In just 10 years, the Marvel movie franchise has morphed from simple origin stories to universe-sprawling, intertwined characters and adventures, almost like Game of Thrones but with better CGI and brighter costumes. Once the exclusive playground of blonde white guys, the movies have become a lot blacker, more gender balanced and much more political. In 2008 Marvel started with Iron Man, a rich, straight, white guy, who treats women like trash and sells guns to third-world dictators, and in 2018 we’re all the way up to Black Panther, whose whole squad is bad-ass black women and his least political decision was gentrifying Oakland.
The newest franchise film, Ant-Man and the Wasp is probably one of the most sympathetic and political movies to come out of the house of Marvel. It’s all about how bad the criminal justice system is in America ... even for white guys.
(Beware: Slight spoilers ahead!)
Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man (played with Judd Apatow-esque goofiness by Paul Rudd), is a twice-convicted, twice-jailed felon and Ant-Man & The Wasp never lets you forget what that means for him or those around him. Lang isn’t Marvel’s only ex-con, he’s just the only one that’s white and actually guilty. Luke Cage got framed for a crime he didn’t commit, broke out by using his super powers, got sent back and then got out again and got some coffee for his trouble. As a bulletproof black man in America, that’s about the best you could ask for.
Ant-Man and the Wasp begins with Lang nearing the end of two years under house arrest. He violated the Sokovia Accords (the U.N. rules constraining superhero behavior) when he joined the wrong side during Captain American: Civil War. Lang’s got just three days left on his sentence and as long as he doesn’t engage in any superhero antics or get in touch with unregistered super scientists like Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) or Pym’s daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily), Scott will be a free man. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way. Ant-Man and the Wasp is mostly about the challenges that ex-cons face when trying to get back to their old lives.
Lang’s home arrest is played for laughs (how do you have a daddy-daughter custody weekend when you can’t leave the house? How do you start a new business with friends when you can’t make meetings? How far can you lean out on the porch to kiss your daughter goodbye before your ankle bracelet goes off?). However, there is a sadness underlying these scenes as you realize Lang is a guy trying to rehabilitate but so much is stacked against him. He lives in constant fear that the slightest mistake will put him behind bars again. He’s worried he’s not a good role model for his daughter. His criminal activities in Civil War effectively ended his relationship with Hope Van Dyne and put her and her father on the run as technical accessories to his crime. Prison makes everyone else in your life do time to.
Neither Lang/Ant-Man, nor his overtly multicultural crew from prison, Luis (Michael Peña); Dave (effectively phoned in by T.I.) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian, as random Russian guy), can find jobs after doing time, so they start their own security company, aptly named X-Con Security. Their uniforms have X-Con emblazoned across the chest like some sort of Jeff Sessions-inspired scarlet letter. Even in a new business, they’re branded for life. It’s crazy to think that a guy with a size-altering super suit is held up by a $50 leg beeper but that’s kind of the point. America has about 2.3 million people in some form of prison on any given day, many of them nonviolent offenders, which means even a white guy with an engineering degree and Avengers who will vouch for him, can get caught up. An idea that is both a strength and weakness of Ant-Man and the Wasp.
As an adventure-caper movie, Ant-Man and the Wasp is fantastic. The director Peyton Reed realizes that this isn’t Honey I Shrunk the Kids; the action isn’t in the changing size of the Wasp and Ant-Man; it’s in how those abilities create some of the most creative fight scenes you’ve ever seen in a superhero movie. The climactic car chase with the reality phasing “villain” Ava Starr/Ghost (played Hannah John Camen) is like the Ghost twins’ shootout from the Matrix: Reloaded times a million.
Genderwise, it’s a great leap forward as well. Ant-Man and the Wasp’s leading women aren’t driven by the men in the story. Ghost will do anything to save herself; Hope Van Dyne is searching for a prince in another castle that isn’t Scott Lang; and Michelle Pfeiffer finally makes up for her awful turn as Catwoman in Batman Returns. Is Ant-Man and the Wasp racially problematic? Like most Marvel films, it’s a mixed bag.
On the plus side, it was great seeing Laurence Fishburne as Bill Foster, the black super scientist and former hero Black Goliath. It was also refreshing to see Michael Peña evolve beyond stereotypical Latino comedy relief. As recently as Captain America: Civil War, there were hardly any black women in speaking roles in Marvel films; Ant-Man and the Wasp gives us a race- and gender-bent Ghost (the character is a white male in the comics). Problematically, she’s also racially ambiguous and, of course, her character’s father is white. Apparently there’s a hidden Hollywood rule that any black actress under 40 who gets a role has to pass the brown bag test and racial diversity mostly means white guys get their choice of light-skinned or multiracial black women as love interests. But at least they didn’t make Bill Foster pansexual.
Throughout the movie, I just kept thinking to myself about the empathy the writers have towards Scott Lang and how his criminal-justice experience was so different from black Marvel characters. Why does Falcon break out of prison and go on the run with Cap and Black Widow in Avengers: Infinity War instead of taking a deal like Ant-Man? Maybe since Falcon is the guy who literally said the government will go Mark Furhman on his black ass, he knew he had a better chance as a fugitive than getting a fair deal from the justice system. Even in the Marvel universe a white two-time felon like Ant-Man can still get a better plea deal than the Falcon, a black, military veteran hero with no priors.
If you need a good summer flick that doesn’t involve killing half the population (Avengers: Infinity War) or just certain parts of the population (The First Purge), then you should definitely see Ant-Man and the Wasp. It’s fun, it moves in the right directions politically and reminds us that even superheroes can get wrapped up in a system that is more about putting folks in jail than keeping people safe. It would just be nice to think that in a world of aliens, sentient robots and time travel that white guys wouldn’t be the only ones getting second chances.