Winking self-acknowledgment is not an acceptable substitute for actual self-improvement.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
WARNING: The following article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Ant-Man, and SPOILERS OF VARYING AMOUNTS for other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Throughout most of Ant-Man, Hope van Dyne spends her time being considerably irritated by the fact that Scott Lang is the one stepping into the Ant-Man suit instead of her. She has good reason to, though. Hope is tougher than Scott, she’s smarter than Scott, she already knows Pym Technologies inside out, and she’s close enough to Derrick to be able to be kept in the loop at all times. Essentially, there is no good reason for her not to be wearing that suit. She knows it, everyone else knows it, and the film itself knows it. Yet, she is told time and time again by her overprotective father that she can’t. Instead, Scott is the one in the suit because he’s expendable, and Hank can’t bear to think about what would happen if things went bad with Hope in that suit.
In addition to being an arc for both Hank and Hope – him learning to accept that his wife (and Hope’s mother) Janet chose to sacrifice herself and that him trying to control the women in his life, even if he does genuinely think that it’s in their best interest, is wrong; her learning not resent her Dad for his decisions in life – the stuff with Hope also works as a meta-text for Marvel’s reticence to just allow women to suit up, kick ass, and headline their own damn movie already. There’s a character that’s basically a stand-in for every single audience member who is sick of waiting for women to get their shot at the limelight, she is told by the hunky white guy that he’s there because he’s expendable if anything goes wrong, and a big part of big daddy Hank’s arc is learning that keeping women from being superheroes out of some misguided paternal instinct just breeds resentment. The first of the film’s two big mid-credits scenes involves Hank revealing a prototype Wasp costume and giving Hope permission to use it, to which she responds with the big-hell-yes line, “It’s about damn time.”
Here’s the thing. Yes, I really like Hope. Yes, I agree with what Ant-Man is saying. Yes, I appreciate that Marvel seems to understand the criticisms levelled against it. And, yes, my heart did swell with joy at the reveal of the Wasp costume. But, no, I don’t think that we should be giving Marvel credit or praise for any of this. After all, they are part of the problem. Kevin Feige has constantly shot down the idea of a Black Widow solo movie, Captain Marvel isn’t due until November 2018 (and every single one of these movies from now on is getting mentally marked-down if they don’t feature Carol Danvers in at least a 10 second post-credits sequence), and this franchise still hasn’t been making any particular strides towards bettering itself when it comes to its female characters.
Yet here’s Ant-Man, self-consciously pointing out how ridiculous this situation is and expecting a round of applause for doing so, instead of actually trying to fix the issue. It’s like an architect of glass houses pointing out all of the structural dangers and safety concerns inherent in his work, and how ridiculous it is that he’s doing this, and then expecting a ticker-tape parade and a knighthood because at least he admitted to it, right?
Look, it’s not that I don’t approve of a big movie pointing out the fact that this is a problem that needs fixing, I just don’t think that Marvel are the people who should be doing so. Black Widow is still one of only two Avengers to not have their own solo movie because… well, quite frankly, Kevin Feige can’t seem to come up with a genuine answer. If the issue is brought up, he’ll instead spout some rhetoric about how they have “gone for the powerful woman versus the damsel in distress” as if that excuses them continually side-lining these characters over their male counterparts.
In fairness, Marvel films do typically have better-written female characters than most blockbusters, in that most of them do actually contribute to the plot in ways that aren’t solely “jumping into the hero’s pants”. But they’re still not great. For one, most of these “powerful women” arrive from the same school that most “powerful women” in popular media do: the ones who kick ass and/or snark but otherwise lack much distinctive personality. Lady Sif, Gamora, Maria Hill, Sharon Carter… My affection for these characters are born less out of what I’ve gotten to know about them in their respective films and more out of my love for their actresses and hints of what could possibly be done with them in the future. Instead, they’re always the least-served characters in their respective movies, asked to do nothing more than occasionally beat people up and snark before getting out of the way of the men’s stuff.
Otherwise, despite Feige’s assertions, these women still mostly fall into the camps of “love interest” or “damsel”, and sometimes both! Jane Foster’s main role in both Thor movies is “bland love interest” whilst her contributions to helping Thor save the world are forced at best. Pepper Potts, despite spending much of the first two Iron Man movies being depicted as Tony Stark’s intellectual equal, is relegated to being just another damsel throughout Iron Man 3 with her last minute Extremis powers being an utterly laughable attempt to combat arguments like mine about the near-total destruction of her character. (There’s also the fact that Iron Man 3 itself is borderline misogynistic, but that’s a whole other article.) And despite acting as a walking meta-commentary on female marginalisation in the MCU and how this needs to change, Hope still spends the majority of Ant-Man on the sidelines and ends the movie as the girlfriend of Scott Lang, despite the only build-up being a begrudging respect for him and a flustered look at some fine Paul Rudd abs, because… that’s how these things are supposed to go, I guess.
Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t some really genuinely well-drawn female characters in the MCU – everybody keeps bringing up Black Widow for a reason (even if Age of Ultron dropped the ball by handing the sterilisation and Bruce Banner developments less-than-well), but Peggy Carter has also blossomed into an outstanding character, and Scarlet Witch is, in my opinion, the real star of Ultron – and I’m also not saying that strong female characters (how I hate that phrase) can’t also be love interests, pre-Iron Man 3 Pepper was absolutely one of the strongest and most well-written characters of this franchise regardless of gender. But what I am saying is that this currently isn’t good enough and that there is room for substantial improvement. And I do mean substantial; this is not something that can be fixed purely by the existence of Captain Marvel, although Feige worryingly gives off the impression that he thinks it can.
A female-led superhero movie is a good start, but it’s not a be-all-end-all. These movies need more better-written women across the board. It’s not just that Hope is better suited to the Ant-Man suit than Scott, it’s that her character is honestly not that interesting beyond her meta-text and Evangeline Lilly’s charm offensive. It’s not that Gamora is boring, it’s that her few moments of genuine personality (which call to mind Starfire from DC’s Teen Titans, natch) are just that. Moments, compared to the extensive character studies we get for Peter Quill and Rocket Raccoon in the rest of Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s not that Jane can’t be Thor’s girlfriend, it’s the fact that she doesn’t really have a distinctive personality beyond being his girlfriend who occasionally quips about how ridiculous this world she’s been shunted into is, and she’s outperformed at that by Darcy.
The reason why everybody keeps calling for a Black Widow solo movie is not because we just want a movie in which a female superhero is fronting things instead of a man. It’s because, through the four films that she’s appeared in so far, Black Widow is one of the most richly-drawn, well-defined, and just plain interesting characters in the MCU. And she’s a woman, which makes that prior fact a goddamn miracle. This is what everybody seems to misunderstand. DC and Warner Bros. seem to be under the impression that throwing Wonder Woman into Batman v. Superman and giving her a prominent three-second shot in the trailer is going to be enough to get them showered in bouquets of roses. And whilst it is more than nice to finally see Wonder Woman up on the big screen, it’s going to mean jack sh*t if she hasn’t got an interesting character with stuff to do and only shows up to kick arse and snark indiscriminately. Because then she’s not Wonder Woman, she’s just yet another in a long line of quote-unquote ‘strong female characters’.
That’s why the Hope stuff in Ant-Man irritates me so. Yes, it’s nice that everyone seems to recognise that this is a problem, and that they are going to put Hope in the Wasp suit at some unspecified point in the future assuming the inevitable heat-death of the universe doesn’t murder us all to death first. It’s the fact that the film still doesn’t actually do anything to fix the problem, still mostly marginalising Hope’s role in the story, still giving her a rather interchangeable personality, and still shunts her far out of the way of the important concluding parts of the story. Openly acknowledging a problem is not an acceptable substitute for actually trying to fix the problem, and the time and effort spent on this “look at us, we’re so self-aware and clever” routine is time and effort that could have been spent actually bettering the situation.
Hope’s “it’s about damn time” is meant to be a satisfying fist-pumping indicator that things may finally be turning a corner, but forgive me for holding off on the party poppers and champagne until I see actual evidence that things are getting better. And, no, just throwing Carol Danvers into a post-credits sequence alone won’t be enough.