The key to Marvel’s future has a very long past in the comics.
Though 2015’s Ant-Man was Marvel Studios’ lowest-key adventure to date, it introduced a new corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that is poised to have an impact reaching to next year’s Avengers 4 and beyond.
Ant-Man and the Wasp centers on a hunt for Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has been lost in the Quantum Realm for 30 years after shrinking to a subatomic size to stop a missile attack. She was believed to be dead until Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) successfully returned from the realm in the previous film. Fortunately for Janet, her daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), husband Hank (Michael Douglas) and Scott devise a scheme to rescue her and restore her to our corner of the universe.
The Quantum Realm is a place where time and space work differently, and has all sorts of potential to help keep the MCU fresh for its second decade of films. In addition to fan speculation that there could be characters like the Fantastic Four hidden there (should a Fox-Disney merger brings those characters into the universe), on a more immediate level, it’s responsible for giving Janet untold powers that could be explored in a third Ant-Man movie. The mid-credits scene also leaves Scott stranded in the Quantum Realm after Hope, Janet and Hank are disappeared by Thanos’ Avengers: Infinity War snap. It’s a safe bet that Scott, whom Janet warned not to get stuck in a “time vortex,” will somehow use his time in the Quantum Realm to help the Avengers in Avengers 4.
So where did it all come from?
What is known to movie audiences as the Quantum Realm debuted in 1963’s Fantastic Four No. 16 in a story called “The Micro-World of Doctor Doom!” The titular villain made his return after apparently being shrunk into non-existence six months earlier, revealed to have instead conquered a “peaceful, primitive, happy world” that existed on a sub-atomic level — a world that is freed by the Fantastic Four with the assistance of Hank Pym, the original comic book Ant-Man, even if Doctor Doom makes his escape to parts unknown in the process.
Oddly enough, despite Ant-Man’s involvement in that storyline, the sub-atomic realm remained the purview of the Fantastic Four for some time afterwards; 1967’s Fantastic Four Annual No. 5 introduced Psycho-Man, a villain from what was renamed “the cluster worlds of Sub-Atomica,” who planned to invade the regular-sized world as a way of dealing with potential overpopulation. (“I am so small that you could never see me — could never harm me,” he boasts at one point; he’s defeated, of course.) A year later, the Silver Surfer attempts to hide from Galactus by shrinking himself into Sub-Atomica in Fantastic Four No. 75.
By 1971, it was the Hulk’s time to visit a sub-atomic world, in The Incredible Hulk No. 140 — written by the recently departed Harlan Ellison — the gamma-powered antihero is accidentally shrunk to sub-atomic level by a villain and ends up on an alien world inside inner space, where he falls in love with a princess — you know, the traditional Hulk storyline. The Hulk would later revisit this world on a couple of occasions throughout the 1970s, but the Quantum Realm wouldn’t really become a “thing” in Marvel’s comic book mythology until the end of that decade, and the arrival of a toy license at the publisher.
The year 1979 saw the debut of Marvel’s Micronauts comic book series, based on the Mego toyline of the same name. (That toyline was itself an adaptation of the Microman toyline from Japanese manufacturers Takara; “Micronauts” as a term actually originated in 1968’s Fantastic Four No. 76, although it’s unclear whether its use in the toyline was a coincidence or not.) For the first time, an entire comic book series was set predominantly inside Sub-Atomica, which was now renamed the “Microverse,” a name that would stick around in the comic books for years to come.
The premise of Micronauts was simple; imagine Star Wars meets Marvel’s superhero comics of the period, with the added thrill of some wonderfully cosmic moments — one of the eponymous Micronauts becomes obsessed in latter issues with communing with the “Enigma Force,” a personification of the life essence of the Microverse itself, which he had a hand in creating unknowingly — and it was, for part of its original 59-issue run, one of Marvel’s most popular titles, far outlasting the toyline that inspired it.
By the 1986 conclusion of its second volume, Micronauts: The New Voyages, the core Micronauts had sacrificed themselves to save the Microverse from collapse, in the process wiping away much of the continuity and baggage the concept had accrued throughout its run and leaving the Microverse in a position to be used anew by future writers and artists. A clean slate was left for anyone and everyone to explore!
That didn’t really happen, however; although the Microverse showed up in a few series in subsequent years — most notably the early 2000s Captain Marvel series and 2010s Incredible Hulk titles — the Microverse and Micronauts mostly disappeared upon the end of the Micronauts titles. There’s a simple reason for this: Marvel lost the Micronauts license, and with that, logistical difficulties presented themselves. Certain characters and events could only be referred to obliquely, and some names were off-limits entirely (a 2010 revival couldn’t even use the “Micronauts” name at all, instead being titled Enigma Force).
One important post-Micronauts appearance of the Microverse showcased the limitations on offer: 2012’s Avengers Nos. 31 through 34 featured the team rescuing a believed-to-be-dead Janet Van Dyne from the Microverse, complete with iconography that re-used imagery from the 1979 Micronauts series…but at no point is the word “Microverse” used; instead, they’re rescuing her from “Inner Space,” because 1987 Dennis Quaid movies were in that year, I guess.
Things may be changing. With the release of Ant-Man and the Wasp in movie theaters, Marvel launched a new Ant-Man and the Wasp comic book series that uses the term “Microverse” (and, finally, puts Ant-Man in a Microverse/Sub-Atomica story in more than a guest-starring role). It’s also worth noting that DC also adopted the term recently, going so far as to feature it in a book title, so perhaps there’s less concern over copyright issues. For the movies, for now, it remains “Quantum Realm,” but the name has never been important. Instead, it should simply be remembered that one thing has remained true for more than half a century: There’s an entire universe of adventure inside all of our molecules waiting be discovered, and superheroes are the best people to discover it.