Featured in Marvel Superheroes

The Wasp Who Never Laughs

'Ant-Man and the Wasp' continues the MCU's struggle to present a variety of female characters.

The most unbelievable and dream-disrupting moment in Ant-Man and the Wasp is when Hope Van Dyne, in her first costumed appearance as the Wasp, delivers a hurrincanrana to some nameless villain minion. Far more than all the growing and shrinking gimmicks, far more than the moment when characters breath heavily in sub-atomic space through their lungs which are smaller than oxygen molecules, this hurricanrana moment made me want to say, "Are you kidding me?" My response to this small moment mirrors my response to a lot of moments in the MCU: I forgive it because it's a cool moment and looks awesome while at the same time the hardcore comic book nerd in me has to say, "Are you kidding me?" Black Widow performed the exact same move in her first appearance in Iron Man 2. Again, it didn't bother me too much when Black Widow did it because it is a cool-looking move, but imagine Evangeline Lilly didn't have a mask and had long red hair, how would you distinguish her from Black Widow (other than a few wacky shrinking tricks here and there)? Honestly, as a wrestling fan, I always mark out a little when I see a hurricanrana in a movie, but it's a silly move for a trained combatant to employ: to throw oneself crotch-first at an opponent just to flip him upside down. It seems slightly less efficient than using one's arms (or any part of the body other than the crotch) to accomplish the same thing. Surely, the silly choice in attack maneuvers is rooted in remnants of a sexist Hollywood where it made sense, for example, for Xenia Onatopp to kill people with her thighs in Goldeneye, but it may never be a problem if Black Widow was the only one who did it for that one second in that one movie. Maybe she was a big fan of Lucha Libre, and she's so cocky she thinks she can get away with luchador moves in the middle of a mortal battle with gun-toting enemies. This might be a compelling and unique part of her character except we barely know anything about her other than some "red in [her] ledger" which nobody has bothered to explain or develop. Making Black Widow the most badass character in most movies seems to be a bulwark against feminist criticism, but giving her a few unique likes and dislikes would have been just as effective. We know she has an eye-rolling intolerance of Tony Stark's man-child silliness, but so does Pepper Potts. In Iron Man 2, what makes her anything more than the Pepper Potts who fights? I know she occupied some of the most hated parts of Age of Ultron, Natasha's romance with Bruce or the revelation of her infertility, but these came off more like wrongheaded, awkward attempts to make her a unique, fleshed-out character, and they rolled her back to blandness in subsequent incarnations as, perhaps, a response to the feminist backlash. Sure, there were so many other things that could've made her unique other than infertility and romance, maybe the whole red ledger business could have finally been a thing, but their response was to make her less of a character instead of risking more awkwardness. What is her journey in Infinity War other than punching a hundred more monsters? The Wasp's indistinctiveness seems to be a manifestation of the mistaken belief that this one early version of Black Widow is the only female character who won't garner feminist backlash.

This is not a problem in the comic (as most MCU problems are not a problem in the comic) where Black Widow, Pepper, and the Wasp are clearly distinct characters. Part of the shorthand trope-reliance comes understandably from the relative short form of the films in comparison with long-developing comics. For example, the MCU uses similar male leads (the Tony Stark-like hyper-intelligent man-child) with similar backstories, give or take a few components, but the interaction between Iron Man, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and Star-Lord highlighted motivations and interests that made them distinct enough, and banter rooted in deep-level character differences is part of the delight of that scene. In comics, the same characters have decades to develop their uniqueness, but the movie characters only have a few scenes like this. Unfortunately, the female characters don't get enough time to transcend this singular humorless badass trope, and the Wasp merely becomes Black Widow with Pym particles

Gamora is perhaps the most problematic permutation of this trope in the MCU movies. Granted, beyond merely being green Black Widow, her family relationships have the potential to make her distinct. Her scenes with Nebula are some of the most emotionally rich scenes with female characters in the MCU (especially since they function to develop each other instead of a male lead), and her final scene in Infinity War with Thanos is a high point of emotional intensity among all the MCU movies. But that scene is often appreciated for the texture it gives Thanos, not Gamora. There have been articles from a feminist perspective on that scene as an example of fridging, but as a longtime fan of Gamora in the comics, I'm bothered as much by the lack of texture in her feelings for Thanos that flatten her out far more than she deserves: she hates Thanos, of course, because he's an abusive mass murderer who forced her to become a killer. Hating him is not a difficult choice, and she doesn't change in this position. The kindness he shows the child Gamora and the revelation of his love for her in that final scene gives him texture and breaks your heart (on his behalf alone, perhaps), but she rarely gives hints of loving him back. She's also consistent in her eye-rolling disdain of Star-Lord's shenanigans with only brief hints that she may become the dancing type one day (as Drax metaphorizes Star-Lord's and Gamora's incompatibility—sure this dancing becomes literal for a second or two but hardly long enough to qualify as legitimate character texture). Most often she functions as the lone voice of seriousness in the middle of four or more distinct and wacky males. The Gamora from the comic is not like this at all: her greatest complexity comes from the deep love she has for Thanos. He saved her after somebody else exterminated her people (the Magus, it's a long story). Thanos also killed a gang who assaulted her when she was a kid, nearly beating her to death. Her cybernetic enhancements were designed to make her a better killer, sure, but also they were a gift from Thanos to repair the damage from the assault that made her coldblooded in her thirst for murder. Her turn toward hating him was much more subtle and gradual, and striving to kill him was a much more difficult choice. Sometimes she loves Thanos as much as she hates him. She's capable of many different modes, and her choices are difficult. She also smiles. Her only scene in Infinity Gauntlet involves her smiling at her skin turning green again (it's hard to explain out of context, so just go with it). When I think of movie Gamora, I can only think of her scowling at other people's delight. I know she must've smiled at some point in three movies, right? Zoe Saldana is capable of so much more range and felicity, but she seems constraint by this weird, one-note notion of who Gamora is, solidified at the script level.

Most recently, we have the problem of Hope Van Dyne. She maybe has a love/hate relationship with her dad like Gamora does? I know, hypothetically, that must be possible since everybody else has a love/hate relationship with Hank Pym, but she seems to retain a consistent response to Hank Pym throughout the movie—being a loyal and loving daughter and agreeing on science facts, I guess? Honestly, it was hard to discern much emotional complexity from the Wasp other than missing her mother and being annoyed by Scott Lang, and neither one is a difficult choice. Contrast this with Scott himself, who's torn between duties to his family and the duty of his shrinky superheroic cohorts. Does he maintain his aspirational position as the straight-laced father and businessman or return to his outlaw shenanigans for the sake of the lady he flirted with a little bit in the last movie? Whether she returns his feelings remains mostly mysterious. Even the little non-essential quirks make him a more interesting character: the fact that he learns sleight of hand while under house arrest reveals a lot about him, but what non-superheroic thing does Hope ever do other than play hide and seek in one flashback? Of the female badasses in the MCU, Hope has the most potential to display a quirky sense of humor. The way she grows and shrinks in combat is at least a fighting choice that makes her distinct from Black Widow and Gamora, but that doesn't seem born from her character, just a cool visual the same way the hurricanrana is more a cool visual than anything else. The Pez dispenser scene is hilarious, but she gets it secondhand from Scott's daughter Cassie. Black Widow and Gamora wouldn't carry around a Hello Kitty Pez dispenser—but neither would Hope, I guess. Cassie is a character with a lot of potential for relative complexity (if she ever becomes the superhero stature as she does in the comics): she delights in criminal lingo in one scene and wants to be Scott's heroic partner in another. She smiles maniacally at evidence of her father's tomfoolery (in fact, I think she smiles more in her brief scenes than most other female MCU characters). Ghost and Janet Van Dyne also have a lot of potential as complicated female characters, but they barely get enough screen time to determine whether they are capable of more than one emotion. But what the Wasp lacks is most disappointing: as the first female character to occupy part of a title in the MCU, it's a shame she ends up as one of the blandest.

The Wasp is certainly not the bland, humorless badass in the comic. Making changes to Gamora's character makes sense for presenting her in short form, but defaulting to this tropey form for the Wasp seems gratuitous and born from a misunderstanding of who the Wasp is. Superficially, Janet Van Dyne (the Wasp in the comic) is obsessed with fashion, a little ditzy at times, and the weakest of all the Avengers. That doesn't mean she's actually weak and stupid; that's just how she appears. Her fashion obsession may have started from 60s stereotypes, and back then writers often used the Wasp as the damsel in distress, but in the decades that followed, great writers have made her the ultimate underdog whom villains later regret dismissing as weak. She has greater capacity, or at least a different capacity, to challenge stereotypes than obvious badasses with masculine qualities because she lures onlookers into stereotypical thinking with her femininity and vulnerability and overturns this unwarranted dismissal with her success. She may be intellectually inferior to her husband, Hank Pym, but he feels inferior to her in every other way and undeserving of her affection. It's one of the most complicated marriages in comics due mostly to Hank's weaknesses, not Janet's. It most famously involves domestic abuse, and abuse in the origin of female characters is another problematic trope, but Janet doesn't become a cold-blooded killer like Gamora. She gets a divorce and starts a fashion line. The Wasp is smart and tough in her own way. She's not a Black Widow-style fighter, but she is a clever problem solver who can play to her own strengths to beat the villain when nobody expects her to. For a good depiction of this version of the character, check out Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. She charges into battle with Hulk and Dr. Doom and Kang without hesitation even though she is the most vulnerable, a level of bravery Thor and Hulk can't claim. She approaches the mystery of Michael Korvac in a way no other character bothered to consider (with basic human empathy and compassion). At one point, she defeats the villain Whirlwind and tells Hank Pym "Together we can do more...and have fun doing it." She's the one who has to tell Ant-Man to have fun. I can see why a superficial reading of the Wasp may seem problematic from a feminist perspective, but even for those who dismiss her surface faults, the greatest asset she provides the Avengers is character variety. When she appears in comics, she is almost always a part of the Avengers, and her version of courage is very different from Black Widow's version. They are both also very different from Scarlet Witch, who is far more like the female version of the Hulk than She-Hulk ever was, a woman who has to keep control of her various intense emotions because her destructive capabilities make her the most powerful Avenger, a nice counterpoint to the Wasp who is emotionally stable and brave despite her weakness (to be fair, the movie version of Scarlet Witch has at least two emotions, love and rage, and she has a few more difficult choices than other female characters, but Scarlet Witch being the most complicated character is no surprise, even if the movie version barely covers a fraction of her complexity). Then there's She-Hulk herself, a smart badass who also has the greatest sense of humor of any Marvel character short of maybe Spider-Man or Deadpool (and she had the tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall-breaking routine long before Deadpool ever did). It's hard to name four female MCU characters with this much variety. I know they lack the decades of the comics, but the X-Men films at least accomplished this minimal level of variety: Kitty Pryde is a tough and clever underdog (the closest equivalent to the Wasp in this analogy), but she's clearly unique from Rogue, Storm, Jean Grey, etc.

To be fair, the MCU did effectively overcome this in one film: Black Panther. Of all the great things this film achieved, it should be no surprise it was able to present Okoye, Shuri, and Nakia as distinct characters. Sure, Okoye is a humorless badass like Black Widow, and their shared scene in Infinity War does not function to highlight their uniqueness (the same way the man-child quip-fest does earlier in the film) since all they do together is fight, but in Black Panther she never has to roll her eyes at T'Challa because T'Challa is not a man-child. Most significantly, with Shuri we have a female character centrally responsible for humor in the film. Black Panther gets credit for solving the MCU's supposed villain problem with Killmonger's sympathetic motivation, and Ghost seems to be evidence of that lesson learned. Shuri should also function as a lesson for how to fix their female-character-variety problem by letting characters have a few more unique likes and dislikes or at least letting them tell their own jokes. 

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The Wasp Who Never Laughs
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