Creepy Crawly

A review of Ant-Man
by Alvin G. Burstein

Dr. Pym is a scientist who has developed a secret particle that makes objects shrink by reducing inter-molecular space. Because, like atomic weaponry, the discovery will change the nature of warfare in frighteningly unpredictable ways, he guards the secret. A one-time protégé, Dr. Cross (double?), has ousted Pym from control of the latter’s company, and is seeking to discover the secret and sell it to the highest bidder for rewards that are more than financial, they involve world domination. Because of his age Dr. Pym is no longer able to utilize his discovery; he cannot himself become the Ant-Man. So Pym recruits a convicted burglar, Scott Lang, to work with him and his gorgeous daughter, Hope.

Scott is to don the Ant-Man suit, learn to master its potential—augmented by a crash course in martial arts taught by Hope—with the aim of frustrating Cross’s nefarious scheme. That need is critical because Cross has succeeded in developing an anti-super hero: The Yellow Jacket, and is about to close his megalomaniacal deal.

Scott, desperately trying to go straight in order to restore his relationship to his almost too adorable pre-school daughter, is manipulated into the illegalities required to foil Cross. He is aided in his efforts by a Keystone Kops crew of unreformed felons and hordes of Formicae. There are predictably breathtaking battles, hair-breadth escapes and nods to other Marvel comics super-heroes.

Thinking of this film in terms of genre is interesting. In an Aristotelian sense the film is a comedy. The important characters invite us to feel superior, to look down on them. Scott is a crook, his fellow crooks are bumblers, Pym is enfeebled by age, Cross is corrupt.

The audience laughs as Scott fumbles through his Ant-Man training; when Cross meets his doom, we feel smug satisfaction, not the surge of pity and fear occasioned by tragedy visited upon those we admire.

The emotional catharsis, the psychological release, provided by Ant-Man is more related to schadenfreude, feeling superior in the context of misfortune involving someone else. That seems an ironic twist in a tale devoted, not just to heroes, but to heroes in spades, super-heroes.

The film is visually impressive, and has a self-mocking humor that Paul Rudd, playing Scott, demonstrated mastery of in his earlier parodic effort, The Interview. Unlike the protagonist in that film, a spoof about North Korea’s Great Leader, here Scott also shows a lovable side in his devotion to his daughter and in his loyalty to Pym.

And he gets the girl.

An audience looking for dazzling special effects and inside humor will enjoy this film. I found it a bit frothy. It leaves some sci-fi intricacies of internal space underutilized, and some questions of human/non-human differences unexplored. I was struck by the irony of super-hero being an Ant-man while the ants in the film function as servants, slaves to their human master.

From a psychodynamic point of view, Ant-Man’s heroics have an essential psychological hollowness, a weakness of other members of the super-hero genre. After all, super-heroes are inherently implausible.

Self psychology argues for the gradual de-idealization of the parental imago—our first omnipotent, omniscient super-hero figure—into an important element of the self: the ability to admire mentors, to look up to figures that help shape our aspirations. As we mature, the capacity for realistic admiration, can link to healthy self-esteem, the outcome of developmentally tamed infantile self-centeredness. Looking up to others and healthy self-esteem, in tandem fuel valuable activities, actions aimed at important contributions to the well-being of others, and to human culture.

Super-heroes may furnish material for primitive fantasy; they fail to constructively shape our being, to help us become our best selves.

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