Saturday, July 18, 2015

My Thoughts on Ant-Man: A Close-Up Look at an Enjoyable Film's Lesser Points

Spoilers. (Obvs.)

A couple of days ago I made a short text post about my reaction to Marvel's Ant-Man.

This is what it said:
If you had told me a year ago that I would like Ant-Man (with some qualifications) more than I liked Age of Ultron, I would not have believed you.
This is a sentiment that seems to have been very relatable for a lot of people—as of this writing, the post has nearly 600 notes. Consequently, I feel that I should say a bit more about the film and unpack the qualifications that I alluded to in my original post.

Ant-Man was a lot of fun. It was not the best MCU film by a wide margin, but it was definitely not its worst either. It was better than Age of Ultron, but in my considered opinion being better than Age of Ultron is not a high bar to jump (1). For me, Ultron is in the bottom three of to-date MCU films (2). In contrast to Age of Ultron, Ant-Man had a cohesive plot. It was well acted, it had several decent gags (and several very inappropriate gags), and it set things up for Civil War with an impressively deft narrative hand. That said, however, Ant-Man had some serious problems.

To begin with, the film had a massive race problem. This was one of the more diverse offerings from Marvel to date, and that fact (and its positive and negative implications) should not be ignored. Nevertheless, the film played its diverse characters like stereotypes. There were moments where you could see the filmmakers trying to play against type a bit (3), but for the most part the non-white characters were there to be played for culturally insensitive trope-dependent laughs. And also, they were all criminals. Which. That's a problem.

And no, the well-to-do African-American family who we saw for half-a-heartbeat getting their family barbecue obliterated by Ant-Man and Yellowjacket do not make up for the missteps taken with the film's prominent PoC characters.

The film also had quite a bit of a woman problem. As with the film's portrayal of PoC characters, there was a sense that the filmmakers were trying to subvert a trope (4). Obviously, the filmmakers were trying to somehow flip the Ridiculously Average Guy trope on its head by making the reason Scott Lang winds up doing the job that Hope Pym should have done that Hope is that much better than him and more important as a person generally. But first of all that's a trope of its own (see: Men Are Expendable), and second of all it only works if Hope—rather than Scott—is the person who goes off to help Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson fight a civil war and the Avengers wage an infinity war. And we all know that that is just not going to happen.

So, no filmmaker dudes. Nice try with the attempted trope inversion, but you have to stick the landing. And you did not stick that landing.

The same could be said of the film's treatment of Janet Van Dyne. Her MCU death was presented as the sort of classic comic book "death" that is easily reversible (and therefore gives Marvel a lot of room to claim that they haven't actually fridged her (5)), but until she actually comes back she's fridged. And it's a pretty safe bet that she isn't coming back anytime soon. Most likely not before Infinity War, which might just be cosmic enough in its scope to enable a return-of-Janet-from-the-quantum-dimension subplot, and that's ages away.

So, again, guys: nope. I do see what you were trying to do and what you think you were doing, but I also saw what you actually did. And you only get points for what you actually did.

But Ant-Man was better than Age of Ultron, and it had Falcon in it—and the MCU always benefits from MOAR Falcon (6). And as of now the Civil War setup is looking Bucky-centric enough to keep the ravaging fangirl in me happy. For the moment, anyway. So that's a thing. Speaking of which, can we have a Civil War teaser soon? Kthxbye.

1) My review of Avengers: Age of Ultron can be found on this website.
2) Yes, I said bottom three, and I stand by that. Age of Ultron is better than The Incredible Hulk. It might even be better than Iron Man 2. It's not better than any of the other films Marvel has released. For those who are curious, I rank the MCU film as follows: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guaridans of the Galaxy, The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, Ant-Man, Iron Man 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Incredible Hulk. Interestingly, in every case except The Avengers, I think the sequel was better than the original, which is atypical for sequels.
3) Michael Peña's Luis, for example, very clearly had impeccable personal taste and a range of cultivated knowledge in spite of the fact that he was your garden variety Latino criminal caricature. Actually, I would love to know how viewers in the Latinx community felt about this representation. And indeed how PoC viewers felt about the supporting cast in general. I am not a member of those communities and do not speak for them.
4) In this case the "female supporting character who is better than the male protagonist in every conceivable way teaches him everything he needs to know to be a badass in 48-hours or less and then makes out with him upon his triumphant return" trope. There's got to be a shorter title for that one.
5) Which, as a matter of fact, they have already started doing. See Kyle Buchanan, "Spoiler Bomb: Ant-Man's Surprise Twists and Cameos, Explained," (Vulture, July 2015).
6) Of course Falcon was basically use to make the infinitely less badass white dude look good, which... I'm gonna start referring to that particular permutation of the Ridiculously Average (White) Guy trope as "pulling a John Diggle," and I'm sideeying the hell out of it, to be perfectly honest.