“Ant-Man and the Rise of the Female Superhero” by Nick Beard

 

*Please Note: The Following Essay Contains Film Spoilers.

It’s not until the first post-credit sequence of Ant-Man that the film really sets itself apart from its Marvel predecessors: Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who the film had previously treated as a support for the superheroes, rises above being given definition as the daughter of one superhero and girlfriend of another.  She is presented with an updated version of the Wasp costume which, we are told, her mother wore as a superhero.  “It’s about time,” van Dyne says, a statement which elicits nods and cheers from all feminist Marvel fans.  After seven movies made by Marvel Studios, headlined by white men named Chris, the idea of a film led by a female superhero, especially one as focused and passionate about justice as Hope, is incredibly exciting for fans, especially those of us who would like to see our superheroes a bit more diverse.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (which is really just a series of interconnected films about a collection of superheroes – the films share a broad cast of characters) has been one of the most popular film series of all time and includes three of the top ten highest grossing films of all time.  Over half of the movie audiences are women – so why has the state of female Marvel superheroes previously been so dismal?  And why is Hope so exciting, if not so unusual?

It’s impossible to discuss female screen superheroes without mentioning Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johannson.)  The lone female Avenger in the first film, Avengers Assemble, the former Soviet assassin became a fan favourite with her nebulous moral code and complicated but devoted platonic friendship with partner Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), as well as the rest of the Avengers.  Despite her popularity, Marvel executives have consistently opposed the idea of a Black Widow solo film, noting their belief that the character is at her best when playing off of and contrasting with other Marvel characters.  Oddly, this same belief has never stopped Chris Evans’ Captain America from appearing in solo films, even though Captain America, with his black and white World War II mentality, became a far more fascinating and complex character when playing off Black Widow or Robert Downey Jr’s reformed arms dealer, Iron Man.  And womanising Iron Man has never been called a slut by any of the actors in the franchise (Renner’s attempts to explain his comments proceeded to shine an unpleasant light on the double standards that still exist for women – even fictional women.)  So why has the studio been so reluctant to greenlight a Black Widow movie, despite fan demand?

Perhaps it is because most of the Marvel movies tend to follow the same romantic formula.  While the female heroines are indeed intelligent and brave (from Gwyneth Paltrow’s CEO Pepper Potts to Natalie Portman’s astrophysicist Jane Foster to Hayley Atwell’s breakout Agent Peggy Carter – the latter was even given her own TV series), they are, to varying degrees, supportive background characters for their love interests.  Even Black Widow was shunted sidewise into the role of love interest in the latest Avengers movie, Age of Ultron.  New Avenger Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) had a character arc fuelled by her relationship with a man; albeit her twin brother, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).  While Ant Man’s Hope could have been defined simply as the daughter of one superhero and the love interest of another, she is far from content to settle for such definitions; Hope makes no secret of her desire to assume the role of Ant Man.

The movie begins when single father Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), finishing a prison sentence, cannot resist taking one more job in order to pay child support for his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder) – the job leads him to retired superhero Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who needs help stealing a size-shifting suit back from his protégée Darren Cross (Corey Stoll.)  The movie first surprises in a variety of small ways; unlike the typical portrayal of an ex-wife in Hollywood, Scott’s ex-wife is presented as a fundamentally decent person without anger or malice towards her ex-husband.  She clearly still likes him and hopes to co-parent; her desire for him to find a stable place to live and pay child support are not extraordinary.  The movie’s next surprise is how it gives Hope permission to be, in many ways, a better superhero than Scott.  She is a trained martial artist, able to communicate with ants (the Ant-Man’s assistants, obviously) and allows her sense of morality and justice to overcome her lifelong feud with her father.

Most superheroes are reluctant to assume the cape of justice – Hope wants nothing more than the Ant-Man suit, and has worked and trained for the role.  In a world of angsty male superheroes, Hope’s focus is refreshing.  As is the fact that the movie refuses to sideline her into a traditional “love interest” role; the romance with Scott is underplayed, almost as an afterthought – for most of the movie, they are simply working together.  Much more emphasis is put on the rift between Hope and her father, and it was a bit disappointing that Douglas and Lilly were not given a bit more depth to their family disagreement – when the inevitable father/daughter reunion occurs, it felt far from earned.

Ultimately, it is exciting to see Hope as a character who refuses to settle for a role as a sidekick to the men.  With the announcement of the eventual releases of a film featuring Ms Marvel, Scarlet Witch’s expanded role as a member of the Avengers and even a Wonder Woman movie announced by DC Comics, Ant –Man may be remembered as the film at which all fans could agree that really, it’s about time a female superhero took the spotlight – and that we can’t wait to see what happens when she does.

If you wish to get in touch with the author of this piece you can do so via Twitter:@beardy911

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