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The universal size of Ant-Man

December 17, 2015

Either a movie poster or a wedding program.
When the youngest of my wife’s three brothers married this summer, the day after the wedding was of all the days we spent in Charlotte the return to normalcy after days of climactic ritual which changed the topography of the families (for the better I should add). On this day, we woke late, attended an informal brunch, said good byes, returned tuxedos, talked about things to do, did little, and hung out for one more day with very little to do. Most of the talk centered around remembering the wedding that for so long had loomed as a large event in the future, but now loomed as a large event in the past. Somewhere in this Sunday of doing little but saying much, we debated whether or not to see Ant-Man (2015).

This happened once again at Thanksgiving. An event loomed on the calendar. We traveled north from Virginia to Massachusetts. We ate turkey and practiced traditions. We played football. We talked. We did nothing. And somewhere in this we attempted to watch Ant-Man, but, once again, did not. Last week, my wife and I finally saw Ant-Man. Feel free to hold your applause, but, by all means, feel free to silently recognize our perseverance.

Anyway, I bring you this long and meaningless introduction because I feel it demonstrates to some extent the simultaneous triumph and failures of the Marvel franchise: all of its epic rituals collapse into anti-climactic previews that promise the true climax is just around the corner, when, in truth, it is not.

Holes in the sky over Manhattan? Thanos and his infinity rings? Asgard’s pending destruction? A machine seeking the destruction of humanity in pursuit of a human ideal? Countless iron suits? More heroes? More villains? More science? More mystery? More indestructible weapons that can be used either for good or bad? With astonishing ease, the franchise brushes aside the most recent wreckage to promise more wreckage on the horizon. These are apocalypses within apocalypses and therefore, none of them are quite apocalyptic. Instead, they are the surviving scraps of everyday life.  

In the typical Marvel battle, Ant-Man is the Waldo.

I probably sound like I’m complaining. I’m not. I actually find all of this post-structural unraveling of worlds pretty cool and inspiring. And, accordingly, I can imagine Stan Lee and Joss Whedon as college football coaches telling all of us, “Great work, boys, but today’s game belongs to yesterday—we’ve got a new opponent next week—what will you do between now and then to beat him?”

But I also can’t help in noticing how the Marvel Universe spirals out into the cosmos with some sense of denial about its own plot arcs or lack thereof: These films want to pretend, despite evidence to the contrary, that a final clash between everything good and evil does exist in the epic sense of all-or-nothing politics.

And, moreover, this grand myth-making borders on the verge of propaganda. For example, when Quicksilver dies in the second Avengers film, death becomes not something to mourn but some sort of vain recruitment device as Hawkeye explains how to be an Avenger requires nothing more than effort—and a belief that the apocalypse is nigh.

I say vain because so much of the Avenger ethos is a fraternity-bred elitism that voices itself in a James Franco-like childishness: “They hate us because they ain’t us!” The Avengers, after all, unlike the X-Men or even the Guardians of the Galaxy, are the elites who feel persecuted rather than the persecuted proving themselves elite. To some degree, this ethos is probably why the Avengers are more effective when governed by the embattled experiences of Captain America rather than the egotistical drive of Iron Man, for the former remembers the pain of broken promises and the latter thinks only in terms of a future that can be bettered. One is more restrained than the other, and the other is simply reckless.

Ant-Man, however, is something else. After all, while every other Avenger has been shaped by a skill or talent that is highly praised, Scott Lang’s only real skill has been the act of thievery (even it if has been put to good use). Unlike Captain America, he is more Edward Snowden than Thomas Paine patriotism. His Paul Rudd humor is much more understated than Robert Downey Junior’s motor-mouthed Tony Stark. And, as his name suggests, Ant-Man is somewhat the antithesis of both Thor’s mighty bloodline as well as the Hulk’s unleashed brawn.

The world entire.
The Avenger films rely on the audience already knowing all the heroes. They are the place for neither characterization nor backstory. But, since the Hulk has no film narrative independent of the team huddle, the franchise must gesture towards some green sentiment that makes Bruce Banner into an actual character. And yet he’s the incredible fucking Hulk, which means pathos is always a bruised and battered CGI thing in the Avenger films that are more digital monstrosity than ensemble movie-making.

Ant-Man, however, by virtue of its protagonist’s suit-enabled shrinking abilities, works in the opposite direction. Where the tendency in superhero films is to go large, Ant-Man goes small. If the fight in the bedroom doesn’t mean much of anything in the grand scheme of things, it means everything in the scheme of one little girl’s bedroom  

The film’s climactic battle scene takes place on a table-top full of toys. The train tracks and buildings are all in miniature. When the camera captures the action in tight, everything appears of great consequence. Scott Lang is in for the fight of his life and everything from his daughter to the fate of the world appears at stake.

When the camera creates distance, a plastic train lands on the window sill with a muted clatter and everything at stake appears as nothing at all. When the film runs away with these combustible perspectives and sizes, what takes place is the most interesting fight scene in the wide Marvel Universe. A toy train car explodes into a real-sized car and bursts through the roof and into the yard. Or an ant’s body grows as large as a dog’s and invades the neighborhood like something out of B-movie science fiction.

All this shrinking and growing is explained by the science of Ant-Man’s suit, an invention of Dr. Hank Pym, but what’s really taking place is an act of imagination. Children relate because they do this. Adults relate because they remember having done this. The film makes them do this together. And the result is something akin to seeing Robin Williams’ Peter Pan in Hook (1991) reaching for his daughter’s hand while all that separates them is the width of Andy’s bed in Toy Story (1995). In other words everything and nothing—or the space of Interstellar (2014)is all that exists between the generations.

I find this last comparison the most intriguing because Christopher Nolan’s last venture into science-fiction received so much criticism for its lack of real science. But, when Ant-Man enters the quantum zone, no one asks how did he arrive behind that bookshelf or how did love save him. Instead, he meddles with some contraption that is but a figment in our imaginations and back into the world he crashes. It’s astonishing what an Ant-Man suit can get away with, isn’t it?

"Ant-Man? No, I'm the true detective. Have you seen my daughter? I'm looking for my daughter."

Or, in the least, it’s astonishing how such a movie can fill the time between real life climaxes—the weddings and the feasts and the births and the deaths—that surround us all and are nothing. 

Bryan Harvey tweets sometimes @LawnChairBoys.


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