters looking to disrupt the government's scheme. This was written during the Cold War, remember.
"far too dangerous to be ever used by any human again"
Here's where things get really dumb and awesome: Pym uses his shrinking serum to escape the mobsters and slingshots himself out of the office using a rubber band. Then he heads back into the nearby ant hill and uses his new helmet to recruit an army of ants.
How are ants going to help against a bunch of heavily armed thugs? I'm glad you asked! Pym sends one large group of fire ants to climb the leg of one of the bad guys and bite him, causing him to drop his gun. Then he orders "a swarm of honey ants" to fill the barrel of the gun with honey. With their weapons jammed, the evil foreigners find themselves swarmed by thousands of ants as Pym frees hostages and, eventually, ties up the villains.
The story ends with Pym wondering, "Will I ever be forced to become the Ant-Man again?" Spoiler: Yes.
What does he actually do?
Let's take a break from the history lesson and discuss Ant-Man's actual powers. After all, you can't be a superhero without superpowers, right?
Though his major scientific breakthrough is initially shown to readers in the form of a mysterious "serum," it eventually comes to be known in a different form: the aptly named Pym Particles. Pym is able to store a gas-like form of these subatomic particles in canisters, which he can then tap into in order to shrink to less than an inch in height.
Ant-Man remains just as strong as if he were completely regular-sized
One weird catch here: Despite the change in size, Ant-Man remains just as strong as if he were a completely regular-sized guy. Please don't ask me to explain the weird comic book science behind this; all you need to know is that a punch by half-inch-tall Ant-Man can hurt just as much as a punch by full-sized Ant-Man. And since we know that Hank Pym knows judo, I'm sure it would hurt a lot!
Ant-Man also has a couple pieces of equipment to help out. As mentioned above, his helmet can be used to communicate with ants and other insects, usually allowing him to convince them to do his bidding. The helmet also has tech to ensure that allies can still hear him even when he's in shrunken-down form.
At various points, Ant-Man has also worn equipment that allows him to fire rays at enemies. I think the explanation for these is something to do with localizing Pym Particles into a single blast of force or ... something. The important thing to know: He can punch or he can shoot lasers.
While Pym continued his solo adventures in Tales to Astonish — including creating an alternate identity, Giant-Man, who became really big instead of really small — Pym's next major appearance was in none other than 1963's The Avengers #1. That's right: In the Marvel Comics continuity, Ant-Man is a founding member of the Avengers, alongside his love interest/superhero partner, The Wasp (a.k.a. Janet Van Dyne).
As with the first Avengers film, The Avengers #1 largely deals with Thor's villainous brother Loki causing all sorts of trouble, and the various heroes who respond to it. Guess who that includes?
That's right, it's Hank Pym in his Ant-Man getup! And you may notice something that's sort of a trend with Pym's character here: He's kind of a dick. Oh, also, he has some sort of weird gun/cannon thing that he shoots himself and The Wasp out of to land onto flying ants. I don't know, comic books.
In the following picture, Pym refers to The Wasp as a "female," and some teenager pretends that Ant-Man and The Wasp are as exciting as Thor and Iron Man:
Thor, Iron Man and those two other heroes find themselves on the hunt for The Hulk. Ant-Man proves himself worthwhile when he discovers the massive antihero's location thanks to a tip from, well, an ant.
Then Pym tries to make friends with The Hulk. It doesn't go great.
Ant-Man tries a few more tricks to help stop the out-of-control Hulk, but needless to say, Thor and Iron Man are the real stars of the show. In fact, Ant-Man and The Wasp mostly disappear for about half of the issue.
Don't completely write off their importance, though. At the issue's end, after The Hulk has been stopped and Loki brought to justice, it's actually Ant-Man who suggests sticking together as a team ... and The Wasp who comes up with the name!
While they're part of the founding crew, Ant-Man and The Wasp don't stick around with The Avengers for particularly long. In 1965's The Avengers #16, The Wasp decides she needs a vacation. (Note: Pym is in his Giant-Man persona in this issue.)
Later in the issue, The Avengers hold a press conference to announce several new members. Pym reveals that he and The Wasp are taking a leave of absence, but that they plan to return.
Maybe The Avengers would have been better off if he'd stayed away, though.
Creating a villain
There's one thing you absolutely must know about Hank Pym: He is, frankly, a huge fuck-up. Nowhere is this more apparent than the storyline where he helped create one of the greatest threats to The Avengers and the world.
In 1968's The Avengers #55, Pym (as Giant-Man) helps the team fight a mysterious villain known only as The Crimson Cowl. At first The Avengers believe that The Crimson Cowl is their butler, Jarvis, secretly operating as a supervillain all along. However, it turns out that Jarvis was merely hypnotized by the real bad guy:
That robot is none other than Ultron-5, who would go on to become one of the most dangerous and recurring Avengers villains.
And guess who created this unstoppable, evil hunk of metal? Yep! None other than our "hero," Hank Pym. Here's a flashback from The Avengers #58:
Pym claims to the other Avengers that he blew up the Avengers labs after this failed experiment, but given how he squirreled away his secret serum from his origin story after pretending to destroy it, I'm skeptical.
Astonishingly, Pym is barely even reprimanded for this massive mistake and is allowed to stay with The Avengers.
And then things get worse.
Doesn't he hit women?
Pym spent much of the '70s and '80s hopping into and out of The Avengers while becoming increasingly mentally unstable. This includes a storyline in which he developed schizophrenia, created a third superhero persona named Yellowjacket and kidnapped and married Van Dyne. The Wasp played along with this because she had wanted to marry Pym anyway, but that's still pretty messed up.
Pym continues growing more aggressive, toward villains, his teammates and even his own wife. Here's a particularly mean-hearted moment from 1981's The Avengers #212.
Things finally come to a head in the very next issue. Facing removal from The Avengers for his increasingly dangerous attitude, Pym comes up with a "brilliant" plan: He creates a new robot villain — a sort of bargain-bin Ultron — with a specially designed weakness that will allow him to save the day.
When Janet discovers his plan, Pym's emotional abuse of his wife suddenly turns physical.
Needless to say, Pym is dropped from The Avengers immediately, divorced, left without any money and goes on to be manipulated by a hilariously bad supervillain attempting to get revenge on The Avengers. He ends up in jail while Van Dyne goes on to have a (brief) relationship with the dreamy Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man).
An even more awful rendition of Pym's spousal abuse was illustrated in 2002's The Ultimates, an edgier, modern reimagining of The Avengers. There, Pym used his helmet to force ants to attack Van Dyne while she was in her shrunken-down Wasp uniform. That's ... a long way from fighting Cold War bullies.
To this day, Marvel's decision to write a superhero story about domestic violence is one of the company's most controversial, but at the very least, the man who committed the crime got what he deserved. For a while, anyway.
Ant-Man sounds like a wreck
So at this point, you're probably wondering how Marvel Studios is expecting anyone in the audience to cheer for a wife-beating, supervillain-creating failure. Well, the good news is, they're not. It seems that the movie version of Ant-Man will feature some significant differences from the character's rough comic book history.
First and foremost, the film iteration of Ant-Man is not a founder of The Avengers. That's pretty obvious if you've seen 2012's The Avengers, but Ant-Man seemingly did not yet exist in the Marvel universe at the time of the events in that movie.
Pym's character will still have a certain "gruffness" (read: he's still an asshole)
Likewise, Ant-Man will not be creating the Marvel cinematic universe's version of Ultron. Avengers: Age of Ultron hits theaters before Ant-Man this year, and according to info released by Marvel, none other than Tony Stark will step in as Ultron's creator. That should be an interesting twist on the supervillain, for sure.
And what about the domestic violence? According to a roundtable interview with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige (as reported by ScreenRant), the movie will not be using that storyline, though Pym's character will still have a certain "gruffness" (read: he's still an asshole).
Of course Pym (played by Michael Douglas) isn't even Ant-Man in the movie! That honor goes to Paul Rudd as Scott Lang. In the comics, Lang took on the role of Ant-Man for much of the '80s. Here's his first appearance in 1979's The Avengers #181:
Though Lang isn't a total jerk in the way Pym ends up, he definitely follows in the mold of the flawed superhero. Lang is actually a thief who has served jail time. He first winds up as Ant-Man when he steals the costume as part of a scheme to save his sick daughter. Pym discovers the truth behind this story and, having moved on to his Giant-Man and Yellowjacket personas, allows Lang to keep the costume.
Remember: Pym has moved from his shrinking technology being "far too dangerous to be ever used by any human again" to 'an ex-con with a heart of gold? Sure, just take it.' Comic books!
Anyway, Lang's tenure as Ant-Man is generally more successful (or at least less dramatically awful) than Pym's, up until he dies in 2004's Avengers Disassembled event. Don't cry too hard; Lang is eventually resurrected. Time travel is involved. Don't worry about it.
What to expect from the movie
And that brings us, more or less, to today! (I'm ignoring the super-brief 2006 series, The Irredeemable Ant-Man, which brought in a new third character to wear the costume. It's a really fun, weird series, but Marvel itself seems to have mostly forgotten about it.)
A brand-new ongoing Ant-Man series written by Nick Spencer launched today, and just in time for the movie, Scott Lang is back at the forefront. And it seems really good! It provides a lot of history of Lang and how he became Ant-Man. It even acknowledges the general goofiness of the character and the hero's dark history:
If anything, this first issue of the new series probably provides a pretty good sense of what to expect out of Ant-Man (the movie). With the rise of Marvel Studios, Marvel Comics has become adept at launching new books to coincide with the movies and, where possible, emulating the tones of said movies. Obviously that can be complicated with the additional thousands of characters and dozens of years of continuity in the comics, but that's why they're professionals!
Beyond that, and despite the comedic Paul Rudd in the lead role, I wouldn't be surprised to see a slightly darker film. Even ignoring the worst aspects of the character, never quite living up to expectations is a key part of Ant-Man. Heck, it's in the name itself, and the way they made fun of it in the movie's trailer. "Is it too late to change the name?" Lang asks, even disappointed himself. Yep! Afraid so!
A not-particularly-heroic, self-deprecating hero can be a tough sell. But, then again, so was Guardians of the Galaxy, and that worked shockingly well. It's going to be interesting to see if Marvel can pull this off.
[Information from this article has been gathered from multiple sources, including Marvel Database, Wikipedia, Marvel.com and my own wasted brainspace. I'm sure my college professors would all be very proud. Images in this piece are primarily from Marvel Unlimited and are owned by Marvel.]