Tony Stark, amidst a breakdown, lashes out with a reference to Hank Pym’s own breakdown; Avengers Disassembled.
Much has been said over the past week or so about the exclusion of Hank Pym in Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. Director Joss Whedon claimed that Ultron did not require Pym. Discussion has been tense since, with Pym fans lashing out at Whedon while defenders of the MCU cite the 2015 Ant-Man movie as a reason Pym Pals should be silent.
I want to look at it from a different aspect. Mental health.
Mental health, it goes without saying, is a vitally important topic to raise awareness about. Comics have both failed and succeeded at this and in Tony Stark and Hank Pym, you find two of the better examples of successes. Both men, geniuses in the lab, reached incredible lows and have battled demons across decades.
Tony Stark has battled alcoholism as well as other mental health issues consistently over the duration of his comic book lifespan. In the event “Fear Itself”, we see him sacrifice his sobriety in order to save humanity and we see just how much of a sacrifice it is to him.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony Stark suffers greatly from what appears to be (but is never named as) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, stemming from the events of the first Avengers movie, in which Stark sacrifices himself in order to save millions of lives (but manages to survive). The portrayal of PTSD in Iron Man 3 was really rather interesting, the first real look under the cover of superhero mentality that we’d seen in the MCU. We were reminded quickly that mental health issues are as relevant to Tony Stark as they are to the every day person.
We see Tony suffer from panic attacks. Credit must go to director Shane Black and producer Kevin Feige for the realistic portrayal of said attacks and it really does provide us with the tools to see that mental health issues are severe, disabling. They can cripple even the strongest.
Dr. Henry “Hank” Pym is a brilliant scientist spawned by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Tales to Astonish. Hank uses his considerable genius to discover a particle which he names Pym Particles, allowing him to alter his size (yet maintain his human strength). This allows Pym to shrink. He then creates a helmet which allows him to talk to ants, and becomes Ant-Man, the most badass superhero who everyone mistakes for useless.
Hank, however, was a flawed human being. A man who was eager to impress, eager to right the wrongs of the world without the use of too much violence. He was obsessed with his work, to the detriment of his marriage.
One experiment in particular defined Pym. Using information gained working on Dragon Man, Pym would create the android Ultron-5 who would spawn to life with its first word being “da-da”. Ultron-5, later Ultron, was programmed with the brain waves of Hank Pym (and in some storylines he was equipped with weaponry courtesy of Tony Stark).
Ultron, as we all know by now, gained his own intelligence and rebelled. Originally created for good, he became too strong. Too independent. One of the Avenger’s fiercest foes and one of comic books’ most dangerous villains.
The guilt lead Pym to collapse into a state of disrepair. His mental state declined right in front of our eyes, a harrowing tale that would end in one of the most famous comic book scenes. Pym suffered from what we assume to be schizophrenia. Hank, tired of being the quiet and oft-forgotten member of the Avengers under his guises of Ant-Man, Giant Man or Goliath, decided to don the costume of the wise-cracking arrogant Yellowjacket, the “badass” that Hank felt he never was.
Yellowjacket is almost unrecognisable from Hank Pym’s general personality. His narcissism is uncontrollable, his arrogance unbearable. We see occasional glimpses under the mask to the fragile and crumbling Pym but the shoulder-finned costume holds the power.
Of course, long story short, the decline of Pym’s mental health leads to the infamous incident where he hits his wife Jan, leading to him being ostracized by the Avengers and the eventual demise of the marriage he valued so dearly. Pym had truly reached the lowest of the low.
What’s important about the above is that it was a portrayal of mental health issues that wasn’t ridiculous. It wasn’t black or white in the way some comics fail to show mental health. The trope that often sneaks into comic book writing is that when a character develops a mental illness, he must immediately become an irrational, insane monster who goes on a rampage. Mental illness = bad guy. The depictions of Pym and Stark contradict that. They show us that though both men reached true lows and became almost entirely reprehensible, they were still human. Still kind, still good intentioned.
We see Hank desperately try win back favour with his friends by building a robot that only he could defeat, an utterly stupid idea that really sums up my point perfectly. He wanted to do good, he wanted to win his friends back, his intentions were whole-heartedly likeable but his approach was just so flawed and the outcome went as expected.
If you’re still reading, I do have a point to all of this.
The MCU broached the topic of mental illness in IM3, as discussed. My gripe with the dismissal of Hank Pym in the origin of Ultron is that it completely derails the portrayal of two character’s mental health issues.
Firstly, Tony Stark. The much-mooted alternative to Pym creating the android is that Stark does. The problem with this is the fallout. Tony is a kind-souled person, we see that in his interactions with children, with Pepper. He may act arrogant but he’s kind. Thus, he will inevitably react with great guilt when Ultron kills civilians or threatens his friends.
This bugs me because Tony’s issues in IM3 were not dealt with, there was no happy ending (which is the way it should be, mental illnesses do not just tie themselves up with a pretty bow, they’re messy). So the creation of Ultron will lead to new mental health issues with Tony thus making the IM3 PTSD issue pale in comparison. It kind of overwrites it in a way, and makes the work done by Black and Feige to get across the realism of panic attacks look pointless.
Meanwhile, we miss out entirely on the opportunity to show one of the best examples of addressing mental health issues in comics. I was asked several times in recent days “Would you rather Hank Pym be known to moviegoers as the idiot who created Ultron and his his wife?” to which I will always, always strongly answer “Yes.”
Yes I would. Because that’s who he is. It’s not all he is, and the movies would show that, but they shouldn’t be glossed over either. In the same way that Tony’s PTSD in the MCU shouldn’t be glossed over and replaced with new issues.
Mental health awareness is thankfully growing rapidly, and we’re seeing that reflected in comics who are moving away from tired tropes and actually doing research into various issues. We’re educating ourselves on the trauma that they can cause and we’re seeing more and more realistic examples of it in movies and TV shows. I guess my argument is that the MCU has taken a step backwards in that regard.
And to answer the inevitable influx of “Maybe it’ll be discussed in the Ant-Man movie!!” notes, that is of course a possibility but all signs so far point to Scott Lang leading the Ant-Man movie with Hank Pym a secondary character, potentially only involved in the origin of the technology and nothing else.
It’s a difficult topic to discuss, and to do so with sensitivity is even harder. But we should not shy away from it. We should not hide character flaws. We should not try excuse Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) ordering a genocide in a fit of mental breakdown. We should not try excuse Hank Pym hitting his wife. We should not try excuse Clint Barton (Hawkeye) from siding with his wife’s rapist. We should not try excuse Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) for being a sexist chauvinistic mess.
We should embrace the flaws, put them on screen and show that mistakes made through mental health issues are NOT mistakes that should be dismissed. That a character can make a horrible, horrible mistake yet still be likable. We are mature enough to do that. We are mature enough to see realistic depictions of the human brain self-destructing.
If anyone read all of this, I thank you. And urge you to help comics, and comic adaptations, move forward in portraying these issues realistically.