As I’m sure most of you are already aware, the long-rumored/awaited/teased/hinted/more-blatantly-hinted Ant-Man movie finally has a release date. When I read the announcement of this momentous news (well, momentous to me at least, but I’m a pretty big Edgar Wright fan) on io9, one of the things I noticed was that a frequent commenter here also made a comment there. “Oh good,” they said, “the wife-beater is finally getting his own movie.”
It probably says something about my comics nerdishness that my first thought was, “Fifth, actually. But the latest Spider-Man sequel has been in the cards for a while now.”
At first, that was really my only thought on the subject. But the more I thought about it, the more it started to nag at me. Because Spider-Man is every bit as much of a wife-beater as Hank Pym. Heck, he’s worse; during the Clone Saga, he smacked around a pregnant Mary Jane. He didn’t just hit his wife, he hit his pregnant wife. That is, generally speaking, considered to be one of the worst things you can do as a human being short of stomping on baby ducks, but nobody ever mentions it again. Certainly you don’t have prominent comics creators stating that they can never write him as a sympathetic character because he beat his wife, as was said about Pym (I want to say by Mark Millar, but it could have been Bendis. I suspect that whichever one I delete from this sentence will turn out to be the correct one, so I’ll leave them both here and ensure that it was actually Paul Jenkins or somebody.) It’s something that gets swept under the rug by writers and editors alike. (Although not by fans…I’m far from the first to point out the double-standard here.)
This isn’t to say that people should get over Hank’s actions and start liking the character or anything. The comment on io9 was totally valid. I’m certainly the last person to talk, seeing as how I haven’t been able to read a Batman comic ever since he used Brother Eye to murder a few thousand people and I still can’t stand Tony Stark, Iron Douchebag in the wake of ‘Civil War’, despite being explicitly told by Marvel’s editorial staff that his brain has been rebooted and I should just forgot he did all that imprisoning and murdering. So yeah, I can totally get how some fans can’t really get past Hank Pym slapping his wife around for trying to stop him from creating a killer robot to defeat all the Avengers to make him look good. (Because that couldn’t possibly go wrong.) Especially since ‘The Ultimates’ pretty much wrote a version of the character who’s unrepentantly abusive. But I wonder why the writers who’ve handled the character can’t get past it.
Because again, Spider-Man provides a clear alternative. As far as everyone who’s written the character since has been concerned, that happened when Peter was under a tremendous amount of mental strain and Mary Jane forgave him right away and there’s no need for anyone to even mention it again. Hank was under a tremendous amount of strain, Jan forgave him…well, eventually…but every story arc comes back to “Hank Pym redeems himself for being a wife-beater and puts it behind him for good! …until the next time he feels terrible about it.” Everyone wants to write the redemption arc, but nobody seems to want to write the post-redemption arcs.
I think the difference comes down, ultimately, to the fact that Hank Pym never really had a defining arc until his nervous breakdown. Peter has had several (the Master Planner, Spider-Man No More, the death of the Green Goblin) and writers can always go back to these big moments when they need an iconic Spidey story and they’re out of ideas. (…which is why it sometimes seems like Peter quits being Spider-Man “for good” every three weeks, but I digress.) Whereas Pym…his two big moments are his going insane and inventing a whole new identity, and his going insane and assaulting his wife and friends. And Number Three on the list is his going insane and creating a killer robot that’s committed genocide a few times. It’s hard not to think of this as the defining trait of the character, unless you want to go really far back and do an amped-up, iconic storyarc where his arch-nemesis tries to bribe his ants with sugar cubes to betray him.
(That really happened. He triumphed because the ants refused to betray him due to their inherent loyalty. I’m not sure which is sadder, commencing your criminal career by kneeling in front of an anthill with a handful of sugar cubes and an “ant language translator”, or being suckered by ants.)
The point is, the most attractive arc for any potential Ant-Man writer in comics is the redemption arc. It’s the definitive Hank Pym arc in a way that it’s not the definitive Spider-Man arc, and it’s got a lot of power because it’s so archetypal. Which is why Marvel keeps going back to that well, time and time again, despite the fact that his original sin happened well before many of his readers and some of his writers were born. And with every new repetition of the cycle, it becomes more inescapable, because every Hank Pym story becomes about his attacking his wife…which makes him “the character who beat his wife”…which a new writer addresses with another redemption arc…which causes the next writer to feel like they have to address the wife-beating issue before moving on, because he’s such an important character and he’s mostly known for attacking his wife. The only real way off the treadmill is to completely reboot the character in a whole different medium, away from the legacy created by the Avengers storyline so that the next writer won’t know all that history to begin with.
Which we may yet see in a few years, when the Ant-Man movie comes out. We’ll find out then whether Hank Pym has any other stories to tell.