How ‘Ant-Man’ Highlights the Sad State of Marvel’s Female Characters
The following post contains SPOILERS for Ant-Man.
It’s funny, fitting, and sort of cruel that Ant-Man’s version of the Wasp is named Hope.
The comic-book version of the Wasp is named Janet van Dyne, the longtime romantic and crime-fighting associate of Hank Pym’s Ant-Man. The film’s Ant-Man is Scott Lang (Paul Rudd); its Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is an older man who retired following Janet’s death many years earlier. Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is their daughter, grown to adulthood and desperate for the opportunity to continue her mother’s legacy. Her father, though, has other ideas.
Throughout the entire movie, Hope keeps pushing Hank to let her join the fight. He refuses; he lost his wife, he won’t lose his daughter. And while Hope spends the film hoping for an opportunity to prove her value, the audience does the same, hoping that Marvel will finally give its fans the super-powered superheroine they’ve been waiting for.
They, and she, will have to keep waiting.
Hank finally relents and agrees to let Hope become the Wasp … after the movie’s already over. As the credits roll, he gives Hope an upgraded Wasp costume he never finished. Her response: “It’s about damn time!”
It’s clear from the very beginning that Hope is far more qualified to become Wasp (or, hell, even Ant-Man, er, Ant-Person) than Scott Lang. She teaches him how to use Pym Particles to shrink and grow and fight. At every turn, Hope is smarter, tougher, and stronger than Scott, and even though director Peyton Reed eventually provides a rationale why Hank Pym keeps sidelining his daughter (he’s afraid of losing her), it never becomes a satisfying one. It’s a convenient excuse, not a valid explanation.
In conversation with fans of Ant-Man, I’ve heard these scenes described as clever satire; Marvel poking fun at its middling track record with female characters. It’s easy to imagine how, in a funnier and sharper film, these sequences could play that way, with Scott Lang, the bumbling hero, contrasted with Hope, the wildly overqualified benchwarmer. Maybe Edgar Wright’s original vision of the film would have mined that contrast for truly subversive laughs. But Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man is way too invested in the Marvel movie formula to seriously critique it; hence Scott is less of a genuine screwup than a Robin Hood-type with a heart of gold (and abs of steel), and he quickly masters the Ant-Man suit and powers. So Hank Pym basically was correct; he picked the right guy for the job, and he didn’t need Hope to do much after all.
Whenever the subject of Marvel’s underwhelming female characters comes up in interviews, studio president Kevin Feige hews closely to a standard set of talking points. The company can, should, and will do better, but they’ve also always “gone for the powerful women over damsels in distress,” citing examples like Natalie Portman in Thor and Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man. To a certain extent, he’s correct; Portman’s Jane Foster and Paltrow’s Pepper Potts are dynamic, appealing, intelligent characters. Each has stolen many scenes from their super-powered co-stars. But whether or not you want to call them “damsels in distress” they do spend an awful lot of their time getting rescued (Jane in Thor: The Dark World and Pepper in Iron Man 1, 2, and 3).
And then there’s the case of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. A lot was made of the character’s role and actions in Avengers: Age of Ultron, particularly a sequence where she reveals her inability to have children and calls herself a “monster.” Debate the meaning and larger implications of those words all you want, but at least Black Widow was a full-fledged member of the team. At least she played a pivotal role in the story. At least she’s treated like an equal by the other heroes (though she, too, needed rescuing during the film’s third act).
Hope, on the other hand, waits for a moment to shine, and by the time it finally comes the movie is already over. That’s particularly galling in this case because Wasp’s history is just as long, and arguably more distinguished, than Ant-Man’s. Janet van Dyne made her first costumed appearance just a few months after Hank Pym made his, and both were founding members of comics’ Avengers. Ant-Man and Wasp weren’t Batman and Robin; they weren’t hero and sidekick. The two were truly partners, which makes her portrayal in in Ant-Man feel even more like a demotion.
While comics’ Hank Pym eventually went insane and even physically assaulted the Wasp on one occasion, Janet became an Avengers mainstay, and even led the team on numerous occasions. So this isn’t a case of movies simply following their male-heavy source material like Thor or Iron Man; this is a case of a movie downgrading the strong female character in its source material. The best scene in Ant-Man might be Hank Pym’s flashback to Janet’s heroic sacrifice in order to stop a nuclear missile, but even in her one big moment the Wasp doesn’t get to speak. We don’t even see her face.
The reasoning behind that decision was surely practical; this way, the character can be cast later with a big-name star without having to explain why she was played by a different actress in the previous movie. But whatever the motivations, it highlights yet another way the female characters look inferior to the male ones. If the “It’s about damn time” scene had taken place at the midpoint of Ant-Man, and Hope had gotten to participate in the big action finale as the Wasp, that line might have played as the fist pump it’s intended to be. Coming at the very end of the movie, after Hope has spent the better part of two hours being told she’s not ready or it’s too dangerous, it feels less like progress and more like Marvel trying to stave off criticism (like this very article) they know is coming their way.
As much as Hope’s line is intended as a big step in the right direction, fans will have to keep right on waiting for it to become reality. Marvel’s already announced their entire Phase 3 movie lineup — nine films over the next five years — and Ant-Man 2 isn’t on the docket, meaning any sequel won’t come until at least 2020. The first film’s unspectacular opening weekend ($58 million, the second-weakest debut in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe) won’t accelerate that timetable any either.
Feige has hinted that the Wasp will show up somewhere in Marvel’s Phase 3 films (probably as a new member of the Avengers in Infinity War — Part 1) but when that movie hits theaters we’ll still be waiting for a female superhero to take center stage in a Marvel movie all her own. If nothing changes, that drought will finally be broken when Captain Marvel opens on November 2, 2018. It’ll really be about damn time — in four and a half more years.