Films reflect the way we think about the world. A magician’s trick works by making us think everything is normal up until the unbelievable reveal. If the entire trick is unbelievable, we notice the cracks and the deception. Similarly, we look to films to see what people will accept as normal and believable, and how people respond to the unbelievable reveal.
In Ant-Man, the unbelievable reveal is that there’s a superhero who can shrink at will to fight various human-sized people. In this respect, the film is frabjously fun. Fights take place on two scales: one at the ordinary level and the other at a tiny level. A Thomas the Tank Engine playset becomes an arena for an epic fight between two miniscule adversaries.
Go see this film. Even if you don’t like superhero films, this is such a treat. It shows that Marvel can create films that take place within an epic multi-film universe without having to rely on audiences developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of it. Films are good not because they add to a series, but because they are enjoyable in their own right.
But it’s the rest of the magic trick that worries me. Let’s wear our Hats of Spoilage and venture into what audiences will accept as normal.
Michael Douglas is a scientist who doesn’t like authority. This makes him the modern American hero: the only thing that matters is facts, none of the rules apply to him because he’s in possession of more facts than anybody else, laws and authority exist for stupid people only. In this, Douglas is the soft NRA-supporter with a university degree. He understands that other people shouldn’t be allowed to have guns, but he’s smart enough to be responsible and that’s what really counts.
Into this world steps Paul Rudd, who is an electrical engineer who also thinks that rules are optional for smart people. He has just got out of prison for robbing somebody who was robbing somebody else… or something. There’s a Robin Hood thing going on, and Paul Rudd went to jail for his crimes even though people see him as a bit of a hero.
So Douglas and Rudd team up. Back in the 1980s, Douglas has invented some magical goo that makes people turn teeny tiny. Instead of going all Reducto on everybody (which is what I would do), Douglas became a superhero to fight against communism. He didn’t trust anybody else (including the people who paid his bills) to have the shrinking goo, so he quit and became a recluse.
It turns out that somebody else is, in 2015, on the verge of cracking the secret of making the shrinking goo. This upsets Douglas and he sends Rudd to destroy the competing goo.
Make no mistake: Douglas is the villain of the film. He hates competition and he is destroying everybody else’s attempt to achieve their goals. Rudd is the instrument of his industrial sabotage for no other reason than Douglas thinks he is the only one who should have shrinking goo. Douglas is a corporate villain.
Despite this, the audience happily accepts Douglas and Rudd as heroes but it is unclear why. To what extent are we conditioned, as a group, to excuse the behaviour of people because they’re on our ‘team’? Are Douglas and Rudd getting away with violent, criminal acts simply because we have been told that they’re the heroes? Rudd belongs in jail and get we cheer when Douglas breaks him out. Douglas had a variety of lawful ways to prevent the threat of other people getting his technology, but he was too much of a lone wolf so now he has to resort to breaking and entering.
By and large, individuals don’t actually have their own thoughts. Thoughts are provided to us through language, providing a short hand for extremely complex concepts. Ant-Man reinforces an all too common idea that laws shouldn’t apply to us if we are good people. The State exists as an optional extra to police other people if they transcend moral norms. It’s a message that we are seeing repeated over and over again in these comic book films, and audiences love it. Is it the sort of message that we want proliferating in society?