The latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Ant-Man, a movie that was already developing a reputation prior to its release when acclaimed director Edgar Wright (the Cornetto Trilogy) parted ways with Marvel early in production. Whether for this reason or because its hero is obscurer and the movie’s scale quite literally smaller, Ant-Man hasn’t generated as much buzz (or profit) as The Avengers: Age of Ultron or last year’s late-summer hit Guardians of the Galaxy. Still, the movie won the weekend box office for two straight weeks, with a Rotten Tomatoes score hovering near 80%, so while its success may seem modest by Marvel’s high standards, it nonetheless clearly must have some draw.
Once Lang is given the suit, his own “sanctification” begins. He must become the Ant-Man that he already formally is.Ant-Man follows down-and-out thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who, upon his release from prison, finds himself right back with the same crowd, pressured into returning to burglary. He gets more than he bargained for when he attracts the interest of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), an inventor who a generation earlier fought bad guys under the moniker Ant-Man. Pym’s super suit allows the wearer to shrink while retaining significant strength, a discovery that his mentally unstable former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), is about to duplicate (in weaponized form) using Pym’s own company. Pym and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) help Scott learn to use the suit and stop Cross from abusing that power.
At the heart of Ant-Man lies a familiar redemptive arc. Lang’s criminal record belies the fact that he is portrayed as a decent man at heart, yet his checkered past has cost him his marriage and, consequently, his relationship with his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) Cassie. Rudd’s portrayal of Lang as wryly aloof provides much of the film’s humor, though this very distancing keeps Lang from being able to commit, masking a weakness of character that he must confront when he agrees to don the suit and take on the role of Ant-Man. Lang’s journey from droll convict to heroic parent forms the backbone of the movie.
However, Ant-Man differs from most superhero films in the means by which this transformation is effected, and in the process, it parallels the Christian’s own redemptive experience in a way most other such movies do not. In almost every other entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (to say nothing of DC), there always exists some level of Pelagianism inherent in the way the heroes establish their identities. However flawed they may have been (and may still be) as they take on their secret identities, the heroes are in some sense self-made, whether because of their own native powers or because of their skill in creating or manipulating technology. Captain America is chosen because of his natural virtue; Tony Stark builds his own Iron Man suit; Thor…well, he’s kind of a god to start with.
Lang, on the other hand, inherits a role he has done nothing to earn. “I need you to be the Ant-Man,” Pym tells the man who stole from him, choosing Lang to adopt the identity before he has done any heroic work to merit such a gift. In accepting Pym’s offer, Lang finds himself in a redemptive position that ought to be familiar to any Christian. Our own salvation, after all, was granted to us graciously, regardless of merit. In the traditional Protestant orders of salvation, this would be known as justification, which is followed in some traditions by the coincident step of adoption. Lang is “justified” in that he is rescued largely apart from his own work at the hands of Pym (and later other sympathetic voices in the criminal justice system). “Adoption” might be appropriate to note, as well, given Lang’s status as Pym’s new understudy and his interest in Hope, Pym’s daughter.
Following these steps in the ordo salutis, however, most Protestants would include sanctification. Sanctification is the process of being made holy experientially, of becoming the righteous men and women that Christ’s death has already declared us to be. Once Lang is given the suit, his own “sanctification” begins. He must become the Ant-Man that he already formally is. The movie itself often employs language that suggests such a process, as when Pym tells Lang, “This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter’s eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are.” This also invokes Lang’s status as father, which is likewise a role that he officially holds but has yet to live. By introducing the intergenerational dynamic between Pym and Lang, the producers of Ant-Man devised a situation almost unique among current superhero movies: a man who takes on the identity of a hero first, and only starts to act like a hero afterwards.
The movie cleverly plays on this tension in the very name of its hero. One of the film’s running gags is Scott Lang’s endless distaste for the name Ant-Man. When Pym presents him with the opportunity to become a superhero, Lang accepts of course, but not before inquiring, “Is it too late to change the name?” Even after his career as Ant-Man has begun, he is still embarrassed. One reason for this extended joke is a narrative sleight-of-hand allowing the writers to acknowledge tacitly their awareness of their character’s fundamental comic-book absurdity. But stepping into a redemptive identity that can seem childish, absurd, or embarrassing at times? Well, that too is a part of the Christian journey. Our identity is found paradoxically in a man who spoke in counterintuitive wisdom before being killed in the most disgraceful way. We serve a God who “chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; [who] chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). How often are Christians ashamed of their own identity as Scott Lang is of his?
Now, perhaps nothing could be quite as absurd as trying to understand Ant-Man as a point-by-point allegory for the doctrine of soteriology. The analogies I am making break down under harsh scrutiny. Pym is hardly God: he is no less flawed than his successor, a broken individual with some less-than-impeccable motives for giving Lang the suit, including the very talent for burglary that placed the latter in need of saving to begin with. And at times, Pym’s language subverts the language of grace, as when he maintains that Lang “deserves a second chance” or speaks of earning redemption. This is Hollywood, after all; we can’t have too much grace.
That said, Ant-Man’s emphasis on a hero who is not a hero, who must be “sanctified” by entering into an identity that predates him, is refreshing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Lang’s native indifference, his tendency to use wit and passivity to avoid responsibility, separate him from most other characters in the genre, those who either embrace their status wholeheartedly or come to it through fire and torment. Lang is much more like most of us: goofy, genial, ordinary, and quite willing to stagger through life. The role of Ant-Man and the suit associated with it represent his “salvation” insofar as they push him toward active courage, toward living the life of justice we would expect from a superhero. May we all step into our own roles as willingly as Scott Lang does and remember that in the case of our own identity in Christ, we’d best not be ashamed of the Name.