So, it’s been a little over a week now since Ant-Man came out. The dust is starting to settle as far as the film’s cultural and box office results go and while the box office results seem moderately solid the cultural response has been a bit more mixed. Sure enough the film had its fans and I certainly count myself as one of them but more often than not I’ve encountered people who regarded it with just sort of a moderate enjoyment. More over the film has become something of a nerd talking point over the state of representation, especially the representation of women in Marvel films. I want to talk about this but I can’t do so without spoilers so if you’re still on the fence about Ant-Man go ahead and read my already spoiler free review, then go see the film, then come back here. For everyone else, let’s go.
Okay so the crux of people’s problem with Ant-Man is that Hope van Dyne played by Evangeline Lilly. Hope is the daughter of the original Ant-Man Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas, and despite this fact as well as having infinitely better abilities and skills, she spends the whole film being told she can’t wear the Ant-Man suit. The entire driving plot of the film is basically that Hank Pym doesn’t want Hope to wear the suit so has sought out Scott Lang, Paul Rudd’s character, to become the new Ant-Man despite how inept and unsuited he is for the role. It’s eventually revealed that the reason Pym doesn’t want Hope to use the suit is that his wife, Janet van Dyne, used to use the suit alongside him as the Wasp, till she had an accident with it and was lost in quantum space. Pym’s never really forgiven himself for her death to the point of becoming a recluse in his efforts to find her. Now that size changing is in the picture again he doesn’t want to risk Hope’s life by having her wear the suit.
There’s a lot to unpack in this explanation but I see where people who don’t like it are coming from. I like Hank’s ultimate reason and his strained relationship with Hope serves as both a strong parallel between him and Scott as well as an unfortunate possible future for Scott and his own daughter Cassie. At the same time Hope is still depicted as very heroic and capable throughout the film, playing off a major theme about how heroism doesn’t need to come from big powers or big deeds but just from doing the right thing. However, despite the thematic through line pragmatism still has its day and there probably was a good way to let Hope wear the suit and keep her relationship with Hank mostly intent. I think a big problem a lot of people have is how in your face the film is about Hope being a better choice for the Ant-Man suit than Scott. She can talk to the ants instantly, she’s got martial arts training, she knows the building they’re breaking into, there’s basically no reason beyond the personal ones for her to not be the one wearing the suit.
However, I think the bigger problem at hand is less about Ant-Man as a stand alone film and more it’s place in the Marvel Universe franchise despite her position as the constantly nerfed female friend I actually think Hope van Dyne is the best representation Marvel has had for women yet. I know that might seem counter intuitive but the thing is Hope has a complete arc in this movie; she has her own wants, needs, and ultimate resolution. That’s more than I can say for Black Widow in 3 out of her 4 appearances. In Iron Man 2 she was just there to remind people of what was coming, her role in Winter Soldier was to kick-ass but she doesn’t grow or develop as a character.
There’s kind of the artistic suggestion of an arc in Avengers but she splits so much screen time it ends up thoroughly vague and obfuscated. Only in Age of Ultron does her character have a real definable change and even then a good chunk of how she comes to make the decisions she does and feel the way she does end up lost in the film’s heavy editing. Most of the other Marvel women either fall into girlfriend category like Pepper Pots or Jane Foster or are more static ass kickers like Maria Hill, Lady Sif, or Scarlet Witch. Gamora ends up thoroughly in that same camp. She’s basically introduced to us as wanting to go against Ronan and Thanos and then spends the whole film doing that. Like with Black Widow there’s the artistic suggestion of an arc as she is willing to stand with Peter Quill at the end but her story doesn’t have nearly the development and dedication of Starlord, Drax, or Rocket.
Now to be clear, none of this makes Ant-Man’s approach to Hope any less problematic. It’s still a broken solution to the problem of wanting a strong female character but being unable, for some reason, to give her powers. It’s just that this means of presenting a female character have far more depth and nuance than any other Marvel film. My point is about how Marvel’s inability to depict female characters well devalues even their steps forward. If Ant-Man had come at the start of phase 2 or maybe even the tail end of phase 1 its better approach to female representation might’ve meant something more but this is 12th Marvel film. It should not take a studio 12 movies to figure out that women should have development and character arcs too. It’s especially annoying because of how much Ant-Man’s “solution” seems to parallel Marvel’s approach to female superheroes and superheroes of color overall. Despite the capability of characters like Captain Marvel or Black Panther their films have to be pushed back to make room for another Spider-man movie.
This is the problem with Marvel’s perpetual “we’ll get to it later” stance on moving away from just straight white men as their heroes; later never comes. They’ve dragged their feet and procrastinated so much on this issue that now even genuine improvements like Ant-Man can only serve as an example of how broken their approach towards representation is. This is also probably why Marvel had a major hit this year with shows like Agent Carter and Agents of SHIELD where female leads like Sharon Carter, Quake, Mocking Bird, and Agent Mae are all allowed to be capable heroes with complex and interesting arcs. That’s the point Marvel should take away from the backlash to Ant-Man and Hope van Dyne, that rewarding 7 of years of waiting with baby steps and the promise of more to come isn’t going to fix anything. I mean there’s really no excuse that it’s going to take them 10 years to produce 1 female lead superhero film when the 1978 Superman film series gave us Supergirl in ½ the time.