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How the Marvel movies cleaned up Hank Pym’s controversial past

And made him a character you could root for

Michael Douglas (Hank Pym) on the set of Ant-Man and the Wasp Ben Rothstein/Marvel Studios

If the Marvel Cinematic Universe has one single recurring theme in its most recent movies, it’s family. From ancestral skeletons getting dug out of closets to earth shattering parental revelations, Marvel has perfected the art of selling a superhero story based on a familial hook — and Ant-Man and The Wasp carried that tradition forward boldly and loudly, all while doing what really ought to be completely impossible.

Somehow, against virtually all odds, this movie managed to turn Hank Pym into a pretty likable guy, and that — if you’ve read his comics — is pretty wild.

[Warning: This post contains mild spoilers for Ant-Man and The Wasp.]

What’s Hank Pym’s problem anyway?

One of the strangest things about Hank is the way his comic book legacy has, over the forty some odd years, managed to solidify into a foundation of almost entirely negative things. His heroism is dramatically overshadowed by a laundry list of screw ups, breakdowns, and bursts of theatricality that border on megalomania — all of it echoed by his revolving door of costumed identities and insecurities. This was not unusual for Marvel in the 60s as the company was getting its feet under it; making superheroes with neurosis and extremely obvious flaws was really their bread and butter. But, somehow, for Hank, the line between endearingly fallible and insufferably unlikable was toed a bit too frequently.

Hank’s defining characteristics in his Silver Age days revolved around his need for respect and validation from his peers, a predictably on the nose quirk for a guy who’s main power was shrinking himself down and going almost unnoticed. This drive to be known as someone important and brilliant and deeply necessary drove Hank to all sorts of bizarre crossroads, each with its own name and costume change. When he was worried he wasn’t seen as strong enough compared to his Avengers teammates, he reversed his shrinking process to grow massive and changed his name to Giant-Man, and later Goliath. When he suffered an accidental, chemically induced mental break, he became the cocky Yellowjacket. You get the idea. Stability, emotional or otherwise, was never really Hank’s forte.

Things came to a head in 1981 with the now notorious Avengers #213 by Jim Shooter and Bob Hall. The comic featured Hank undergoing a “court martial” for unnecessary violence against a defeated villain and openly scheming to secretly attack the Avengers with a robot only he could defeat. In a burst of frustration, Hank seems to land a brutal backhand right on the jaw of his wife, Jan Van Dyne, all while manically babbling about how he has to save the day. It’s a pretty shocking depiction of physical and emotional spousal abuse, even by the standards of today’s comics — superhero-based or otherwise.

Strangely enough, in a 2011 blog post, Shooter revealed that the actual intent of the panel wasn’t to make it look like Hank had decked his wife in the jaw, but that Bob Hall had punched up the moment with drama that wasn’t in the script. But the clarification came much too late. The Avengers #213 incident had long since become one of Hank’s single most defining moments and, effectively nailed the coffin closed on anything even approaching likability for him. No matter what Hank did from there on out, the assumption — intentionally depicted or not — of domestic abuse followed him around like an angry spectre.

Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne in Avengers #213, Marvel Comics (1981).
Hank and Janet in the moments before he strikes her, in Avengers #213.
Jim Shooter, Bob Hall/Marvel Comics

Wait, still?

Yep. Even today, Hank Pym’s stories are pretty troubling. He may have been an upsetting guy prior to 1981, but the attack on Jan really sealed his fate: There was no redemption to be found for this particular hero, no matter what. Hank’s stories would, inevitably, always circle back to his own screw ups coming back to haunt him and, typically, he would deal with it poorly.

In 2015, Hank got a starring role in the original graphic novel Avengers: Rage of Ultron by Rick Remender and Pepe Larraz, which featured a downright disturbing look at his relationship with his creation, the supervillainous android known as Ultron, and ended with the two of them literally fusing into one entity. It was nearly martyrdom, but not quite redemptive — all Hank’s past mistakes made physical in the most brutal way.

And if literally merging with the monster he himself created weren’t driving the symbolism home hard enough, the Hank-and-Ultron fusion (nicknamed Pymtron) came back to haunt the Avengers a few times over, just to really tug on those strangely emotional heartstrings. From trying to plead his case to Jan to trying to convince his former teammates that he was definitely not actually a cybernetic puppet of Ultron’s megalomaniacal consciousness, Hank’s recent years have been a shambling horror show.

Hank Pym in Uncanny Avengers #9, Marvel Comics (2016).
Hank Pym in Uncanny Avengers #9.
Gerry Duggan, Pepe Laraz/Marvel Comics

More recently still, Pymtron’s gotten his hands on the Soul Stone, just to add more complication into the mix. Now the Pym part of Pymtron’s soul may or may not be restored and residing in the Soul World all while the Ultron part jauntily puppeteers their cybernetic monstrosity of a body. It’s messy.

All of which is to say Hank Pym isn’t a guy you’re supposed to be properly rooting for, even now. The most engaging Hank stories tended to excel at painting his mistakes into features. He’s not been designed to be a likable guy and hasn’t been for a very, very long time.

What’s the MCU doing differently?

Aside from creating a universe where Avengers #213 just flat out didn’t happen, the MCU has taken some dramatic steps in the way of rehabilitating Hank’s image — even if they’re not always obvious. Michael Douglas’ on-screen persona is certainly a jerk. He spent the entire first Ant-Man solo film waxing poetic about how his terrible, soon-to-be supervillain apprentice Darren Cross was like a son to him, all while unceremoniously shutting down his actual, biological daughter’s chances to become a superhero in her own right.

For all intents and purposes, that plotline mimicked the traditional Pym trajectory: A monster he created himself, intentionally or otherwise, becoming some sort of surrogate family member before it turns on him and drives a wedge between him and his actual loved ones. That train continued in Ant-Man and the Wasp, with the added emphasis on just how difficult and toxic Hank used to be during his time at S.H.I.E.L.D — it’s even insinuated that Hank is really the responsible party for Ant-Man and The Wasp’s anti-hero, Ghost.

So it’s not that the MCU has reconstructed Hank at the genetic level to make him more approachable in live action. In fact, it’s just the opposite: His mistakes and his ego are all still there. But rather than his pattern of self destructive behavior begin used as a nonstop source for his own personal torture, there’s been a major shift.

Hope van Dyne, Hank Pym, and Scott Lang in Ant-Man and The Wasp. Marvel Studios

Now Hank’s screw ups serve the growth of both Scott and Hope, the actual main characters, and he’s just along for the ride. Hank’s story isn’t necessarily over; he’s still got motivation and drive to progress on his own, but he’s broken free of the egomania that’s haunted him for virtually his entire comics career. The MCU isn’t about Hank Pym, and Hank Pym is pretty okay with that. It turns out that’s just the magic bullet he’s needed all along.

With Ant-Man and The Wasp, we see just how far this new road has taken him as he happily steps aside and allows Hope to take the spotlight, and Hope, in return, affords him the space for genuine redemption. By the end of the movie, it doesn’t really matter that Hank’s been a jerk in the past, because he’s a hero now, when it really counts. It feels victorious to see him return home with Jan rather than ominous. It feels celebratory to see Hank and Hope embrace, rather than frustrating. It feels like Hank’s actually grown, rather than orbited the same selfish and destructive compulsions.

Hank Pym’s redemption isn’t any less welcome for its unlikeliness. If anything, he’s proof positive of the power of adaptation over recreation: the original Ant-Man can be a good guy but, more importantly, now, in this new medium, he’s allowed to be. The Ant-Man franchise has panned for gold in the wreckage of Hank’s past and come up with a few genuinely valuable nuggets. Thanks to that, we’re able to enjoy a nearly sixty-year-old character in a completely new way.

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