Scott Lang and Hope Van Dyne may be the characters starring in Ant-Man and the Wasp, out Friday 3rd August, but they’re not the first Ant-Man and Wasp. The suits, which have the ability to shrink and enlarge their wearers, were first donned by their inventor, scientist Dr. Henry “Hank” Pym, and his wife, Janet Van Dyne.
When writing the script for the 2015's Ant-Man, Edgar Wright, the movie's initial director, decided to make Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) the focal point of his Ant-Man movie, and place Hank (Michael Douglas) in more of a mentor role. Narratively, the shift makes sense. Within the Avengers team, the Starks already occupied the "genius inventor" title. Hank, an established scientist and a contemporary of Howard Stark's, would've been competition, of sorts. However, aside from crowded inventor territory, there was probably another reason why the focus pivoted away from Hank Pym and toward the friendly, roguish Scott Lang. It all has to do with the comic panel that ruined Hank's reputation forever — and with good reason.
In The Avengers #213, published in 1981, Hank Pym commits a devastating act of spousal abuse against his wife, Janet Van Dyne. Just before the incident, Hank suffers a chemical spill that caused him to adopt the reckless, violent Yellowjacket identity. As Yellowjacket, Hank attacks a villain during a fight with the Avengers after she had already surrendered. As a result, the Avengers consider revoking Hank’s “membership status.” Instead of cooperating with the court martial hearing, Hank enters into a manic state building a powerful robot intended to attack the Avengers, which only he can defeat. After three days, Janet, Hank’s wife, enters the lab and tries to reason with him. At that moment, Hank punches her in the face.
Ironically, Hank says, “Don’t you see? It’s the only chance to redeem myself!” as he commits the act that will forever cement him as an irredeemable Avenger. In a post on the blog Fanboy entitled “The Hank Pym Issue,” Josh Flanagan aptly summarises the lasting effect this incident of spousal abuse has had for Marvel's fans. “To my mind, spousal abuse is just something too real to live down and chalk up to fiction. It’s a charge people don’t usually recover from, right up there with murderer or pedophile. You don’t do it. Even if you do it once, that’s it, because it means that it’s in you. That capability is always there, and it can become unlocked once more if the right kind of stress and pressure are applied. Because of that, the character of Hank Pym is irreparably broken," Flanaga writes.
But was this controversial moment actually supposed to happen? Jim Shooter, who wrote the script for Avengers #213, explained that he never intended for Hank to become violent towards his wife. According to Shooter, the infamous scene was the result of miscommunication between the writer and comic book artist. In an article on his personal blog published in 2011, Shooter writes, “In that story, there is a scene in which Hank is supposed to have accidentally struck Jan while throwing his hands up in despair and frustration — making a sort of “get away from me” gesture while not looking at her. [Illustrator] Bob Hall, who had been taught by [comic book artist] John Buscema to always go for the most extreme action, turned that into a right cross! There was no time to have it redrawn, which, to this day has caused the tragic story of Hank Pym to be known as the ‘wife-beater’ story."
Intentional or not, the disturbing moment has major repercussions for Hank’s legacy. Ensuing comics have grappled with his actions in different ways. Some have gone the redemptive route. After Janet dies, Hank opens up six centers designed to provide “free confidential services, shelter, legal advocacy, and support groups to women and children who are the victims of domestic abuse” in her honour. Others leaned into Hank's seething violence. In another, far darker continuity, Hank attacks Janet, who has shrunk to miniature size to escape his wrath, with RAID and a hoard of gigantic ants.
By pivoting to an entirely new incarnation of Ant-Man and Wasp, the Marvel movie universe can avoid Pym’s baggage. Kevin Feige, the producer of Ant-Man and all Marvel movies, acknowledged that the movies will side-step this aspect of Hank’s past. “I would say that some of the spirit of that plays into his temperament in the film, plays into his gruffness in the film. It certainly does not, in this movie, go to spousal abuse,” Feige told Screenrant.
Even if Ant-Man don't focus primarily on Hank, the comics continue to acknowledge his reputation. The domestic abuse incident is revisited in a 2017 issue of Secret Empire #4, when a splintered Avengers group sits down for dinner with a (now evil) Dr. Pym, who has since merged with the robot Ultron (just go with it). Tony Stark blames Pym — and the day he hit Janet — for the disintegration of their group.
With glowing reviews and an 87% Rotten Tomatoes score, Ant-Man and the Wasp is poised to be a delightful romp. Still, it's worth acknowledging, as the comics do, the shocking act of spousal abuse that lurks in Hope Van Dyne's (Evangeline Lilly) family tree — especially since Janet Van Dyne is making an appearance in Ant-Man and the Wasp.