I come to both praise Ant-Man and to question its storytelling choices. Spoilers inside!
First, this is not a full review. Here is my nutshell review of the movie: It was good. Fun, but predictable. By the numbers, but by-and-large they were good numbers. Second, I’m mostly going to talk about Hope van Dyne, but I’ll come back to Janet van Dyne at the end. What I’m doing with this post is building up to a question. A question I don’t have any answers to, but one I think needs to be asked. Third, a disclosure: I am a straight white man (who does his best to at least be aware of his own privilege), and I therefore apologize in advance for my own ignorance.
In the middle third of the movie, the central dynamic is Hank, Hope, and Scott learning to work together. The core question of the central dynamic is: Why Scott? Why not Hope? This is also the question that the feminist perspective has us asking. Why introduce* a daughter to the original Ant-Man and then have Hank Pym resolutely insist that she not take up the mantle? There’s an in-story reason for this, maybe even a very good one, which is why I’m ultimately asking about why this is the story they chose to tell.
So. Why does genius Hank Pym take all the time and effort to uncover and study a network of small-time criminals so that he can create an elaborate ruse to lure 15-minutes-famous-thief Scott Lang into taking and using the suit? Well, the movie is predictable. I found myself thinking, “He’s an ex-con. He’s a patsy, a fall guy.” Sure enough, about ten minutes later, Scott tells Hope, “I’m expendable.”
Which brings us to the in-story reason. Hank Pym is an overprotective father. But not just that! In service to drawing out the tension betweeen the characters, he’s an overprotective father who is also very bad at expressing himself to his daughter. This will come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing familiarity of prior Hank Pym stories - it seems it is his fate to be a cosmic-level failure.
As explanations of minimizing female characters go, this one has the distinct advantage of realism. Lots of people are overprotective parents, and lots of people are bad at communicating important emotional states. both to their family and to themselves. And on top of that, lots of people believe their daughters (and women in general) to be fragile and in need of protection.
So whether the writers of the movie intended it or not, Ant-Man addresses the question of “Why aren’t we letting our daughters be heroes?” And maybe one way of doing this is to talk about why men tend to restrict and constrain women they know, and why they’re being irrational in doing so. But what I kept coming back to through the course of the movie was, yes, this is a good examination of latent sexism, but that still means it’s yet another story where a woman is ignored/dismissed/minimized.
It’s not hard to imagine the story going a different way, even with Hank’s failures as a father. Maybe he gives Hope the Wasp suit earlier. Maybe she finds it on her own. Maybe at the climax of the movie**, she becomes the Wasp, rescues Hank and Scott, and saves the day. Maybe Hope is the one who ends up shrinking down into the “quantum realm” and there she finds and rescues her mother, alive and well. Or maybe Janet never ‘died’ and the MCU didn’t entirely erase one of the founding members of the Avengers. But I digress.
Here, at last, is the question to which I have been building. Is telling stories about the ways in which men are sexist necessary to continue the conversation about sexism? One thing is definitely clear: we need more stories from and about the perspectives of women (including and especially women of color). But do we need stories where the sexism happens as it does in reality, or can we rely more on stories where women face and overcome it?
Thoughts, comments, angry insults, flames, all welcome.
*Yes I know Hope Pym exists in the comics, as Red Queen.
**I still remember the literary definition of climax I was taught in school. It’s not the big flashy setpiece ending, it’s the moment where everything after is set in motion by what came before. In Ant-Man, this occurs when Cross pulls the Yellowjacket suit out from Scott’s grasp.