The Marvel universe is so filled with absent, inadequate, withholding, and sometimes outright crappy fathers that it sometimes seems as if daddy issues are what keep it spinning. Tony Stark is still haunted by tensions left unresolved at the time of his father’s death. T’Challa struggles to live up to his father’s legacy. Thor’s been through all sorts of nonsense with Odin. Peter Parker grew up without his father, and so did Peter Quill—which, considering that he was eventually revealed to be a murderous jerk (as well as a near-omnipotent cosmic being) might have been for the best. Part of what sets Marvel’s Ant-Man and its new sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp apart from the rest of the Marvel movies—aside from their (literally) small scale and (relatively) low stakes—is a hero whose primary motivation is to reverse this trend and an interest in the ways a broken family can be pieced back together.
Already a convicted, if well-meaning, criminal by the time Ant-Man catches up with him, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is well on the path to becoming one of Marvel’s absent, neglectful fathers. In addition to all the intrigue around Pym Technologies and a purloined Ant-Man suit, much of the movie’s drama comes from Scott’s struggle to get his life together enough to earn visitation privileges with his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). His first visit to the home of his ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer), and her police detective fiancé, Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), establishes just how badly he’s messed up and how far he has to go. Showing up uninvited at Cassie’s birthday party, he’s treated as an unwelcome intruder, told he has no right to be there, and sent away with two instructions from Maggie, neither easy: earn enough money to start paying child support and “Be the person that she already thinks you are.”
These aren’t the usual superhero-movie stakes, but Ant-Man treats Scott’s quest to repair his relationship with his daughter as seriously as his duty to stop the movie’s villain from weaponizing miniaturization technology. Saving the world is almost incidental to the goals laid out by a notebook with the heading “Days until I can see Cassie.” Director Peyton Reed—working from a script by Rudd, Adam McKay, Joe Cornish, and original director Edgar Wright—even stages Ant-Man’s climax in Cassie’s bedroom, where a model train and other knick-knacks become the site of a scaled-down battle royal. It’s an apt summary of what the film’s doing with Scott, bringing every struggle back to his drive to claim a place for himself in his daughter’s life.
Ant-Man also includes another attempt to repair a broken father-daughter bond, the one between scientific genius and erstwhile Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), whose relationship has been strained since Hope’s mother, Janet, disappeared when she was a child. They’ve reached a tentative rapprochement before the film begins in the interest of keeping Pym technology out of the wrong hands, but their relationship still feels unsettled. Ant-Man and the Wasp, also directed by Reed, delves into why, largely focusing on Hank and Hope’s attempts to recover Janet (played in the sequel by Michelle Pfeiffer).
Between films, Hope has taken on both the miniaturizing costume and the identity of the Wasp, the superhero name once used by her mother, a detail that connects to what proves to be Ant-Man and the Wasp’s central theme: the legacy we leave for our children. For Hope, it’s meant struggling to come to terms with the loss of her mother and a father who often hasn’t been as present for her as he should have been. But, as in Ant-Man (and unlike in other Marvel movies), she remains determined to repair that damage. That this involves retrieving her long-thought-dead mother from the subatomic “quantum realm” places the movie firmly in the realm of fantasy—as, of course, do the shrinking suits, the miniaturized buildings, and so on—but even this fantastic quest plays out as an extension of Hope’s reconciliation with her father. Whatever they accomplish, they accomplish only because they’ve learned to work together.
Those kinds of dynamics aren’t found anywhere else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which tends to treat family as an impediment to heroism. Tony and Pepper Potts have danced around starting a family for the better part of a decade, and Avengers: Age of Ultron reveals that Hawkeye has had a family squirreled away from the rest of the world the whole time, a situation that seems to work only because he keeps his superhero life separate from his family life.
But in the Ant-Man movies, superhero life is family life, even if the families can be unconventional. Some of the best jokes in Ant-Man and the Wasp come from Paxton’s about-face on Scott after he learns of his secret identity and his role in rescuing Cassie. Seen having a pleasant dinner together at the end of Ant-Man, they’re positively chummy in the sequel. Not only has Scott won back his way into Cassie’s life, he’s become part of an extended family in which everyone wants the best for each other, and especially for Cassie, who seems to be thriving from the added attention. It’s closer to Full House than the endless competitive one-upmanship of Daddy’s Home. She’ll benefit by having more people that care about her rather than fewer. It’s certainly no accident that one of the film’s primary antagonists, Ghost, is literally less-than-present partly as a result of not having parents in her life.
These sorts of stories might not work everywhere in the Marvel universe, but they work refreshingly well in the Ant-Man movies—and it’s fitting, since Marvel, in its own way, makes family movies. They may come with PG-13 ratings, but they’re often some of the first “grown-up” movies kids are allowed to see. And, now that appreciation of superhero characters has started to stretch deeper and deeper into adulthood, fandom is something passed from one generation to the next rather than discarded as an adolescent phase, a chance to bond over a shared enthusiasm. (I write this as the proud father of a 7-year-old who can name most of the big-screen Avengers.) For most superheroes, families are something to escape or forget. For the characters of the Ant-Man movies, as for many of those watching them, family is something to fight to keep intact—and occasionally to reconfigure into new combinations when life threatens to smash it apart.