Warning: contains SPOILERS for Secret Empire #4.
Captain America’s turn from good to evil, thanks to a Cosmic Cube – a universally powerful entity capable of altering reality – in the form of a little girl, has upended the Marvel Universe in a major way. He subverted and overran the U.S. Government, replacing it with the Hydra Council. However, the one major hiccup to his plan came when Dr. Erik Selvig, who viewed Kobik (the Cosmic Cube) as a daughter and scattered her broken form across the planet to keep her from harm. Realizing the Cube can repair Rogers to his former self, Tony Stark, Hawkeye, and their rebel band left the country on a scavenger hunt for Cube fragments.
Of course, to do so, they first have to deal with an old frenemy, robotic foe Ultron merged with Dr. Henry Pym, formerly an Avenger who went by Ant-Man and Yellowjacket. In Secret Empire #4, the mad scientist-cyborg allows both teams to his Alaskan city – composed entirely of Ultron duplicates – to gather a section of the Cube. In a demented ritual, he forces both factions of the very divided Avengers to sit down for a family meal. Like any dysfunctional family, things break down quickly, and Tony Stark points his finger at Pym for shattering their classic 1980s squad: the time Hank punched his wife, The Wasp, a.k.a. Janet Van Dyne, in a fit of rage.
How long should Pym pay for his 30-year-old betrayal?
To give some context, the original incident occurred during The Avengers #213 in 1981. Hank Pym was on the outs with the Avengers and clinging to the end of his rope. Facing a court-martial from his team – for shooting an adversary after she surrendered – and feared being kicked off the team he helped to found. So, he locks himself in his lab for three days, concocting a giant robot to attack the Avengers, one only he can defeat, thanks to a specific built-in weakness. Concerned about her husband, Janet shrinks into the lab and tries to calm him down. First, he then freaks out and has his robot attack her, while explaining his twisted plan. Then, when she tries to talk sense into him, he tells her to “shut up” and knocks her to the ground.
According to Avengers writer and former Marvel Editor, Jim Shooter, the incident wasn’t supposed to be intentional, claiming the artist on the issue, Bob Hall, over-exaggerated the punch. At the same time, his treatment towards Janet is the real issue, not necessarily whether an accident or an intentional strike validates his violence against his wife. Either way, his aggression tainted his career and rightfully so. In any case, the latest iteration of Pym, or Pymtron, first reared its warped machinery in Uncanny Avengers #9, where creator and creation conjoined into the perfect storm of psychotic murder-bot and insecure super-scientist. Now returned from his exile (read death sentence), he informs his unwilling guests of his desire to wait-out the superhero shenanigans, watching sentient life destroy one another. While he waits, and while the Hydra-rebel forces bicker for the Cube fragment, though, he decides to revisit the Avengers’ halcyon days.
Pymtron has arranged for the classic team to enjoy a “family meal” together at his recreation of the Avengers Mansion. But his recollection of the good old days is viewed through rose-tinted glasses.
Tony Stark, fed up with his former robo-teammate’s nostalgic nonsense, calls him out on the fact that his memories are flawed, and their team was never perfect. In the heat of things, he brings up Pym’s violence towards Janet. Naturally, Pymtron freaks out, smashing the table (not prone to fits of violence at all) and attempting to crush Stark in his massive metal fist, all the while ranting, as much at the Avengers as readers:
“Years ago! And it’s all any of you will ever remember me for—all you ever say about me! You think I don’t hear the whispers?! The way you look at me when I walk into the room…”
Admittedly, Pym hasn’t been mentally stable for years: his magnificent creation, Ultron, tried to destroy all non-mechanical life; he became Yellowjacket after a mental breakdown (attributed to schizophrenia) and arched his former teammates on the Avengers; recently he merged with his genocidal creation. None of these actions score him any sanity points. Neither does it excuse his brutal treatment of his wife. Even if he wasn’t a habitual violent offender (although Ultimate Hank Pym undoubtedly was), his at-times emotionally crushing behavior supports a longtime psychological issue for him and the couple. Lashing out at his spouse was merely the final straw.
Admittedly, comic books have been bastions for the mistreatment of women for decades. In fact, dedicated books with empowered heroines like Wonder Woman or Miss America were few and far between until the last few decades. And while other heroes have physically mistreated their spouses and significant others, such as Spider-Man in Amazing Spider-Man #266 or Reed Richards far too often (on primarily a psychological level, but not always). Tony Stark himself was an alcoholic and womanizer, hence no saint either. But for Pym, the stigma remains because it was the first time domestic abuse was, albeit “accidentally,” called out in a comic book and condemned. It also displayed the depths to which the super-scientist had sunk.
Like real life, where abuse is rarely a black and white issue, the latest issue of Secret Empire, much like the inciting abuse long before it, recognizes that the most powerful people (in this case, “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”), have serious flaws too. The reason most fans and his teammates never forget about his so-called “one mistake” is also due to its odious nature. It also helps that, despite his repentent behavior in future, Pym never reached the popularity levels of Stark or Richards, especially in the years since (although that may be a chicken and the egg paradox). Plus, if the Avengers (or Marvel) had allowed his act to slide or brushed it under the rug, they would’ve remained complicit, sending the wrong message to millions of readers.
Does Pym deserve the bad reputation he’s received, as well as the scorn of his fellow teammates? That depends. Under no circumstances is it ever acceptable to hit loved ones or denigrate them through any sort of physical, emotional, mental abuse. While Shooter insists Pym wasn’t meant to consciously strike his wife, domestic abuse was rampant and accepted throughout many Golden and Silver Age comics. Pym’s moment of violence comes from a history of overreaction and under-confidence, but more so, from an era where even so-called “good guys” slapped women without consequence. Ant-Man’s downfall was the beginning of the end (if certainly not the end) of the misogynistic themes pervading comic books. Neither readers nor his one-time teammates should ever forget his actions, but we can at least encourage and appreciate his attempts to atone for his sins.
To their credit, Marvel hasn’t shied away from Hank’s trouble entirely either. They could’ve retconned his storyline to reveal that his long-time Skrull imposter-self was responsible for the abusive streak, but they didn’t. Pym’s also continued to admit to his flaws and done his best to make amends for his behavior – even setting up a domestic abuse shelter. In the long run, the Secret Empire #4 gets to the heart of comics’ mistreatment of women in general, often presenting them as sexual objects to be dominated, turning them into plot points (women in fridges), or resigning them to superpowered scenery. Fortunately, the industry has come a long way since the 1980s, with scores of heroine-led books and a slowly increasing female presence behind the scenes. Writer Nick Spencer’s return to the incident, as well as Tony’s lack of selective memory, gives it an appropriate weight as both a historic moment in comics and a step forward for egalitarianism.
Despite everything, the issue ends with Scott Lang’s Ant-Man offering hope to Pym-Ultron, noting that even screw-ups can change their destiny. As long as the cycle of abuse can be ended, it’s never too late to give up hope.
Secret Empire #4 is currently available.