For all its spectacle and heroics, more often than not at its core the Marvel Cinematic Universe is deeply concerned with the notion of family. This search for family—and by extension, a sense of belonging and purpose—often finds its initial impetus in the complex relationships between parents and children. From the rivalry of Shakespearean proportions that springs from Loki and Thor’s quest for Odin’s approval, to Tony Stark’s tension-riddled relationship with his father, Howard, these films resonate beyond the spectacle.
The heroes of these films are flawed, and yet these imperfect individuals answer the call to be brave, to stand in the gap for those who cannot defend themselves. “Ant-Man” is arguably Marvel’s most straightforward examination to date of what drives the unlikeliest—and smallest—of individuals to rise above expectations and assume a heroic mantle of leadership.
This film is essentially a tale of two fathers and their respective quests to seek redemption for past mistakes, particularly in the eyes of their daughters. There’s Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd), a well-intentioned thief, recently released from San Quentin. He had used his technological savvy to play a modern Robin Hood and burglarize VistaCorp, his former employer, returning money stolen from clients. Scott is desperate to reconnect with his daughter Cassie (played by the adorably precocious Abby Ryder Fortson), now living with her mother, Maggie (Judy Greer), and Maggie’s fiancé, Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), a police officer. Both are wary of Scott’s avowed reformation, but agree that he can see his daughter if he gets (and keeps) a job and an apartment, and starts paying child support.
However, Scott quickly discovers that employers frown on his prison record. Desperate to become a viable presence in Cassie’s life, he turns to his old friend Luis (Michael Peña) and his associates to plan one final score, giving Scott the money he needs to re-establish his presence in Cassie’s life. Following a surefire tip, they use Scott’s expertise to break into the home of a wealthy businessman. But instead of money or jewels, the safe inside yields treasure of a different, entirely odder sort: a suit and helmet. Frustrated, Scott takes the suit anyway, then discovers there’s more to it than meets the eye: When worn and activated, the suit shrinks him to the size of an (easily squashed) ant.
Much to Scott’s chagrin, his easy score was a set-up by the homeowner, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), once a S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist who left the organization after a fall-out with Howard Stark in the 1980s, fearing his Pym Particle shrinking technology was too dangerous to be replicated and used. Hank was subsequently forced out of his own company by Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), his one-time protégé, and Hank’s estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). But now Hank and Hope have formed a tenuous alliance to stop the release of Darren’s new shrinking technology, known as Yellowjacket. Cross plans to use the Yellowjacket tech to create an army of miniaturized soldiers, capable of wreaking untraceable havoc worldwide. Scott, a master thief, is Hank’s choice to take his original Ant-Man suit out of retirement, steal Cross’s suit, and destroy the research. There’s only one problem: To succeed, Scott must learn to command his very own army of real live ants.
In Scott, Hank sees his younger self, on the verge of losing his daughter. Saving Scott’s relationship with Cassie is Hank’s penance for having shut his own daughter out after her mother’s death years earlier. Hank’s sense of guilt is compounded by the fact that his wife, Janet’s, death wasn’t the accident he told Hope it was, but a result of her using his shrinking technology in the form of a Wasp suit to stop the detonation of a nuclear missile. By shutting Hope out, believing that it was for her protection, Hank lost the most precious relationship in his life. If Scott is successful in assuming the Ant-Man identity and stopping the release of Yellowjacket technology, Hank believes that the erstwhile thief can earn the adoration he sees in Cassie’s eyes—he can become the man she already believes him to be.
So while, in typical Marvel fashion, there is a bigger mission at play here, in many respects “Ant-Man” feels like a smaller, more intimate film, a feeling only enhanced by Scott’s newfound ability to shrink and mobilize the smallest of creatures. The final battle between Ant-Man and Darren (now in the Yellowjacket suit) reinforces the concept that Scott’s character arc is about his battle to become a hero worthy of his daughter’s love and admiration. Ant-Man and Yellowjacket fight in her bedroom among her toys, wreaking particular havoc on a train set that recalls B-westerns of the 1950s, an homage perfectly in sync with the film’s overall aesthetic.
Though such violence in a supposedly safe place would scar most children (and adults) for life, within the candy-colored world of Marvel films there is something incredibly poignant in watching Scott in the fight of his life with his daughter bearing witness. Her faith in her father is completely unshakeable, and in his willingness to sacrifice himself, not only to save Cassie but to stop Yellowjacket, Scott becomes the hero Cassie has always believed him to be.
Additionally, Hank and Scott have in this film what promises to be the beginning of a strong mentor/mentee relationship. Hank’s belief in Scott endows the latter with fresh purpose and hope. In turn, Scott’s acceptance of the mantle of responsibility that comes with the Ant-Man’s powers helps break down the wall of bitterness and anger between Hank and Hope.
Anchored by the affable Paul Rudd’s everyman performance as the charming Scott, “Ant-Man” fulfills the Marvel promise of big-screen action-adventure and spectacle. But I think it is no coincidence that the smallest hero in the Marvel canon has such a big heart. Scott becomes powerful and taps into his true potential when he’s at his smallest, a reminder that “faith like a grain of mustard seed” is all that is required to move mountains (Matthew 17:20 ESV).
When faced with a great challenge, many of us are likely to experience fear and inadequacy. But those whom God calls need only remember that if He “is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31 ESV) For the smallest seed of faith—or even the smallest “insect”—can change the world.
Image copyright Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. “Ant-Man” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.
Ruth Anderson blogs at Booktalk & More.