John McNaughton has been directing films for 30 years, starting with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and including The Borrower, Mad Dog and Glory, Wild Things, and most recently, The Harvest.
After seeing Ant-Man and considering how one might write about it, it occurred to me that you cannot consider the film solely on its own merits but must take into account the entire Marvel multiverse and the place it occupies within that creation.
The Marvel/Disney juggernaut has passed beyond the accepted traditions of cinematic creation and distribution into something new wherein the individual films are parts of a greater whole, both artistically and commercially; an occupying cultural force deployed to every corner of the earth, much more likely to achieve global dominance than any military force could ever hope to.
So it is interesting that even a minor character in the Marvel Universe such as Ant-Man can become a major world pop-culture icon for his inclusion in the overall Marvel cosmos.
Ant-Man would seem to be a moment of introspection mixed with comic relief – “a palate cleanser,” to quote its director, Peyton Reed – taking a pause to turn inward, all the way down to the subatomic level, so as to get our bearings; to think about who and where we are at this cultural moment before plunging back into the enormity of the Marvel galaxy quest.
Reed’s film is about home and family, and is perhaps a look back at what it used to be like to be human and small as opposed to superheroic and huge. A key theme of the story is the father-daughter relationship, which is doubled here with both Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang/Ant-Man and his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), and Lang’s protégé Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly). When examining father-daughter relationships, one can’t help but contemplate the Greek ur-myth of Agamemnon and Iphigenia, in which Agamemnon is told by that in order to appease the god Artemis and gain favorable conditions for his conquest of Troy he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, which he does. At the end of Ant-Man, we see the Wasp suit Hank has prepared for Hope. Is this a letting go of his overly protective stance or perhaps a prelude to her sacrifice?
It’s for the masters of Marvel to decide, as they certainly intend a sequel; it will be interesting to see if they continue in the rather light-hearted vein of this first installment or become more serious and somber. Personally, I would love to see Michael Douglas cross over to the dark side. He’s certainly got the chops and the gravitas to become a complex and conflicted super villain in the mold of Agamemnon himself.
The Marvel multiverse has become so all-encompassing and powerful that to be cast in one of the films is now a pinnacle assignment for the most popular and prominent of today’s actors and means a level of visibility and success that is in a realm above all else. So much so that a monster talent such as Robert Downey Jr. seems to have found his permanent and ultimate role in Tony Stark and appears these days to bother with little else.
Ant-Man is beautifully cast. The actors are perfectly matched to the archetypal requirements of the characters they play. The film provides a sort of comfortable resting place within the Marvel franchise where all expectations are fulfilled, with few if any surprises in preparation for the move into Phase 3 of the Marvel master plan to dominate the entertainment universe.
Marvel has created a contemporary mythology not unlike what the Greeks created some thousands of years ago, except this one is embodied by state-of-the-art motion picture technology and disseminated to the world through the reach and might of Disney marketing, merchandising and distribution. It is an entire multiverse of interlocking universes populated by a concomitant cast of superheroes and villains, of which the Ant-Man story is but one small part.
With the dominance of the Marvel multiverse, the traditional idea of self-contained story and characters, intended as a depiction of life as we know it, seems to have been crushed. What does all this say for the future of movies? It appears that Marvel/Disney has become a force of cultural world domination as mighty in its way as the U.S. is as a world military superpower.
We are exporting our cultural superheroes to a world hungry to receive them. As a thought exercise, try imagining the world without Marvel/Disney and D.C./Time Warner. What cultural force currently exists to fill the vacuum that would be created?
Of course, at some future date they will be replaced. The superhero/comic-book multiverse will be supplanted by something else, something new, something we can’t as yet foresee. We are in the quintessence of a cultural moment on which we have no perspective. But it is interesting to imagine a future time when we will be able to look back at this moment and, with distance, see it for what it is, whatever that might be.
Myths tend to lose relevance over time, and thus the process of deconstruction and demythologizing begins. The old gods lose their power and new ones take their place. In pre-World War II America, the myth of the Old West was primal. White-hatted heroes battled black-hatted villains, culminating in cathartic gunfights that defined our culture and dominated our psyches. Eventually the good vs. evil clarity grayed until the bad guys became the good guys in such films as The Wild Bunch, and soon thereafter the Western all but disappeared.
To end on a personal note, it’s long been a secret desire of mine to direct a Superman movie set in the Bizarro World. I can still remember the thrill I got as a kid when I first saw this goofy subversion of the Superman myth. Throw in a few scenes with Mister Mxyzptlk and I would do it for free!