Here’s a huge Ant-Man spoiler: I have virtually no idea what will happen in Ant-Man! No one outside of the Marvel Studios camp does! But last night, we got the first teaser-trailer for the upcoming superhero flick (after a preview of the teaser and a preview of the preview of the teaser, because modernity is horrible), and although it gave us scant plot information, it did offer us one big element of the movie: its tone.
And here’s my biggest takeaway from that tonal glimpse: They’ve de-fanged Henry Pym. In the teaser, we see Michael Douglas play Pym — still a supergenius inventor like his comics counterpart — as a gentle Obi-Wan Kenobi figure, calmly guiding Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang on his Hero’s Journey from common criminal to size-altering crime-fighter.
Given the power that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has in shaping the images of even the most long-standing of Marvel Comics characters, this will very likely be the new default archetype for Pym. Unless there’s some wildly different hidden personality movie-Pym possesses (which is entirely possible, given how little we know about the movie!), millions of viewers will be introduced to him as a nice, avuncular spirit-guide.
Now, as any longtime comics reader can tell you, that puts movie-Pym a looooong way off from the most infamously defining aspects of comics-Pym. In the pages of Marvel, he’s best known for being a mentally unstable fellow who got dumped by his wife after he gave her a hard smack across the face.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. Pym is one of the longest-running characters in the Marvel mythos, but nobody ever knows quite how to make him unique. Hank has never achieved the iconic status of contemporaries like Iron Man or the Hulk, but he’s been an expositional tool for comics creators to shape the contours of the Marvel universe: He was a founding member of the Avengers; he built perennial Avengers foe Ultron (the whole evilness thing was an accident); and his discovery of size-altering “Pym Particles” paved the way for all of the Marvel world’s embiggening and ensmallening heroes and villains — including himself, in his incarnations as Ant-Man, Giant-Man, and Goliath. He’s regularly hauled in as one of the Marvel universe’s biggest brains, alongside Tony Stark and Reed Richards.
But even now, 53 years after Hank Pym’s first comics appearance in Tales to Astonish No. 27, there’s only one personality trait that has truly set him apart from all other Marvel heroes: He’s occasionally prone to severe mental illness and domestic violence. From what we can tell about the tone Douglas, director Peyton Reed, and the movie’s various screenwriters have set, we’ll be getting little-to-no Pym-as-jerk in Ant-Man.
To be fair, Hank’s days as a wife-abuser and headcase are long behind him in comics continuity. Back in 1981, the character was depicted as slightly losing his marbles. He’d taken on a new costume, fighting style, and name: Yellowjacket. There was a weird bit of plot business about how Yellowjacket was a violent alter-ego brought on by a lab accident, but whatever the cause, he was experiencing some kind of dangerous mental illness. The Avengers were getting wary of how aggressive Pym was in the field, and in an effort to win back their trust, he concocted a dumb plan to secretly deploy a robot that only he could defeat (a classic trope in superhero tales). His wife Janet (a.k.a. the Wasp) tried to talk him out of it, and he gave her a big, fat slap across the face. He was kicked out of the team, as well as his marriage.
He’s since been redeemed, blah blah blah, but no one’s figured out a way to make the character truly distinctive in the Marvel pantheon. So the domestic-violence thing stuck in readers’ minds, and creators have periodically dipped into the “Pym is kinda mentally unstable” well multiple times since. (Controversial writer Mark Millar is especially fond of that trope: When he was tasked with creating an alternate-universe version of Pym, he had him get into a truly gruesome domestic fight with Janet; and when Millar wrote 2006’s Civil War miniseries, he had Pym popping pills to keep from losing his mental balance.)
The Ant-Man teaser suggests that none of that will be in play on the big screen. Hell, Janet isn’t even alive during the main events of the movie — we’re supposedly getting their daughter, someone named Hope van Dyne. None of this is to say Marvel has committed some act of betrayal against a fan-favorite character. Few readers (or, for that matter, writers) have a deep loyalty to Pym, much less to his troubled history. Indeed, other than making him old, movie-Pym isn’t lightyears away from the mild-mannered Hank we’ve seen in much of his comics history. In fact, this could be a fascinating new take on the character: Why not take a bland, hard-to-make-compelling character and turn him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Obi-Wan?
By contrast, the teaser suggests Paul Rudd will be playing Scott Lang in a manner very similar to the character’s comics archetype. As in the comics, this Lang appears to be a criminal with a heart of gold and a beloved daughter, who becomes Ant-Man only after getting the necessary tech from Pym (in the comics, he initially stole it; who knows what the exact circumstances will be in theaters).
If this new take on Hank Pym catches on, Marvel will no doubt feel pressure to put the comics version of the character in thematic sync with his movie identity (that kind of retconning has been happening a fair amount lately, what with Marvel seemingly making Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch into non-mutants ahead of their non-mutant identities in Avengers: Age of Ultron). Maybe we’ll find out the Pym we’ve seen on the page has been a robot impostor, and that the real Pym is an aging fellow who’s been hiding in the shadows. This is comics, so the usual rules of consistency don’t apply.