Why Marvel was wrong to whitewash 'wifebeater' Ant-Man

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Ant-Man (PG). Director: Peyton Reed. Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll. 117 minutes

Last week Ant-Man, the film that officially closes out 'phase two' of the Marvel Cinematic Universe mega-franchise, landed in Australia. The film has had a shaky journey — original director Edgar Wright, the genre-crunching visionary who made Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs The World, departed the project over creative differences with the studio (though he retained co-writer and executive producer credits), and was replaced by Peyton Reed, whose most notable film credits include the not-bad high-concept rom-coms Yes Man and Down With Love. Despite this turmoil, the outcome is reasonably sound — Ant-Man is a solid bit of fun, without being exceptional.

In keeping with the MCU films' fan-pleasing attention to the vast Marvel cannon, the film actually features two of the best-known incarnations of the hero: aging scientist Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man, plays mentor to a younger incarnation, reformed thief and electronics expert Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd). Pym and his adult daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) enlist Lang to help them steal some weaponised technology based on Pym's Ant-Man suit (which allows the wearer to shrink while increasing their strength) from a high-security, high-tech laboratory run by Pym's sinister former protégé Darren Cross (House of Cards' Cory Stoll).

So far, so good, right? But there is a troubling aspect to all this, that Marvel probably wishes was more hidden than it is. See, whatever his other achievements (he was an original Avenger, after all), the character of Hank Pym remains to this day notorious for an incident from a 1981 story, in which he struck his wife, fellow Avenger The Wasp/Janet Van Dyne during a fit of angst. The writer of that story, Jim Shooter, has offered some barely reassuring apologetics regarding the incident — none of which change the fact that, as the incident appeared on the page, Pym wilfully bashed his wife, with a backhand to the jaw that left her dazed and despondent on the floor.

Unsurprisingly, this detail is not referenced in the film. Ant-Man is Marvel's 'heist' film, which is reflected in its swift pacing and humorous tone (Wright definitely left his stamp on it). It is the most kid-orientated of the MCU films — so maybe not the right forum for deconstructing the domestic violence sins of a key character's past. Still, considering the whole Black Widow/slut-shaming debacle that followed The Avengers: Age of Ultron (and that film's alleged gendered stereotyping of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow), it is not a good look to note that Marvel president Kevin Feige last year literally laughed off the prospect of spousal abuse being touched on in Ant-Man.

The film compounds this problem by its treatment of Janet herself. Via flashback, we learn that she died decades earlier while on a mission, in her Wasp persona, with Pym's Ant-Man at her side. She is hardly what Feminist Frequency's Anita Sarkeesian would describe as a 'woman in a refrigerator' (she is not a victim of brutality; her death is heroic), but she is a voiceless female character whose presence in the film serves only to provide emotional depth and motivation to a male protagonist. So not only does the film miss an opportunity to address a contentious moment from the history of the Pym character, it reinforces another destructive gendered trope in the process.

I say missed opportunity, because there are plenty of examples within the immense meta-narrative of Marvel comics where contemporary perspectives are brought to bear on the less enlightened themes or tropes of days past. Marvel has tried to emulate the meta-narrative approach in its films, and has done so admirably, producing a body of work of remarkably consistent quality, with plot and character crossovers that knit each distinctive film into a shared universe. But with the films they have yet to achieve the critical distance required to dispel the impression that their trade too often is in fodder for adolescent boys — or, at least, men with an adolescent mindset.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Ant-Man, Hank Pym, Scott Lang, domestic violence, Black Widow

 

 

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I had to smile when I read the headline for this article. Ant-Man is my nickname for my son Anthony. When I next speak to him on the phone I'll say "Have you seen Ant-Man?" and he'll probably say "Haw, haw" his usual response. What a triumph to have an Ant-Man in the family. Thanks for the review Tim.
Pam | 22 July 2015


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