Warning: Mild spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man follow. Around the time of the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, much hoopla was made around Kevin Feige comparing all the Phase 2 films to The Empire Strikes Back. For example:
“So is this a spoiler for Ant-Man… not really. I’m obsessed with Star Wars. Who’s not? I’m 40 years old. I’m in the movie business. I went to USC. So I’m obsessed with Star Wars - and it didn’t start out as intentional, but it became intentional, including that beat that you referenced. It sort of happens in every Star Wars movie, but I was sort of looking at it, ‘Okay, is Phase Two our Empire Strikes Back?’ Not really, but tonally things are a little different. Somebody gets their arm cut off in every Phase Two movie. Every single one.”
Since then, I have been considering other parallels between Marvel’s Phase Two and the second Star Wars film. One that jumped out at me after Ant-Man was the theme of fatherhood, in line with the iconic climax in Cloud City.
In Iron Man Three, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), meets and befriends Harley (Ty Simpkins), a young boy that reminds him of himself. Although the previous film more directly ties into fatherhood with the idea of legacy, here Tony gets a chance at mentoring a young boy that reminds him of himself, albeit not a millionaire. Mentorship is a kind of surrogate fatherhood, which ties back to the villain of the film, who Tony ignored, thus creating an enemy out of a potential ally.
The next film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Thor: The Dark World. The film opens with Bor (Tony Curran), the grandfather of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), defeating the Dark Elves and hiding the great power known as the Aether. While The Dark World’s message is a bit muddled as to whether Bor’s sin was attempting to eradicate the Dark Elves or failing to complete the job, the point is that the sins of previous generations are not swept aside. Additionally, Thor receives no help from his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) in confronting this family legacy.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is admittedly, a bit of a stretch. Given that Captain America (Chris Evans) is one of the few superheroes that does not have father issues, the theme is absent from the film in the overt sense. However, given the themes of surveillance and the motives of Hydra, fatherhood shows up in the guise of a paternalistic government, determined to create order by taking away the freedom of its citizens.
While Guardians of the Galaxy only tangentially deals with the identity of Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) father, the most prominent father in the film is actually Thanos (Josh Brolin). While we don’t get much of the Mad Titan in the film, we do get to know him through his “daughters,” Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). There is a sibling rivalry running through the film, especially as these sisters find themselves on either side of Ronan the Accuser’s warpath.
Avengers: Age of Ultron plays with fatherhood in an interesting way. At the forefront is the titular moderato Ultron (James Spader), and his oft-alluded to issues of fatherhood related to Iron Man. Upon hearing the recognition of a Stark turn of phrase by Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), Ultron flies into a rage and severs the man’s arm. Ultron never reconciles his existence with Stark’s legacy, while Vision (Paul Bethany) transcends it by being the legacy of the entire team. In contrast, the film reveals that Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is a father, and seemingly a rather normal one, despite residing in an unlisted farmhouse that is off the grid. Much of the contrast seems to be rooted in Tony Stark’s haphazard approach to “fathering” Ultron versus Clint Barton’s thoughtful approach to how to keep his family safe and protected.
All of this coalesced when viewing Ant-Man, in which fatherhood is the major theme of the film. Scott Lang's (Paul Rudd) motivation for becoming a hero is to be the person his 9-year-old daughter believes him to be. In trying to navigate his life since getting out of prison, his primary motivation is to no longer miss out on his daughter's life. When he first meets Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), he ends up being a minor antagonist, but by the end of the film, has accepted Scott, and both are great father figures to Cassie. The paternal foil for Scott is Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who wants to protect his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) as much as possible, but ends up pushing her away rather than supporting her. While this sadly sidelines her character a bit in the film, the push-pull between protection and letting a loved one live their life resonates strongly, showing that like Scott's jail sentence, the best of intentions can have unfortunate consequences.
While fatherhood as a theme shows up in a lot of films, the particular resonance within the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a useful lens for exploring the connections between these films beyond the plotting level.