[This story contains minor spoilers for Ant-Man and the Wasp.]
Lawrence Fishburne’s debut as Bill Foster in Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t just introduce a beloved cult character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it also presents the opportunity for a do-over for a hero who never quite got his due the first time around.
In the movie, Foster is established as someone as brilliant and as ambitious as Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a hero in his own right who has tried his best to aid Ava Starr/Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who was made into a SHIELD assassin after suffering a freak accident as a child. The film sets up Foster with more to do in subsequent installments, with him acting as a surrogate father figure to Ava, and it’s easy to believe he could even use his brains (or Goliath powers) for heroic purposes in the future.
Foster debuted in 1966’s The Avengers No. 32 in a somewhat unusual role: Introduced as an employee of Tony Stark’s from “the Plans and Research division of my Baltimore factory,” Foster is seconded to work with a Hank Pym who is stuck at an enlarged size and needing assistance in finding a cure. That’s all a Macguffin, however; the actual reason he’s introduced is to give the (all-white) Avengers a reason to go up against racist organization the Sons of the Serpent, with Foster essentially a prop to be attacked and rescued by Pym, pushing the superheroes into action. This would prove to be grim foreshadowing of what was to come.
For years, Foster stayed in the background of the Marvel Universe, showing up in Avengers and Ant-Man stories as the plot required it. That changed in 1975’s 24th issue of Luke Cage, Power Man, where it was revealed that Foster had experimented with Hank Pym’s formulas and himself become trapped at 15 feet tall; unlike Pym, however, he didn’t ask for help in returning to his own height. Instead, he adopted the persona of “Black Goliath” and joined the circus in an attempt to raise money to look for a cure himself. Comic book scientists may be book smart, but they also have a history of making terrible life choices.
A year later, Foster had sorted out the kinks in his super-science enough to be able to change size on demand. In the short-lived Black Goliath comic book series — which only lasted five issues in 1976 — he’d left the circus and returned to the employ of Stark, heading up Stark’s Los Angeles offices when not fighting crime as that rarity in Marvel’s mythology at the time: a superhero on the West Coast. Things would never be as good for him ever again.
Like everything else about Foster’s comic book career, his West Coast career wouldn’t last; by 1979, he was part of Project Pegasus, a secret U.S. research agency in New York, where he appeared as part of a long-running storyline in the Marvel Two-in-One comic book series. This wasn’t a good time for him. Not only did he go from the name “Black Goliath” to reusing Hank Pym’s old “Giant-Man” name, but he also developed radiation poisoning that got so bad that other heroes had to team up in search of a cure. For the second time in his career, his primary purpose was to give white superheroes something to fight over. (Foster was eventually cured, courtesy of Spider-Woman’s own radioactive blood — don’t ask.)
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, Foster was essentially in limbo, aside from the occasional appearance to sort out loose ends — he gave up the Giant-Man name so that Hank Pym could reclaim it; he lose his powers and then regained them, and so on. But in 2006’s Civil War comic book series, he came back to prominence for the worst reasons imaginable.
The setup of the comic book Civil War is essentially the same as the movie Captain America: Civil War, but with a far higher body count. Amongst the dead was Bill Foster, who dies in the fourth issue of the series at the hands of a clone of Thor, created by Iron Man’s pro-registration side of the argument. His murder shook up the status quo and pushed heroes on both sides of the conflict to reassess their positions.
It was, ultimately, one last act by Foster to do what he’d been forced to do throughout his comic book career — let his suffering and pain catalyze white characters into action. If there’s any justice, we can but hope that the cinematic Bill Foster is given breaks his comic book self never had, even if it’s merely the opportunity to actually do things that impact the large narrative of the universe that don’t happen to involve his pain or death. Ideally, after all, this version of the character offers a second chance for him to exist for more than just the purpose of getting other people to act on his behalf or in his memory.
So far, the prospects are good. In Ant-Man and the Wasp, Foster proved to be a moral authority, sticking by Ghost while also reining in her worst impulses. Even out of costume, he proved to be a hero. Now imagine if Ant-Man 3 gets him back in the suit?