Is Ant-Man the libertarian superhero I’ve been waiting for?
Last year, in a long piece about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I wished that:
Here’s hoping Captain America picks up his shield, puts down his gun, and becomes a conscientious objector. Superhero lore needs more independent thinkers, more skeptics, and more rebels. I’m just not counting on them from Marvel.
Who’d have thunk that Ant-Man would be the first Marvel movie where I’d see my wish fulfilled? Not me. I was skeptical of Ant-Man as a superhero movie from its announcement but ultimately, that skepticism worked for the movie. It gave the creators the freedom to play in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but not feel constrained by it.
The Ant-Man movie story begins with Scott Lang which allows the MCU to work with the rich backstory of Hank Pym and his wife Janet (the original Wasp) and how it connects Pym to Stark père, Agent Carter, S.H.I.E.L.D., and Captain America. Since we meet an older Hank Pym in Ant-Man, we can trace that legacy. Had Hank Pym been Ant-Man in this movie, it would have been too fresh a character to root in the MCU history we already know.
Ant-Man’s libertarian bona fides start immediately: in the early moments of the movie, we meet Pym confronting the 1980s version of S.H.I.E.L.D.–Howard Stark, Peggy Carter, and Mitchell Carson (who will later be introduced as working with HYDRA). In that encounter, Pym leaves S.H.I.E.L.D. who has been working behind his back to duplicate his formula for the Pym Particle. Pym understands their motives, smashes Carson’s face into the desk, and storms out. That protest opens the film and sets the tone.
When we meet Scott Lang he is being released from prison. When his friend describes Scott’s crime as “robbery,” he quickly clarifies: robbery indicates the criminal used violence to steal; he is a burglar. And while it’s intimated that he has a long history as a burglar, the crime for which he’s done time was a vigilante act against a corporation that had stolen money itself. (Scott stole millions and wired it to the victims of the corporation’s theft.)
So within fifteen minutes of the movie, we’ve met two of the protagonists and each has established himself as a non-aggressionist. Perhaps the most misunderstood tenet of libertarian political thought, the non-aggression principle is the basis for all libertarian philosophy. It is the stance that the initiation of force is unethical, that force is only ethical in self-defense. (No, libertarianism isn’t about a bunch of bearded dudes living in the woods with their guns. It’s about peaceful, voluntary associations between individuals.)
Later, when Pym is training Lang to use the suit, he lays the philosophy bare: “The suit has no weapons.” Pym’s Ant-Man is the antithesis of Iron Man–another brilliant scientist/inventor who has made billions selling weapons to governments and whose superhero identity is a fully-weaponized exoskeleton. While it appears that Pym has done well with his company Pym Technologies, he doesn’t live in the opulent luxury of Tony Stark. Such is the paycheck for pursuing peace.
The Ant-Man we meet in the movie–as Pym and Lang–is one who relies on his wits not weapons. His antagonist in the movie is Yellowjacket who, like Iron Man, is a fully-weaponized exoskeletal suit which could be worn by anyone regardless of their personal cleverness. There’s a great justice in seeing that in a Marvel movie–that nothing differentiates Yellowjacket’s Darren Cross from Iron Man’s Tony Stark. Each inherited a company he didn’t build. While each is undoubtedly brilliant, he is flawed by his knee-jerk resort to violence. Maybe if Cross had a few years of selling Yellowjackets to governments, he’d have found himself imprisoned in a cave and developed a change of heart.
Also notable in this introduction to Ant-Man, the libertarian, is his encounter with the Avengers. When Pym explains why he has recruited Lang to break into Pym Technologies and destroy the Yellowjacket project, Lang replies, “Why not call the Avengers?” Pym is justifiably reluctant. He knows the Avengers are merely the supercops of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Agency.
But to complete his plan, Pym needs a piece of Stark technology that is stored in a remote warehouse. When Lang arrives, he realizes it’s an Avengers base which they’ve helpfully decorated with their logo. Pym and his daughter Hope tell Lang to abort the mission. Lang persists. When he lands on the roof of the facility, he trips the sensors and is immediately confronted by Falcon. Lang doesn’t start a fight. In fact, he de-shrinks and introduces himself to Falcon. He opens his helmet. He explains what he needs.
Here is where it gets good: Falcon attacks immediately.
Like any statist who is accustomed to initiating force, Falcon doesn’t want to hear Scott’s explanation. In fact, when Scott shrinks and eludes Falcon, it doesn’t take too long for Falcon to draw guns(!) and open fire, recklessly and unprovoked.
It’s this encounter that displays not only that the Avengers are short-tempered, violent actors who respond in the “bad cop” fashion of state agents everywhere but also shows off the great non-aggressionist tendencies of Ant-Man. He parries; he doesn’t thrust until he has to. It’s also perfectly in-line with the character of Falcon whom the MCU retconned from reformed criminal and social worker to ex-soldier. The comic book Falcon might have given Scott a chance to explain himself. But the MCU is hella bellicose.
It’s also this tiny (get it?) encounter that summarizes the larger theme of the movie: private individuals taking actions to prevent the nefarious aims of state agents and state-sponsored rogue agents (“These guys are from HYDRA. Don’t worry, they’ve changed.”). Cross selling weapons to Carson and HYDRA is the type of event that a government should be protecting civilians against, but as previous Avengers movies have shown us, there are no good guys and bad guys in the government. The state, in the MCU, has shirked its primary responsibility. Thus, it’s left to individuals to protect society.
Ant-Man also breaks with recent superhero tradition and keeps the stakes smaller. They are high but not apocalyptic. That’s just where superhero movies should be. Marvel was once known for their “superheroes with feet of clay” though recent Avengers movies haven’t let those clay feet get in the way of the heroes near godlike status. Unfortunately, I think it’s this break from recent Marvel movie traditions that kept Ant-Man from the box office glory that A-list heroes like Captain America and Iron Man command. Audiences respond positively to those world-ending stakes and thoughtless, violent “heroes.”
I’ve always thought shrinking was the second dumbest superpower (first being stretching) and the fact that Ant-Man could command an army of ants didn’t raise his appeal to me. But the movie has me reconsidering all my previous objections. There is such a beautiful metaphor in the small but personal stakes, the guy without a team, the non-aggressive hero who has only a bunch of insects on his side.
That’s the most apt political metaphor for libertarian philosophy I can imagine.