Ant-Man 3

[Editor’s note – Warning this piece contains spoilers for the film Ant-Man.]

During one of the post-credit scenes in Ant-Man, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) triumphantly exclaims “It’s about damn time!” upon hearing that she will indeed be getting the one thing she has craved for the entire film. The moment is meant to signal a giant step forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A self-congratulatory, and applause inducing, acknowledgement that the MCU is finally moving out of the dark ages and embracing more gender equality on the big screen. While it can be argued that Hope is unfairly pushed to sidelines for most of Ant-Man, her future presence will raise the total number of female heroes in their cinematic stable to five.

The fact that it has taken twelve films to even reach that number is more shameful than the pop stars caught behaving badly on TMZ.

It is no secret that Marvel has been slower than molasses in coming to terms with the fact that males will spend good money to see female driven action films (e.g. The Hunger Games, Lucy, Divergent), there is another culturally significant undercurrent that Ant-Man brings attention to as well. What is most fascinating about Hope’s statement is not that she has longed for this day come, but the fact that it can be applied to race as well.

The thing that struck me the most while watching the film was not the bite size action, which is admittedly fun, but rather the multicultural casting. If felt like one of the few blockbuster this season, without the words “fast” or “furious” in the title, to display a culturally diverse world.

For a company that has spent the last year and a bit playing with notions of gender and racial equality in the comics – by having a female Thor, a Muslim-American Captain Marvel, a Black Captain America, and a Black/Latino Spider-Man – the representation in film has been lackluster at best. While they have revolutionized how franchises are now built, Marvel still seems to be clinging to the outdated notions of what audiences expect when they go to the movies. It is the template that not only presumes audiences worldwide will only see films with white male leads, but also perpetuates the stereotypes that women and minorities are most appealing in the roles of the love interest and sidekick respectively.

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Despite this baffling logic, which seems more well-suited for a time when Leave it to Beaver was considered cutting edge television, to its credit, Ant-Man feels like one of the few Marvel film to truly encapsulate the multicultural tapestry of the modern Obama generation. The film provides images of minorities as scientists, well-to-do families enjoying a wholesome family barbecue, and even as officers of the law. Though such diversity should be commended, it also exposes an inherent problem in Marvel’s quest for cultural harmony.

In building its cinematic universe solely on the backs of pre-existing characters, rather than creating new ones, Marvel has placed themselves in an awkward corner. Not only have they exposed the limitations of their roster from an ethnic standpoint, as there is only a handful of minority heroes they have the film rights to, but it also highlights their inability to incorporate fully realized non-comic book characters into their universe. As a result, they have inadvertently created a cinematic realm where minorities have no other purpose but to either prop up the central hero or serve as the comic relief. Ant-Man is a perfect example of this.

We are first introduced to our hero, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), while he is engaged in a scuffle within the confines of a prison whose inmates are predominantly minorities. What looks like a fight at first turns out to be a weird “last day of jail ritual” in which Lang must knock out a large African-American inmate…a task that very few are successful in doing. Of course Lang fails, as he has not yet learned how to throw a decent punch, but gets the respect of the inmate who will be spending the rest of his days in prison repeating this same ritual. A similar scene is echoed later on when Lang, now in full Ant-Man attire, goes on his first real mission and encounters the heroic Falcon (Anthony Mackie) at one of the Avengers’ facilities. Thinking that Lang is an intruder, which technically he is, the two men battle in a sequence that is meant to show that Lang now has learned the skills that make him worthy to be an Avenger.

Ant-Man

Unlike in prison, Lang is victorious this time around and ultimately earns respect from Falcon, the latter of whom is reduced to sheepishly asking his security team not to tell Captain America of his embarrassing defeat. This post-fight moment is played for laughs, and aims to highlight Falcon’s lighter side. However, the only reason the scene even moderately works, if you can ignore the fact that he is keeping a major security breach hidden from his fellow heroes, is the fact that audiences got to see Falcon do actual heroic things in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The rest of the culturally diverse supporting players do not have the luxury of pre-existing backstories. They are never developed into anything more than walking punchlines, individuals whose sole purpose is to look worse than the “hero” at all times. It is why Lang’s fellow thieves are bumbling nitwits and the cops are laughably bad at their jobs. While Luis (the always great Michael Peña) is amusing in doses, he is so thinly constructed that even his moment of “culture”, at the local museum, does little to curb the fact that the audience is frequently encouraged to laugh at the stereotypes of the “other”.

Louis represents the lovable criminal who has no real impact on the MCU whatsoever. His actions do not carry the same weight as the four principle leads or the business suit wearing villains – why Marvel, a global corporation, keeps mining the well of big business being evil is beyond me – all of whom are Caucasian. Despite being on opposite sides of the law, police offers such as Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) and Gale (Wood Harris) are on the same insignificant slope as Luis. They are cops who frequently get distracted while on the job and do not seem to even grasp the basics with respect to proper police work. While interviewing Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), their biggest lead in locating the fugitive Lang, they not only both get distracted by the fact that their car is being stolen, but pretty much give up on Pym altogether. When they eventually catch up with Louis’ associates, one of whom stole their vehicle; they neglect to handcuff them before running towards an even bigger incident.

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Though Paxton gets a few scenes to show his life away from the job, Gale is essentially an accessory who occasionally chimes in facts about their investigation that ultimately get forgotten as the film progresses.

While these moments may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of Marvel’s cinematic opera, they speak to a greater problem in the MCU. Marvel is now in a phase where building anticipation for future films trumps creating individual films that feature diverse and interesting characters.

With only a handful of heroes who are either female or visible minorities, audiences are sadly left to seek out representation of themselves in the supporting roles and in the extras in the background of scenes. All they find though are buffoons and disposable individuals whose arcs can be summed up in one sentence.

Ant-Man is by no means a racist film, as I stated above its quest for diverse casting should be commended. If anything, the film is an important first step up the ladder towards an era of equality when people of all sexes and ethnic backgrounds are so common in the MCU that audiences do not even think twice. A time when fans will not need to wait six more films before the much touted likes of Captain Marvel and Black Panther the first female and non-white led movies, within the MCU, to come down the cinematic pipeline. However, Marvel needs to start doing a better job of displaying more well-rounded and diverse characters in their constantly expanding universe.

Better yet, why not do something truly bold and introduce brand new culturally diverse heroes into the Marvel Cinematic Universes. Characters who will leave a unique and interesting mark on the Marvel landscape, rather than simply being the constant butt of jokes.

12 Comments

  1. Have you considered putting Spoiler tags on the intro? Sorry, I’ve yet to see the film and very nearly had the post-credits scene spoiled!!

    1. Apologies, it was not my intention to spoil the post-credits scene for you. I assumed the scene was already well-publicized and did not think twice about it. Spoiler warning has been added.

      1. It was well-publicized, I’m just quick to avoid them and slow to see Ant-Man. I look forward to reading your piece once I’ve seen it, though!

  2. Interesting post and I agree with the central idea but not so much the picture it paints of the MCU. I read comics for over 30 years, that is until Marvel lost any creative muscle and began milking gimmicks for all they can. Personally I believe changing genders and races of established characters is nothing more than an exposure of their creative lapses. I would love to see new characters and heroes created from a diverse background but Marvel rarely tries that. Instead we make Thor a woman. We make Wolverine a woman. We make Spider-man Latino. In other words they make big changes and pat themselves on the back when all they’re doing are riding the histories of in stablished characters instead of creative new interesting ones.

    But to the MCU more directly. When you’re basing your movie on an established comic character with tons of history, I’ve never liked the idea of changing their race or sex. Thor is a white man. Luke Cage is an African American. Tony Stark is a white man. Black Panther is African American. Black Widow is a woman. Ms. Marvel is a woman, etc. etc. for me, that too those characters are and half of the fun of the movies is bringing these characters to the big screen. Not altering them for diversity sake.

    But then you get back to Marvel comics and their failures to give us new heroes with new and fresh stories that can then be brought into the MCU. That is where I find their failure. And for Ant-Man was a glaring example of that. I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie and didn’t care for the end credits scene you point out. The decision to use Scott Lang and Hope from the comics instead of Hank and Janet was a bad one. Janet was the Wasp and she is a great character that would have been fabulous in the MCU. Instead we get Hope, a character that didn’t really offer a lot in Ant-Man. But I will say this – I read where her part was significantly smaller in the original script.

    Anyway, sorry to ramble. It’s just a great post and a fascinating subject.

    1. I actually think we are on the same page but approaching from different angles. I agree that changes the gender and race of existing characters, rather than create new ones, is a sign of lack of creativity. However, in some cases, such as the Ms. Marvel series, it at least provides interesting areas of exploration for a company reluctant to spend money on marketing new characters. Other times, take Captain America for example, the change is not as captivating. Frankly, I thought Bucky as Captain America was far more interesting to read than when Falcon took on the responsibilities of the suit.

      In regards to the MCU, I am not suggesting that they change the race or gender of existing characters, but rather that they bring in new ones alongside the existing ones. Yes, the MCU is basing their roster on characters with tons of history, but the majority of them were created in an era where diversity, both from a gender and a race standpoint, was not really prevalent in comics. Why continue such a trend? There is nothing stopping from reworking old story arc for brand new characters. If filmmakers can find new and invigorating ways to apply Shakespearian tropes into works that are not direct Shakespeare adaptations, than surely Marvel can spare a few plots threads from their 70+ year catalogue for brand new characters.

      I think the “existing history” argument is a crutch Marvel uses to justify their fear of trying new things. DC is currently making a movie with Harley Quinn in it, and she was a character that was created for the Batman the Animated Series cartoon. She does not have years of history, but she is an interesting enough character that they were able to leverage her across other platforms to great success. Why isn’t Marvel attempting a similar thing with a new character?

      Plus, Marvel has already shown in the MCU that their established canon is not as sacred as fans think it is. The MCU frequently takes liberties with their comic book continuity in cinematic universe, take Tony Stark creating Ultron and not Hank Pym for example, so there is no excuse for them not thinking outside of the box when it comes to utilizing diverse characters.

      1. I see a lot of what you’re saying. I do think changing plot points is drastically different than changing characters. I don’t think the story histories are as sacred as some may. Clearly the MCU is its own thing but featuring these well defined great characters. To be honest I don’t know if I would be interested in watching a reworked and remade Captain America who wasn’t Steve Rogers. Now certain plot points could make a change along the way (you referenced some post-Civil War changes that were interesting).

        I love the Harley Quinn example. She is what I’m getting at. A new character that’s really good who made her way into the comics and the movies. Marvel should have been doing this long ago.

  3. Fabulous piece of writing. You nailed it. Diversity is essential, yt it’s so often lacking. Now, let’s see Marvel cast an older woman. I double dare them…

      1. It would be nice to see more older women in the MCU. Outside of Glenn Close in Guardians of the Galaxy and Rene Russo in the Thor film, few women over the age of fifty have not gotten a chance to show their stuff the way older men have.

  4. Nice article Courtney. I’d love to see less sidekick and more featured roles as well. It’s why Black Panther has me so excited both his introduction next year and his own feature film.

    1. Outside of Black Panther, and Luke Cage on the small screen, the pickings are slim for feature players. Regardless, I am keeping my expectations modest for Black Panther. I am hoping it will at least turn out to be a Blade level surprise hit. I can’t see the film having the same amount of audience friendly humour as Ant-Man or Guardians.

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