The Ant-Man Menace: Why Michael Douglas Makes Me Nervous About Marvel Movies [Opinion]
Marvel Studios unveiled surely its strangest casting decision to date this week when it announced that Michael Douglas will play the role of Hank Pym in 2015's Ant-Man movie. Marvel also confirmed that the already announced Paul Rudd will take the role of Scott Lang, the second man to don the Ant-Man helmet.
The announcement was a surprise that elicited a Batfleck-esque response from some of the intended audience - myself included. Something about Douglas-as-Pym didn't sit right with me. Was this an irrational reflex, or is there a reason this casting set alarm bells ringing?
Michael Douglas is not the first venerable (i.e. old and award-winning) actor to be cast in a Marvel movie. Robert Redford appears in this spring's Captain America sequel, and Glenn Close plays a Nova Corps bigwig in summer's Guardians of the Galaxy. We've yet to see either performance, but it seems unlikely that they'll disappoint.
Douglas is the first older actor to be cast as one of Marvel's heroes, but his age isn't the issue. Or, rather, it clearly is an issue - he's only being cast in the role because the younger and more studly Paul Rudd is in the movie as the more plausible leading man - but it isn't my issue. I'd love to see a Marvel movie about a pensionable hero!
My issue is that Douglas is playing Pym and Rudd is playing Ant-Man. My issue is that Hank Pym has been relegated from his own story.
There's ample speculation that the movie will play on Scott Lang's origin story; Lang stole the Ant-Man tech from Pym to get help for his ailing daughter, Cassie. It's a perfectly good set-up, and one that already has some Young Avengers fans excited that one of the characters from that series (Cassie Lang, aka Stature) may show up in Marvel's cinematic universe. A father-daughter story would be a welcome change of pace for a superhero movie. Yet Scott Lang's origin is also a story that came almost two decades into Hank Pym's career as a hero.
The movie may play on that -- Douglas's Pym could be a retired superhero -- but the focus of the movie will obviously be on Rudd as Lang.
There are four things most superhero fans associate with Hank Pym. One; he's a superhero and an Avenger. Two; he created Ultron. Three; he's the on-and-off partner of Janet Van Dyne, aka the Wasp. And four... well, we'll get to four in a moment.
All three of those details seem to be off the table. Scott Lang is the lead, and surely the potential Avenger of the two Ant-Men. We also know from no less an authority than Joss Whedon that Pym will not play a part in the creation of Ultron in Whedon's Avengers sequel, The Avengers: Age of Ultron. As for the romantic partnership with Janet Van Dyne; that's now rife with problems. If the movie gives us an older Janet, she also likely won't be an Avenger. A younger Janet would pander to the worst Hollywood clichés about older men and younger women. A Janet Van Dyne/Scott Lang romance reduces the character to a plug-and-play love interest for the nearest hero in a helmet. Worst of all, there could be no Janet, and yet another female Marvel hero is cast into oblivion.
No Ultron; no Avengers; no Janet. The movie version of Hank Pym lacks almost everything that defines the character.
That's why my alarm bells rang when Douglas was cast as Pym. Up until now, Marvel Studios has been very good about respecting Marvel Comics' source material. It's one of the studio's great strengths. Outside of Marvel, superhero movies often seem ashamed of their roots - keeping characters out of costume, for example, or refusing to use their names, or expositing convoluted context around every aspect of a character's appearance from bat ears to the Batmobile. Some superhero movies want to mock the source material. With a movie like Green Lantern there's a palpable sense that the makers thought the comics weren't good enough to be worth sticking with. They were raided for parts and discarded. I get that sense again with Ant-Man.
Marvel Studios has never been like that. Marvel movies update the comics, but strain to stay true to them. They're stronger and more enjoyable movies because of it. Even when they really have to work to incorporate an element, like Captain America's original costume, they do it with wit and affection. Marvel Studios movies are never insincere or apologetic.
The wholesale plundering of Hank Pym for parts - Ultron, Ant-Man, his relationship with Janet - marks the first time Marvel has shown this sort of disregard for one of its characters. Sure, Hank Pym isn't a big name character, but all the big name characters are accounted for. 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.
There is of course still the question of that fourth thing that most superhero fans know about Hank Pym. Pym is a domestic abuser. In a notorious scene in Avengers #213 (1981) by Jim Shooter and Bob Hall, Pym viciously struck his then-wife Janet. This was part of a story in which Pym suffered a mental breakdown, but that context does not alleviate the problem of presenting a character as both a superhero and a wife-beater. Maybe that's why Pym can't be the hero of the Ant-Man movie; because he's toxic. But if that's the case, shouldn't he also be too toxic for the comics audience? Doesn't this decision also reflect a disregard for the source material?
I'm probably overreacting, of course. The Ant-Man movie is in the hands of director Edgar Wright and writer Joe Cornish, whose movies range from good to great. Paul Rudd is an incredibly affable lead. Marvel Studios has such a sparkling track record that we've almost forgotten Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk. The decision to dilute Hank Pym may be unique to that one character.
Yet the Marvel movies have been such a good ride so far that I can't help be nervous. When Marvel Studios was on the rise, it paid respect to the comics in a way that made for great movies. Now Marvel Studios is a powerhouse, 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.
I want Marvel to keep making movies that are fun and exciting and proud of their roots. I want Marvel to make mine Marvel.