The film presents its two fathers, Scott Lang and Hank Pym, as acting on behalf of their daughters. But their actions are also on behalf of themselves—to the detriment of developing one female character. And the word I repeat too often below is “frustrating.”
Ant-Man (2015, directed by Peyton Reed) is a bizarre film to watch, not only because of its complicated production history, its momentary immersion into the Microverse, or the fact that freaking Ant-Man is getting a film before Black Panther, Runaways, Captain Marvel, or Ms. Marvel.
No, the film is also bizarre given its approach to representing men and women.
In the film, adapted from issues of Marvel Comics published since 1962 created by, among others, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby, David Michelinie, and John Byrne, cat burglar and anti-corporate do-gooder Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), recently released from prison, is recruited by retired superhero Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to take on the role of Ant-Man, shrinking to tiny size while augmenting his strength beyond average-height human abilities, to steal back Pym’s shrinking technology before it is misused to commit terror worldwide.
The twelfth installment in Marvel Comics’s Cinematic Universe, which began with the first Iron Man film (2008), Ant-Man actually has been in development for about nine years. Edgar Wright (The World’s End) had been attached as director since 2006, and he and frequent collaborator Joe Cornish are listed in credits for story and screenplay. Wright dropped out of the project in May 2014, a little more than one year before its release date. Paul Rudd, already signed on to play the titular superhero, and his frequent collaborator Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys), re-wrote portions of Wright and Cornish’s script, and Peyton Reed (Bring It On) was brought on as director.
Ant-Man, Mental Health, and Violence Against Janet Van Dyne
Aside from these changes in director and writing, Ant-Man has had lowered expectations for many of us fans due to problems related to the superhero himself. The character Ant-Man has been pivotal to Marvel Comics since the Avengers began: the first iteration of Ant-Man, scientist Hank Pym, was an original co-founder of the group along with his partner (do not call her a sidekick) and eventual wife, Janet Van Dyne, alias Wasp. In fact, it was Wasp who coined the name “Avengers” in the superhero group’s first issue (July 1963, written by Stan Lee, illustrated by Jack Kirby, ink by Dick Ayers, color by Stan Goldberg, letters by Sam Rosen). Although recognized by fans as a first Avenger, Pym is more likely well-known for his association with physical abuse upon Van Dyne. There are at least two major examples. The first is striking Van Dyne across the face in reaction to an insult she made to him, his current mental health, and his multiple personality condition. The second is a far more simplistic representation of Pym as a sociopath, as in Mark Millar’s alternate-universe story The Ultimates, in which Pym attempts to kill his shrunken wife first with bug spray then with ants.
When Pym as your titular character is most closely associated with violence against his own wife, and with a history of mental health problems, it is unlikely that a Disney-produced film adaptation will touch upon those topics, and it is difficult to find a team of creators who could approach those topics without causing their story to devolve into the same problematic representations of women and mental health as persists in the original Marvel stories and Millar’s adaptation.
Instead, we get to listen to Luis (Michael Peña), one of Lang’s fellow thieves, say, “Daddy don’t get scared,” when Lang warns his character that the shrinking powers may be frightening. So when Luis is predictably scared, screaming at a high pitch and running out of the room, Lang chides him, “What, I thought daddy don’t get scared!” This film shows, however, that daddies do get scared—and that motivating fear, however reasonable it is to justify a father trying to protect his daughter, is loaded with patriarchal assumptions of men controlling the destinies of their daughters. It is off-putting at best, misogynistic at worst.
The film adaptation does not present Hank Pym as committing physical abuse to his wife Janet Van Dyne (played by CGI and faceless model in one photograph because why bother showing the face of a founding Avenger in your film?). Nor is Pym shown to have diagnosed mental conditions such as multiple personalities. Pym eventually reveals that, on his missions to save the world, he partnered with his wife, who wore her own shrinking suit as Wasp. On one mission, his shrinking abilities malfunction, and it was left to her to shrink—but too much, leaving her not necessarily dead but on an unending process of shrinking smaller and smaller for all eternity (or until a sequel figures out how to bring her back). The writers and Douglas do well at portraying Pym as depressed, mourning the supposed death of Van Dyne and unable to face the guilt he imagines his and Van Dyne’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), will feel for his inability to save Van Dyne. I appreciate the film for not making Van Dyne into the victim of domestic abuse for the sake of giving Pym any redemption arc, and I appreciate the film for portraying mourning in a realistic fashion.
Although the film is realistic in its portrayal of mourning, the results become patronizing to female characters. On the level of story, it is frustrating to have another superhero story in which female superheroes, many of them often far more capable than their male counterparts, are killed off so as to be the motivating factor for the male characters. The supposed death of Janet Van Dyne can be another example of fridging in comics.
A death of a female character, whether handled well or poorly, would not be as frustrating if it was not in the context of other attempts to exclude female characters from the superhero narrative, more specifically in the context of other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) continues to be present in the Cinematic Universe, not only in the Captain America films and her own television series, as well as a cameo at the beginning of Ant-Man, Marvel Films continues to drag its feet on a solo Black Widow movie, the Captain Marvel film is delayed for another Spider-man film, and comics with female leads such as Ms. Marvel, Araña, and Runaways have not yet been adapted to film. If you aren’t a dude, you’re likely not a lead protagonist in an upcoming Marvel film.
The film makes Janet Van Dyne such a non-entity that her name is rarely used. And it is pointless for how this film does not let us see Van Dyne’s face, including when she dons the Wasp suit. Although I have been frustrated with the Marvel films’ insistence on de-masking characters for the sake of getting their money’s worth for casting Robert Downey Jr and other actors, I was happy Ant-Man took a different approach: even though Ant-Man and Wasp in the comics tend to have their faces partially exposed, the full-head helmet is welcome for breaking this marketing-induced trend while providing a plausible reason to diverge from the design of the suit in the comics (you need a mask to help with breathing, and you need a containment suit for the Pym Particles because, well, if you are containing the particles, you can’t have your face uncontained).
But the stylistic choice of masking Ant-Man and Wasp’s faces does not mean hiding Van Dyne’s face in every other single moment in this film. The flashback that shows Van Dyne disarming the missile is forgivable: if Pym has a full-head helmet, so too should Van Dyne. But it is exhausting viewers’ patience when Van Dyne’s face is hidden even in Pym’s family photographs that he keeps on his mantle: the villain Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) looks at the photograph of young adult Hope, but the camera shows no photographs of Janet. When one photograph of Janet finally appears at the end of the film, she has a huge hat obscuring her face. Who is she, Sara Bellum? If the excuse is that they did not want to cast Janet right now, then have cast some actor to play her now, then re-cast her in later films. There is already the precedence of re-casting major roles, such as Howard Stark, not only bouncing between Dominic Cooper and John Slattery as suits Stark’s age, but when the first Iron Man film had him played by Gerard Sanders. Heck, if you have James Rhodes transforming from Terrence Howard into Don Cheadle, then you can have Van Dyne from Ant-Man transform into Van Dyne from Ant-Man 2: Escaping the Microverse or whatever will be the title to the next film.
This erasure of Janet Van Dyne from the film is part of a practice of removing the other major female superhero from the film, Hope Van Dyne. The film repeatedly teases Hope taking on the Ant-Man suit instead of Lang, then the Wasp suit of her mother. This is not given payoff at all in the film: she does not don a superhero suit, she does not shrink, and now Kevin Feige, guiding the Marvel Films, says Hope will not suit up until after the next Captain America film, which is scheduled for a 2016 release. (Funny how Feige complains there are too many heroes in Civil War, but we can fit in Spider-man, Black Panther, Hawkeye, and who knows who else.)
The Sidelining of Hope Van Dyne
The film does draw attention to its own gender problems. Pym chooses Lang to take on the mantle of Ant-Man because he himself lacks the ability to do so anymore, not only because of age but long-term effects from wearing the suit. As well, Pym seems to be so traumatized by Van Dyne’s supposed death that I would not be surprised that post-traumatic stress psychologically prevents him from wearing the suit. Yet in choosing Lang, someone he has known in-person for less than a day, Pym passes over his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly). Tasha Robinson at The AV Club expresses confusion why Pym increases this wedge between himself and his estranged daughter, especially as her own scientific skill makes her a helpful partner to have in investigating what made her mother disappear years ago. But Robinson’s argument overlooks that the film already gives those answers, albeit through poorly handled answer, on the basis of Pym’s survivor guilt. Distance from her father since her mother’s death in 1987—the details of which Pym does not discuss with Hope, close to 30 years later, due to his own trauma and for narrative convenience to pit daughter against father—has made Hope bitter, rightly so but, again, not primarily as a way to address post-traumatic stress, or as only a parallel between Lang’s own problems being near his daughter Cassie due to custody rights.
No, Hope is made bitter so that Pym’s heroism is by overcoming her problems with him, not overcoming his own problems only, and so that Lang looks better in comparison. Hope is said to have made poor decisions after her mother’s death, such as using her role within her father’s company to vote him off the board, inadvertently empowering Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) to refashion Pym’s technology for terrorist use. She shows open dislike for Lang, and that’s just no good because we like Lang, thanks to Rudd’s boyish charm and the fact that he is our designated character. The film will hold up Lang as a model for good behavior: he is reasonable with his ex-wife and agrees to wait until he can afford child support (which will take more than a year to accumulate) before he has visitation rights to his own daughter; he is willing to die for this mission for Pym, or else be turned in by Pym back to prison for theft. But Hope Van Dyne is the bad guy: she alerted the cops to Lang’s theft of the Ant-Man suit, despite Pym letting Lang steal it; she sold out her father to the board, then comes crawling back to him to collaborate on a heist plan to prevent Cross from selling the technology to terrorists; she is rude to Lang—oh, the nerve!
The problem with turning Hope into the antagonist, however tepid is her antagonism and however quickly she is turned to being fully on Lang’s side, is that it is needless controversy so that the plot has conflict.
While I have read criticism referring to her portrayal as that of a stereotypical cold businesswoman (similar to the criticism made about Bryce Dallas Howard’s character in Jurassic World), I was more frustrated that, to make her credible, the film tries to position her as hypermasculine with an insult against Lang, referring to him as “princess.” I get it, being a princess means Lang is feminized, which is obviously oh-so-bad for a man to be—oh, shut up. After Disney releases Big Hero 6 with a female character saying “Woman up” rather than “Man up” so as to communicate confident and physical power as not only masculine but also feminine, and after the work done with numerous Disney Princess films to represent the idea of a princess as not one of weakness (Mulan kicks ass, Rapunzel kicks ass, Elsa is awesome), it is disappointing for this Disney film to try to make Hope Van Dyne badass at the expense of associating femininity (“princess”) with weakness. It is a minor point to raise over just one word in this film, but I was cringing at that moment. After all the gender-bending that Joss Whedon accomplished in both Avengers films (in which conventionally masculine and feminine propensities are actually shown to be gender-neutral, such that Romanoff can take on qualities conventionally associated with masculinity, and Stark, Rogers, and Barton can take on qualities conventionally associated with femininity), it is frustrating to see Ant-Man regress. I do not know where that line in the script originates, whether from Wright’s side or McKay’s side, but I did not like Hope Van Dyne’s remark.
I think I am especially frustrated by Hope’s word choice because it seems indicative of the kind of corporate structure that the film shows: Hope is the only woman shown as a board member in Pym’s company, after Cross’s takeover of it. This detail is not discussed in the film. Hope is treated by Cross as his confident for his emotional problems, similar to the role she takes on as a sounding-board for Pym’s guilt over his wife’s death and Lang for his irritation at being unable to guide the ants. She is called a scientist, it is apparent she is a scientist since she knows how to use the Ant-Man suit, as much of one as Pym, the inventor of the suit, and Lang, a hacker, a technician, and an electrician. Yet Hope is not allowed to take on her father’s role as the new Ant-Man because of her father’s understandable fears but ones that within the film reinforce the same problem: unless the man says she may do so, she doesn’t get to do so, because he thinks he knows better how to protect her. On what grounds? By age? She’s already in her 30s–by this point, experience only goes so far. By scientific know-how? The film says she is a scientist, she knows how to bypass all of security measures within Cross’s facility (another reason she states repeatedly why she should be the one in the suit), so that reason isn’t good enough. Hence, we are left with Pym having the same problem that Joe West has with his daughter Iris in the CW Network’s The Flash: the fathers protect their daughters by keeping them ignorant of the really dangerous details. What if Van Dyne did put on the Ant-Man suit and didn’t know the dangers of it? By keeping the reasons why Janet Van Dyne died, by going subatomic, Pym has kept that important knowledge away from Hope Van Dyne, such that if she goes subatomic, she will die, too–that’s a poor plan. If this film is trying to show men underestimate women out of patriarchal assumptions, congratulations, we could have figured that one out from our everyday lives. But if you wanted to have something productive emerge from this moment, it would be for Hope to use the suit anyway, without permission from Pym, and figure out–because she is a flipping scientist!–not to go subatomic!
Instead of being the action hero for this film, in her time within the corporate structure, Hope’s role in this film is as emotional sounding-board, not for any other task. She serves as the person who speaks to Lang about how to communicate with the ants by getting in touch with his emotions, to listen to his doubts. She becomes the person to give forgiveness to her father for what happened to her mother. By themselves, none of these tasks are awful; when those are her only tasks, and as the only major female character in the film, it is unsettling that these conventionally feminine roles are all given to her so that she is the listener, not the agent.
This problem of being passive persists in her role as the only female board member in Cross’s company: this detail has no attention drawn to it within the film. It is like a silent indication that we should dislike Cross not only for being a killer without regrets and a warmonger; no, he’s also a sexist corporate executive, too. That kind of characterization is weak and insulting: I am really tired of the failure of conventional blockbuster films to let women take on more varied roles, including as villains. Don’t let Cross and his board be a set of bad guys who are only men—make some of the people who are going along with Cross’s evil plan be women! Women can be bad guys! I can’t believe I’m having to argue that evil corporate shenanigans can be gender-neutral!
My annoyance with Ant-Man also concerns how Marvel has marketed itself since the first Iron Man as being grounded in realism (“See? No aliens here! Just a guy in a flying suit–totally realistic!”) yet that realism is not gender-related. Women are not present in this fictional world, especially its corporate components. I can hear excuses that corporations are hyper-masculine settings that block women’s entrances—but I have two problems with this hypothetical scenario. First, by statistics, in 2006, 90 percent of S&P 500 companies had at least one female director. That does not overlook the significant problems that, by 2015, women constituted 19.2 percent of S&P board seats, so that 90-percent statistic is hardly sufficient. But the evidence shows that women have that presence in corporations in real settings, so it should occur in fictional settings. Second, even if reality had no sway on fiction, if I am going to be idealistic in my hopes, I also argue a film should operate idealistically. Idealistically does not mean defying the reality of our world; it means that the story has to work within the rules of its own universe. And the rules of the Marvel Cinematic Universe shows that gender-blind corporate leadership does exist (Pepper Potts, as one example) and that gender-blind leadership overall does exist (Maria Hill assumes leadership as often as Nick Fury for SHIELD and the Avengers; Natasha Romanoff assumes leadership as often as Steve Rogers).
The idea that Hope Van Dyne is the only woman present during Cross’s megalomaniacal tirades is unrealistic to me. Increasing the number of women as extras to play corporate head honchos is not enough for this film—but it is the bare minimum. The reality of our word is that women make up more than half the world’s population; women make up more than half the United States’ population; so all conditions being ideal, gender should not be a limitation on the idea of having an equal number of women in Cross’s company.
And if you are not going to use gender-based discrimination—which I hardly think is absent no matter how ideal I think is the Marvel Cinematic Universe—to motivate the plot or a character’s development, then don’t bother using gender-based discrimination to justify the lack of women in Cross’s company and hence in this film. The “princess” line could be a fascinating insight to how Hope Van Dyne is put into a position of having to perform hypermasculinity to fit into the corporate system–but this film is not giving that complex a presentation. (Between Wright and McKay on the script, either way an over-the-top bro culture within Cross’s company could have been a hilarious send-up to hyper-masculine posturing. But we aren’t getting that kind of effective satire in this Marvel film.)
Returning to the conflict Hope has with Pym and Lang, this conflict does not originate organically as it does from The Avengers, in which there are reasonable points made by all parties involved regarding the Tesseract: it is extraterrestrial technology that the Asgardian Thor fears humans do not understand scientifically or morally; it is technology that Fury can use to prepare for the next time someone like Thor’s brother comes to Earth to attack; it is technology that Rogers saw almost destroy the world and must be contained; it is technology that Stark has already used based on his father’s research and has the potential for clean energy.
But Ant-Man has the trickier task of defining that conflict by characters’ relationships with each other. And it is hard for me to find that conflict to be effective when it seems to exist just to waste 30 minutes on Hope Van Dyne, the only main female character and the only female character involved in this heist, butting heads with two men. The plot seems predictable, that we know Van Dyne will come around and reconcile with her father: after all, she is horrified at what Cross has done, and the safety of the world outweighs her frustrations with her father and Lang’s criminal past and sardonic manner.
Yet to have Hope Van Dyne reconcile with Scott Lang, it is over details that are either too obvious, such as how both of them have problems in father-daughter relationships, or to pair the two romantically and sexually because, hey, every story needs to have the guy get the girl, right? It is not unrealistic for two people to have sexual attraction to each other, especially in high-risk situations; the film foreshadows this point given how close physically Van Dyne is to Lang during their sparring matches, and the female gaze she has upon shirtless, six-pack-abs Lang as he tends to wounds. When the only main female character is in service to the guy getting the girl, however, it is disappointing: the problem is not having sexual chemistry between characters, because that argument risks going in the other direction, of removing sexuality at all from any character, but the problem is when there is only one female character to take on that task of being the protagonist’s designated lover.
That it is Van Dyne who clues Lang into the idea of thinking about the peace he feels around his daughter so that he can focus on commanding the ants through Pym’s tech is also lapsing into the cliche technique of having a woman take on a maternal role to guide the man, who does not understand how to be a good father. Lang is shown already in the film as a good-enough father to a small child: he shows up for her birthday party, he knows the perfect gift to hand to her, and he is seen by her as a hero. But Lang is not shown by anyone how not to screw up at being a father in the future to his daughter, financially or just by staying alive. His ex-wife and mother of their daughter, Maggie (Judy Greer), delivers mostly empty cliché-filled speeches about how Lang must be the hero for Cassie as their daughter imagines him to be. (Then Hank steals that speech, word-for-word, thanks to his wiretapping ants he has all over San Francisco, and Lang, who said little in response to his wife’s speech, praises Hank’s, without any reference to the fact that Hank is plagiarizing it. This silencing of women in annoying.)
So the female superheroes are made more invisible than Sue Storm so that the men can take center stage. And our heroes are Hank Pym, who is willing to let an unsuspecting cat burglar test out a supersuit whose shrinking Pym Particles could kill him, if not before the stamping feet of hipster dancers do, and Scott Lang, a thief with a death-drive that makes him expendable as both a superhero and as a father.
Fathers Motivated by a Death Drive: Scott Lang and Hank Pym
What kind of a person leaps to be a superhero? For Lang, it feels like a death drive, which clashes with his desire to be present in his daughter’s life: he is pulled in these duel directions, of the danger of super heroism and the desire to earn visitation rights to his daughter. The death drive makes sense for almost all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe characters so far. It does for Tony Stark. Before his near-death experience, and the shrapnel then palladium slowly killing him, Stark was already on a road to ruin: he was irresponsible with greed and lust, and he was reckless with his corporation, not tracking the sale of his weapons and turning over power to Potts without providing the time needed for the transition of the corporation. And the death drive motivates Thor: he is the bruiser, fighting for hardy battle, until Ragnarok comes. And the death drive motivates post-Capsicle Steve Rogers: he has no way to return to his time, he has no way to return Bucky to his previous life, and he has no way to bring back to Peggy Carter her memories. He is a man out of time—not only out of temporality, but just running out the days to his death. Natasha Romanoff sees her remaining life as only atonement and suggests to Rogers that they give up their lives to stop Ultron. Peter Quill and Gamora seized at the Infinity Stone to make something significant out of their lives and to absolve their sins–Rocket Raccoon as well, to avenge his friend and to end his life. With Lang, he has these simultaneous desires; it does not mean he wants to die, it does not mean he is trying to die—but the thrill of his actions is a palpable approach to the story, and it is lost in this story.
But the bigger problem is that Lang already thinks he’s a superhero—and that is a dangerous approach.
I think Lang did the right thing: he recognizes Pym recruits him, not Hope Van Dyne, so that he does not lose his daughter as well as his wife to the dangerous shrinking technology. I’m stuck in that role of Jared, the obsequious Baskin Robbins manager who admires Lang for his anti-corporate actions but has to fire him because his corporate boss will not let him hire a recently released convict who lied on his job application: you can like someone’s actions for the good they accomplish, but you also recognize the rules. I think Lang deserves to be convicted for his corporate crimes—and completely let off with any penalty. But that does not mean he was reckless: his actions compromised the safety of his family, including their financial well-being. It is as if Lang seeks the thrill of breaking rules, without keeping the responsibility he has to his daughter first. The film and its prequel comics reveal that Lang was only caught because, after exposing his former boss’s illegal actions, he ran back into his boss’s house to drive his car into the pool—which gave cops enough time to arrest him. This practice seems like a desire to get caught, to get hurt—a death-drive, befitting for anyone who is willing to put on a shrinking suit, get stomped on, get attacked by ants, fight an Avenger, and potentially be sliced apart by lasers. His death-drive to be Ant-Man could and did put his family at risk of an attack by Cross, and that drive is part of Lang’s character—and he is not called out for it. It is one thing to call out Hope Van Dyne for her poor behavior, however defendable it is; it is another thing to not also call out Scott Lang for his poor behavior, however defendable it too is.
While the film Ant-Man is entertaining and demonstrates difficulties of divorces, parental obligations, and a spouse’s death, none of those accomplishments negate the problems the film has in representing men and women. Like Scott Lang, the film Ant-Man has untapped potential, so it is even more frustrating when it fails to meet those expectations.
In the finale to Breaking Bad, Walter White finally tells his estranged wife Skyler the truth: he was not making meth for money to support his family but to give him a thrill. He was not making meth for his family; he was making meth for himself. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really… I was alive.” That idea is powerful motivation for Ant-Man Scott Lang as well—and its presentation in this film is lacking. Even a comedy by the people behind Shaun of the Dead and Anchorman can manage to have some depth.
These men, Hank Pym and Scott Lang, are not acting only for their daughters: they are acting for themselves. And a better story is told by letting those men act for themselves—so long as you address the hypocrisy of their actions and the real-world ramifications of their actions.
 The Ultimates, like much of Millar’s writing, produces entertainment out of simplistic characterization, reducing superheroes into broad stereotypes, such as Captain America losing his conflicted morality about whether to support the United States despite frustrations with the culture and political leaders in order to become a George W. Bush-era bellicose soldier with a firm dislike of France. Millar’s other tactics are to turn those superheroes into sociopaths and by turning violence against women into entertainment, plot motivation for male characters to take action, or just some sick misogynistic bent inherent to Millar’s writing. My advice: skip Millar’s comics, and just watch the film adaptation of Kick-Ass, which does slightly better at being a dark comedy without as much misogyny.
 This problem persists with other persons who have taken on the mantle of Ant-Man. Eric O’Grady, the third main person to become Ant-Man, uses his shrinking powers to spy on the naked showering Carol Danvers, currently Captain Marvel, thereby reducing another Marvel superhero into fan service and at the same time associating Ant-Man with sexism. Thanks, Marvel!
 Coined by comics writers Gail Simone, “fridging” refers to killing off a female character so to give motivation for the male protagonist to take action, often as an excuse to re-masculinize an ineffectual male character who is supposedly emasculated by his failure to protect _his_ woman. The term is based on “Forced Entry,” an issue of DC Comics’ Green Lantern (August 1994, Volume 3, Issue #54, written by Ron Marz, Illustrated by Steve Carr, Derec Aucoin, and Darryl Banks, ink by Romeo Tanghal, color by Steve Mattsson, letters by Albert DeGuzman), in which titular superhero Kyle Rayner finds his girlfriend Alex DeWitt killed, her body stuffed into her apartment’s fridge.
 Actually, that moment also shows how amoral Pym is overall: he lets Lang steal the suit, try it on, and play with the technology—and what if Lang died because he didn’t put on the helmet? Or get squished by the multiple dangers he encountered?