The Ninjabot

Ant-Man Origins: THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957)

Posted on July 17, 2015 at 3:51 pm by Dylan Reynolds

marvel-ant-man-2015-movie-posterWith the release of ANT-MAN this week- Marvel is putting forth perhaps one of their most obscure and least precious super heroes from their entire roster. I had never known much about the character so I got myself a copy of one of those Marvel Masterwork collections to read up on his early adventures.

Ant-Man crawled out of the publication TALES TO ASTONISH- which began as a science fiction anthology series that hit newsstands in 1959 and perhaps not so coincidentally was grootthe same year TWILIGHT ZONE was blowing people’s minds on the airways and a few years after GODZILLA stomped into American moviegoer hearts.

Meaning that the stories in TALES TO ASTONISH would have the expected pulpy sci-fi yarns “with a twist” populated by mad scientists and slimy bugged-eyed aliens. But apparently the bread-and-butter became the “Kaiju inspired monster” stories- full of helpless citizens fleeing in panic from crumbling buildings (drawn with dramatic flair by either Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko)- with the destruction and mayhem being caused by a giant monster with a ludicrous name and origin that Stan Lee pulled out of his arse.

Some of the “monster highlights” from these early TALES TO ASTONISH issues included Krang, Torr, Krogarr, The Thing That Lived, The Thing That Shouldn’t Exist and with issue 13 there was even the first appearance of Groot “the giant killer tree from Planet X”- who would later be repurposed as the much beloved member of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

tales-to-astonish27With issue 27 (published in 1962) there was the cover feature “The Man in the Ant Hill” which introduced scientist Henry Pym (played by Michael Douglas in the movie). This brief 7-page story has Pym discovering a formula that causes objects to shrink (with a “reversal formula” that changes them back to normal size). The “scientific community” balks at his claims and so Pym decides that it would be a swell idea to test the formula on himself.

Upon doing so Pym ends up getting trapped in an anthill and is unable to use the reversal formula- so he has to fend off an army of ants using his intelligence and survival instincts. Later Pym gets help from a sympathetic ant (seriously) who he rides back to his lab so he can return back to normal size. The story ends with Pym destroying all existing samples of his “shrinking potion” because he decides that it is too dangerous for the world.

henrypympympym

“The Man in the Ant Hill” was obviously a “Twilight Zone- esque” narrative that was meant to be a “one off” story. But apparently Stan Lee thought there was some potential with the concept because eight issue later in #35 he gives Pym a change of heart; the scientist whips up some more shrinking formula- dones a nifty red outfit and sports a helmet that is able to telepathically communicate (and hence) control the ants. He uses TA035 Coverthese tools to fight crime- becoming a new addition to the burgeoning “second superhero wave” that had arguably kicked off with Lee/ Kirby’s FANTASTIC FOUR in 1961.

You see- when F4 became a big hit superheroes became hot again (the genre languished through most of the 50s). So predictably more Lee/ Kirby characters followed such as Hulk and Thor. Then with artist Steve Ditko came another major success in Spider Man (’62 in issue #15 of another rebooted “sci fi anthology” series called AMAZING FANTASY). Therefore it can be assumed that Stan Lee wanted to crank out another “insect man” to ride the perceived wave and at some point ANT MAN popped into his head. Then he probably figured half the origin story was already created in TALES TO ASTONISH so he might as well build it from there.

But clearly the initial inspiration for “The Man in the Ant Hill” story came from the ’57 film THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. So it can be inferred that the roots of the character rest in 50s era science fiction film and literature. And perhaps more interestingly the struggling series (because the character was never that popular) would pillage from other popular sci-fi movies in an attempt to “shake things up”.

For example- the introduction of a female partner/ sidekick THE WASP in issue #44 may or may not have been inspired by the Roger Corman- directed “drive in cheapie” THE WASP WOMAN (’59). When that didn’t seem to help sales they turned “Ant Man into Giant Man” starting in issue #49- which would seem to reference the reverse of the “shrinking people movies”- i.e. the “giant people movies” like THE AMAZING COLLOSAL MAN (’57) and ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN (’58).

wasp_woman_poster_01wasp

600full-the-amazing-colossal-man-postergiant man

In either case- while reading through these old comics I decided to check out THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid). Mainly because it has proven to be quite an influential film with traces of its DNA in nearly every example of the “small” sub-genre- from INNERSPACE, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS to yes, even ANT MAN.

The script was penned by Richard Matheson (adapted from his own novel)- and if that name sounds familiar (as it should) it’s because he is responsible for some of the most revered sci fi/ fantasy/ horror classics of the era. The highlights of his prolific career include the novel I AM LEGEND (currently adapted four times to the screen and many b70-10184would argue “inspired” ‘68s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD). He also wrote some iconic episodes of the Twilight Zone (such as the William Shatner starring “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Steel”- which was later remade as a Hugh Jackman film), and he provided the script for DUEL (Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut).

In the directors chair sat Jack Arnold- who was no slouch himself having made numerous “thoughtful” and technically groundbreaking sci-fi flicks such as CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, TARANTULA and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE. And like many of the 50s era Sci-fi movies we deem to be “the best of the genre” (i.e. DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) the Jack Arnold helmed sci-fi movies attempted to tackle deeper philosophical themes with social commentaries/ allegories that questioned the current order of the world. This “heady stuff” was all neatly wrapped up and sold as crowd-pleasing “action/ adventure” movies for matinee audiences- but they would go on to be timeless because the filmmakers strived to make something more than just a “hook and a catchy title”.

6a00d8341bf67c53ef012876910cf8970c-500piSo it’s no wonder that this writer/ director duo would be able to turn out an acknowledged sci-fi classic and they did just that with THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN… The story opens with a middle class “Regular Joe” named Scott chilling on vacation with his wife. While catching some sun and sipping some beers on a boat- Scott ends up getting enveloped in a cloud of fog (later revealed to be “radioactive” of course) which leaves him sprinkled with a sheen of “shiny dust” like he just got out of a strip club.

Cut to six months later Scott starts to notice that his clothes are looser and no longer fitting him. Soon it becomes apparent that he is shrinking and is noticeably getting smaller by the day. First only a few inches but the transformation only increases with no sign of letting up. The nightmare takes a toll on Scott’s finances, pride, and ultimately his marriage. While scientists try to figure out a “cure” Scott becomes something of a tabloid celebrity- which only further isolates him from humanity and the outside world.

The-Incredible-Shrinking-Man-imageEventually Scott is only six-inches tall and is mentally breaking down- literally living in a dollhouse and contemplating suicide. Then one day- his wife leaves to run some errands and the house cat sneaks in and tries to eat him. Scott manages to escape into the cellar- but becomes trapped. When his wife returns she assumes the cat has indeed chowed down on her husband. The rest of the film details Scott’s struggle to survive- finding nourishment- and ultimately the decisive clash of “man vs. beast” as he squares off against a giant spider (to him anyway).

I would say THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN is technically impressive by today’s standards. Even the most cynical of viewer has to admit that without the aid of any computers or CGI the filmmakers were able to convincingly show a “shrinking man” (using mostly “split screens” and oversized props).

But again- what truly sets the film apart is that not only is it a schlocky “monster movie”- but it admirably works in some genuine philosophical musings about loneliness, masculinity, and what it means to be “a man”. And as the film concludes in a wonderfully “downer” of an ending- Scott has learned to not only survive- but truly “live life” and accept his place in the cosmos. He achieves a sort-of “spiritual awakening” with a new found understanding of humanity’s place and purpose in the grand scheme of the universe.

Scott’s final monologue sums these thoughts up perfectly:

“… I now knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. That existence begins and ends is man’s conception- not that of nature. As I felt my body dwindling away into nothingness my fears melted away with it. And in their place became acceptance. That if all this majesty of creation means… something then I mean something too. In the eyes of God there is no zero… I still exist!”

It’s doubtful ANT MAN will reach or even attempt to address these themes and will instead embrace the “fun” aspect of the Shrinking Man concept; “Fighting a giant spider!”, “Riding on an ant- woo hoo!”

And there’s nothing wrong with that. If the reviews I’ve seen are any indication ANT MAN is a perfectly entertaining and exciting “summer blockbuster”- the kind that Marvel has all but perfected these past few years. But what movies like the INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN prove is that doing the “exciting stuff” is all fine and good- but if one can strive for something deeper and more meaningful in a genre film- then you are on the path to making a classic.

kids

    Sharing the Legacy on Flickr

    See all photos

    Tweets