In July of this year Marvel Studios released the superhero-heist caper Antman. In the film, a penniless thief played by comedy-millionaire Paul Rudd is given a magic suit by Michael Douglas– delivering his lines as if he is contractually but not spiritually obliged– that allows him to shrink to the size of the eponymous ant. It made $57m in its opening weekend (what Marvel would call a ‘failure’) and was generally held to be disposable fun. What perhaps eclipsed the film’s actual release was the commotion surrounding its production over the last-minute departure of its director, funky visionary Edgar Wright, due to ‘creative differences’. The fight between bigdog Marvel and ramshackle nerdman Wright is a tension very much alive in the film– in its quality certainly, but also in its spookily appropriate content. The film is a celebration of everything small: a small-time hero whose ability to shrink empowers him to defeat an evil corporation in the studio’s smallest, most personal (and possibly funniest) climactic fight-scene ever. And yet, the knowledge that this celebration of the little people is being hosted by the grossest-grossing entertainment company operating in the world today is uncomfortably present in the film’s faults.
Smallness is a great tool of comedy. Miniaturised protagonists draw your eye to the idea of perspective, casting normal, domestic items and behaviour as the treasure and buffoonery of giants, and allowing the removed vision necessary for social commentary. The smaller we are, the more we are forced to literally see things from a different angle– from below, the vantage point of the underdog, comedy’s go-to persona. After all, you can’t punch down if you’re two inches tall. The inherent ridiculousness in miniscule-ness makes serious attempts at sci-fi shrinking adventures easily copied, and pilloried. Fantastic Voyage, the 1966 original mini-romp in which scientists are shrunk in order to journey inside a colleague with a blood clot in his brain, is a great example of the (medically fictional but nonetheless conceptually interesting) benefits of altered perspective on the human body. But it wasn’t long before Voyage’s main hook and its wide-eyed, 50’s/60’s, curious ingenuity had been lampooned and referenced to the point of obscuring memory of the original, beginning with the wholesale comic rip-off Innerspace (1987) with Dennis Quaid and most recently in Dr Who’s less funny but equally silly 2014 episode Into The Dalek. Personally, my favourite homage to the idea is the sublime Futurama episode Parasites Lost (s3 ep2) in which the Planet Express crew are shrunk and injected into delivery boy Fry’s body to fight some hyper-intelligent worms hiding in his colon. Crude it may be (spoiler: it is), but the comic fertility of the concept is undeniable.
This humorous tool becomes sharper when used for satirical purposes. From a distance, you can view and evaluate an entire social system with an all-encompassing, or more exacting perspective. Of course, the most potent example of this is Jonathan Swift’s Lilliput. One of several fantastical islands to which Gulliver travels, all of which provide their own bizarre angle on 18th Century English politics (through 72-foot giants, talking horses, flying islands), the Lilliputians have entered our conscience perhaps the most firmly, infiltrating even our language: ‘Lilliputian’ now means not only physically diminutive but also pejoratively, personally ‘small’. In an interesting reversal of the normal relationship between the shrunken and the giants, Gulliver here, enormous in comparison, is the outsider with the unique perspective.
Meanwhile, Swift makes the tiny Lilliputians the powerful and ridiculous, rendering the English politicians of the time diminutive: they fight with their neighbouring nations over how to break an egg, not how to worship God. A similar commentary can be found in in The Borrowers, Mary Norton’s much-adapted children’s novel, but with a different focus: the tiny scavengers providing a vision of post-war, 30’s Depression-era British families in what Daniel Hahn (in the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature) calls a ‘grotesque…entirely parasitical’ dependence on ramshackle, recycled materials. Though at the time Norton denied an element of social commentary, it is difficult, with the charged relationship between Borrowers and ‘Big People’, not to read in some wider contemporary implication.
Our obsession with the pint-sized is no less important now. Living in any of England’s major cities, you are at all times surrounded by the monumental – architecture and advertisement that dwarfs you physically, emotionally, even conceptually. More often than not these constructions represent larger entities than yourself – the government, corporate bodies, the monarchy, the church, George Bataille’s ‘priests, kings, burghers, capitalists, and police officers’. While monumental building is often beautiful or pleasing, regularly inducing awe, it also reduces people. If a large building allows you to form an image or tactile connection with an invisible ‘state’ or ‘company’, it also creates a spectrum on which you, the viewer, are in comparison with it, and thus made small. With that axis in place, the entity incarnate in a skyscraper or billboard is given a bird’s-eye view of individual people. From that perspective how could anyone make out the significant differences that distinguish people from each other without making them all the same, a swarm of ants, a public mass which is easily manipulated, demeaned, bullied, given poor quality service?
As evidenced in our obsession with ever-decreasing phones and tablets, the tinier something is, the easier it can be controlled and possessed. Joyce E Chaplin has written about this phenomenon in relation to 16th century portraiture: ‘Anything hand-held made the bearer’s status clear.’ Going back further, miniatures of the Farnese Hercules (the ‘original’ Roman copy in Naples’ Museo Archaeologico is a piece of monumental size, physically huge and stylistically bulging in its masculinity) were so perverse they were famous in Ancient Rome. Even Greece’s ‘larger than life’ hero could become a table set-piece for Roman aristocracy and still retain his ‘physical strength and the greatness of his deeds’ (John Mack, The Art of Small Things), reducing Greek culture, art and religion to something that could be quickly referenced, altered, and, importantly, possessed by Rome. The monumental diminished becomes ridiculous property.
So where does a tiny superhero fit into this? In many ways, Marvel’s Antman achieves (as his original incarnation in 1962 Tales to Astonish #35 did) exactly the humorous effect we’d expect from our fictional miniature man, taking shots at the seriousness of our current obsessive viewership of multi-million dollar superhero movies. As Anthony Lane commented in his New Yorker review of the film: ‘So many men cast themselves as big shots, and we should welcome anything—a magic suit, or a good joke—that cuts them down to size.’ But how do we understand this message when its messenger is a multi-billion dollar film studio? Much of the humour in Antman is beholden to the colossal fictional universe Marvel has been curating (allegedly a main point of disagreement between the studio and Wright), so, while the film shows a company that is willing to deride itself, it also does so solely for the purpose of accruing profit and constructing business – and these targets quite clearly tarnish the quality of the story. In this lies the central problem of the colossal taking on the perspective of the miniscule, the big dogs acting the underdog, the humourless putting on a comic mask – the little people know when they’re being conned. They can see you in better detail after all.