clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ant-Man: A brief history of Marvel's most important third-string hero

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Ant-Man is the superhero no one really wants to be.

If you were to hold a draft of Marvel's pantheon of heroes, Ant-Man might be a late third-round pick. His size-shifting capabilities (as his name implies, he can shrink himself to the stature of an ant) and genius wouldn't get you very far in a fight against supervillains, and if you're looking for a hero with the ability to communicate with his or her namesake animal, there are more adorable characters like Squirrel Girl.

Yet somehow Ant-Man is still important, and it's all thanks to his failure.

The fumes from this man's numerous crash-and-burn attempts to become the greatest could — and did — fill hundreds of issues of Marvel comic books. And though there have been multiple attempts to rewrite his history and bestow his title upon other characters, Ant-Man's existence always comes back to one unique truth: He's a third-string hero who's seemingly destined to fail, and he will do everything in his power to avoid that fate. On a team full of heroes who have valiance in their blood and greatness in their nature, Ant-Man stands out because he doesn't have those things.

Several men have become Ant-Man

Four versions of Ant-Man have existed throughout Marvel's history, starting with Henry "Hank" Pym in 1962. These men, including Pym, have been incorporated into some of Marvel's most iconic stories; various incarnations of Ant-Man have been involved in the creation of Ultron, maintained a rough relationship with a superheroine known as the Wasp, and died one of Marvel's most iconic deaths. But even still, Ant-Man certainly isn't indispensable. Ultron, for example, has already made his way to the big screen without Ant-Man, proving that the Marvel Cinematic Universe can survive without him.

What's more, the lives of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and the second Ant-Man, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) — the two Ant-Men at the center of the character's eponymous 2015 film — couldn't be more different. Their origin stories are deeply at odds: One lets his failures affect his family, while the other can't afford to fail because his family's survival depends on him. The process of deciding which Ant-Man's story to tell, which Ant-Man to bring to life, could be a movie on its own.

The original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, was a tragic figure — and definitely not a cookie-cutter "hero"

The new Ant-Man film's single biggest deviation from Marvel's Ant-Man comics is that it focuses on Scott Lang as Ant-Man. In the comics, when purists talk about Ant-Man, they're usually referring to Hank Pym, the first man to carry the title. Pym was an original Avenger, an integral force in Avengers history, and a deeply flawed genius with a flair for robotics.

But he wasn't a traditional hero.

Right from his start in 1962, Pym was one of Marvel's most troubled superheroes. His signature superpower — changing his size — wasn't as flashy as that of Thor or Iron Man. Even though he was brilliant, his intelligence wasn't as revered as Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic's. And his story is one of constant failure and his attempts to fix that failure. Pym's greatest creation, the most sophisticated artificial intelligence that the Marvel Universe has ever seen, turns out to be Ultron — one of the Avengers' most enduring foes.


"His history was largely a litany of failure, always changing guises and switching back and forth from research to hero-ing because he wasn't succeeding at either," Jim Shooter, a former editor-in-chief at Marvel, wrote on his website, explaining Pym's shortcomings. "He was never the Avenger who saved the day at the end and usually the first knocked out or captured."

Having a hero fail — and fail miserably, as Pym did — would actually make for an interesting story that cuts against the grain of Marvel's overachieving superheroes. Success doesn't come easy to him, and the solutions he comes up with to fix his problems typically involve more problems, like more shitty, uber-powerful robots. Pair that with a supergroup full of heroes who ostensibly can do no wrong, and the result is a superhero who's psychologically brittle.

One of Hank Pym's most defining characteristics is his rocky relationship with his wife, which included domestic abuse

It was only a matter of time before Pym's on-again, off-again love interest and spouse, the Wasp (a.k.a. Janet van Dyne), became a target of his frustrations — a dynamic we don't often see in comic books:

Avengers No. 1. (Marvel)

It's difficult to encapsulate the 50 years of comic book stories Ant-Man and the Wasp ultimately shared, but the bottom line is that Ant-Man's writers and artists weren't afraid to show the couple's relationship going sour. The Wasp was generally loved, and she was a successful superhero — a constant reminder to Pym of how underwhelming he was. That led to rough patches for the pair, with the Wasp serving as a voice of reason and Pym playing the role of hardheaded challenger and going against her clear thinking.

The moment that ultimately came to represent their relationship and Pym's history occurred in Avengers No. 213, when Pym hit his wife:

Avengers No. 213. (Marvel)

This moment is one of the ugliest in Marvel history. Pym, who at the time is going by the codename Yellow Jacket, is being punished by the Avengers and comes up with an utterly idiotic scheme — it's made clear that he's under extreme duress — to create a robot that only he can defeat. He wants to sic it against the Avengers, step in to save the day, and regain their trust. And the Wasp, who doesn't suffer from the same dumbness as her husband, is not about to agree to such a garbage plan.

The panels leading up to the slap are disturbing, as the robot Pym has created begins to hurt the Wasp. Seeing his wife in pain gives Pym a maniacal thrill:

Avengers No. 213. (Marvel)

It's nearly impossible to separate Pym from this event. Thus, it's easy to see why Marvel wouldn't want to fully incorporate Pym into its contemporary movies, even though he and his wife were founding and crucial members of the Avengers. And that's a large part of why Ant-Man concentrates more on the second Ant-Man, Scott Lang, and depicts Pym as an old man: It puts the spotlight on Lang and minimizes Pym's personal story.

Why the sidelining of Hank Pym is a bad sign for some comics fans

Some people feel the Marvel Cinematic Universe has pretty much gutted Pym's story from the comics, salvaged the best parts (Ultron!), and brought a ghost of the original Ant-Man to the screen. That's worrisome to critics who believe that giving the character his own film could be part of Marvel's strategy to create more complicated and less heroic heroes.

"If this is how Marvel plans to approach the rest of its catalogue, it’s a very different treatment from the one that gave us faithful versions of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America," Andrew Wheeler wrote at Comics Alliance in 2014. "I worry that doubt has set in, and the studio will make movies that sneer at the comics rather than honoring them. Those aren’t the superhero movies I enjoy."

The second Ant-Man, Scott Lang, is a much safer box office bet

The first time we meet Scott Lang is in Avengers No. 181 (1979), a story that actually begins with two superheroes, Beast and Wonderman, watching a movie and commenting about how the public sees heroes and superheroes. The two pay a visit to the Avengers mansion, where they're attacked by a wayward security system:

Avengers No. 181. (Marvel)

They soon learn that the security "upgrades" were instituted by an employee of Tony Stark named Scott Lang:

Avengers No. 181. (Marvel)

Initially, we don't know much about Lang other than that he's a bit of a genius when it comes to electronics. He's someone Stark trusts, but it's not clear how he and Stark know each other, or how Lang attained such a masterful knowledge of computer systems. But in Marvel Premiere No. 47 and 48 (1979), we find out that Lang's spent time in jail for theft, which he committed while trying to support his family. Stark sees promise in Lang and hires him, but Lang ultimately reverts to his life of crime because his daughter has a heart condition and he can't afford the treatment she needs:

Marvel Premiere No. 47. (Marvel via Overmental)

Through a convoluted plot, Lang steals Pym's Ant-Man armor and attains the ability to change his size, communicate with ants, and eventually save the doctor who can help his daughter. At that point, Pym — who's actually been watching Lang the whole time — says Lang can keep the armor, so long as he continues to use it for good:

Marvel Premiere no. 48

Marvel Premiere No. 48. (Marvel via Overmental)

While Pym's legacy is marred by domestic abuse and a litany of failures, Lang's is built on the expectation that even if he doesn't always behave like a model citizen, he'll do anything for his family. In that sense, Lang is quite an atypical Marvel character, too.

His greatest worry — that something bad might happen to his daughter — is more intimate than Tony Stark's fear of global war, more grounded than Thor's quest to be honorable, and more realized than Captain America and Black Widow's different but shared internalization of feeling out of place. Given Marvel's stable of other heroes, it's likely they all want to save humanity. But with Lang, you get the idea that he'd be willing to risk humanity to save his daughter. Consequently, while he may not have the tragedy and toxicity of Pym, he still brings something unique to the Avengers.

Ant-Man is actually a terrible subject for a superhero film

Shrinking and talking to ants aren't exactly the most desirable of superpowers. Ant-Man's skill set ranks far below flying, invisibility, and telekinesis; indeed, it barely registers above the unique ability boasted by Snot, a mutant with the ability to produce copious amounts of mucus. There are plenty of other Avengers (She-Hulk, Moon Knight, Spectrum, Luke Cage, Nova, Valkyrie, etc.) whose powers and personalities would make for much more scintillating movies.

Marvel's executives knew this, but ultimately, the character's lack of flashiness didn't matter because Ant-Man got its start as one of Stan Lee's pet projects. In Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Howe explains that Lee just wouldn't stop pitching a film based on the character, who was one of his favorites. As William Rabkin, a script evaluator for New World entertainment — the company that bought Marvel in 1986 — told Howe:

Stan Lee loved Ant-Man beyond all reason, and nobody ever gave a damn … He was always on about Ant-Man; he wanted an Ant-Man script in the worst way. I had been arguing against Ant-Man because, let’s face it, he can shrink down, go through a keyhole, and look at secret papers in a desk drawer and that’s it. It’s pretty boring.

Rabkin isn't wrong. When your canon also features anthropomorphic raccoons who traverse space with talking trees, Eastern European twins blessed with super speed and telekinesis, and a demigod who can control the weather, a guy who can make himself tiny doesn't seem all that spectacular. As Howe explains, the first iteration of an Ant-Man movie was developed 26 years ago, around 1989, and only came about because executives thought they could beat Disney to the punch of a shrinking story:

"Lee said, "We were just talking about Ant-Man!"

"What’s that?"

"He can shrink down like . . . this!"

Rehme thought for a minute. Disney was about to make Teenie Weenies. If New World rushed Ant-Man into production, no one would ever know who had the idea first.

"That’s brilliant!" Rehme said.

Vroop! He was out of the room, and Ant-Man went into development. Teenie Weenies was eventually released as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids."

Making Ant-Man in an attempt to corner the Honey I Shrunk the Kids market sounds like one of Hank Pym's more harebrained ideas. And considering the complications regarding Pym, Ant-Man's lackluster abilities, and a smaller, familial setting, there are more reasons not to make an Ant-Man movie than there are to make one.

Yet here we are, 26 years or so after those initial pitches, with a Marvel blockbuster gamble built on a broken, tiny man, who has no business starring in his own movie. The character isn't a one-off. He'll impact the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with an appearance in Captain America: Civil War, and he may even show up in Infinity War, Marvel's two-part grand finale. Ant-Man will also push Marvel in a new direction, as it's more of a comedic heist movie than one about a world that needs saving. So much for starting small.

Ant-Man isn't the hero we need right now, or one that we particularly want. But just like the Ant-Man of the comics, he'll be integral to Marvel's master plan — whether he deserves to be or not.