Most of the best-known legacy superheroes are white. Ant-Man is too, and for the same reason. He was created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby in 1962, a time when pulp media rarely featured heroes of color. But does that mean he has to be white forever, even in the new Marvel film?
Ant-Man isn't that well-known, after all—and the Scott Lang, ex-con version of the character (created by David Micheline and John Byrne in 1979) is even less well-known than that. In short, Ant-Man is not an icon. Surely it shouldn't be too hard to change a character that few people know about?
An Ant-Man of color would seem to be in line with recent superhero diversity efforts on the big screen. Admittedly, those efforts have been tentative and conflicted at least since the first Blade film, starring Wesley Snipes, unexpectedly demonstrated the viability of Marvel properties onscreen. But there has been some progress. Fox's Fantastic Four has cast Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, a move that prompted both praise and backlash. Fox's X-Men: Days of Future Past included black heroes Storm (Halle Berry) and Bishop (Omar Sy)—but both characters were basically used as cannon fodder.
In Marvel's own cinematic universe, Nick Fury has been portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, and other black superheroes have appeared here and there like War Machine (Don Cheadle) in the Iron Man films. And of course the Black Panther is scheduled to get his own movie in 2018. So there have been some efforts to include black heroes, though those efforts, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says, have mostly fallen short of the comics—and the comics were never that great to begin with.
So it's not exactly a surprise that the makers of Ant-Man settled on a white protagonist. And yet, it's something of a disappointment, for a couple of reasons. The first is that, again, Ant-Man isn't that well-known, so all things being equal, why not challenge the tendency to, by default, make heroes white?
The second reason is that in the movie, the guy who becomes Ant-Man, Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd) is a recently released prisoner. In a nation that disproportionately imprisons non-white people—in 2013, America's male prison population was 37 percent black, 32 percent white, and 22 percent Hispanic—if Ant-Man is going to be an ex-con, he's twice as statistically likely to be black or Hispanic as he is to be white.
Obviously, there are a lot of white people in prison, too. It would be wrong, and offensive in its own right, to suggest that all ex-cons have to be played by people of color. But the fact remains that race is central to the institution of prison in this country, and one way or another, the filmmakers need to deal with that. They chose to make Lang white, which would not in itself have to be a problem. Unfortunately, though, they don't just keep him white. They use his race as a way to underline his exceptionalism compared to other prisoners, and his ultimate superiority.
Take, for instance, the first time we see Scott Lang onscreen, when he's fighting an enormous unnamed black man, in the prison yard. It turns out to be a friendly fight, but the scene emphasizes Lang's underdog status and scrappiness in opposition to his physically overpowering, intimidating opponent of color. When Lang is later freed, he's picked up by his former cellmate, Luis (Michael Peña). The apartment Luis finds for Lang is in a rundown, mostly non-white neighborhood.
The film recognizes that prison and poverty are institutions that disproportionately affect and shape the lives of people who are not white. Moreover, Lang is essentially treated as an honorary person of color. His association with non-white people paints him funky, cool, and "real" in comparison to elite upper-class boardroom guys like Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the scientist who recruits Lang to be Ant-Man. And, Lang's association with people of color is used as a way of showing how Lang is down on his luck as he struggles to find a job as an ex-con.
[The filmmakers] use his race as a way to underline his exceptionalism compared to other prisoners, and his ultimate superiority.
But while Lang is an honorary POC when compared to the stuck-up rich white folks, his own whiteness is crucial in defining his character against actual people of color in the film. In particular, his half-comic, half-dramatic performance is pitched as a compromise between the uptight white suits and the frankly comic, less law-abiding people of color. In that introductory prison-yard scene, the film takes care to show that it's the big, menacing black guy who insists on a friendly fight before Lang is released—Lang himself finds the ritual odd and unnecessary. After he gets out, Luis is the one to push Lang to get back into a life of crime. But Lang insists on going straight in the name of his young daughter, his estranged wife, and what appears to be their thoroughly-bourgeois former life together.
When he's in prison, or when he's hanging out with people of color, Lang, in short, is slumming. Even the reason he's in prison is fairly honorable: Lang, a systems engineer was convicted for electronically burgling a shady conglomerate and returning funds to people who had been ripped off. Unlike Luis, who is a straightforward burglar and thief, the film tells us Lang is more of a misunderstood hero, a white-hatted Robin Hood, resetting the scales of justice.
This is the dynamic that sets Lang apart from his rag-tag criminal gang, which includes Luis, a black man named Dave (Tip Harris), and Kurt (David Dastmalchian), an Eastern European with a thick accent—white, but still othered in this instance as non-American. The heist team is portrayed as funny, comic, and slapstick—they're clearly subordinate to Lang, who is both the brains and the ninja-like physical talent of the outfit. When executing their break-in, the ethnic hangers-on all gasp as one when Lang smoothly leaps over an exterior wall. Monitoring Lang from the safety of a van parked outside, they then provide an amazed audience for a white hero figuring out how to get through a series of security measures.
Lang is essentially treated as an honorary person of color.
Similarly, for his first real battle as Ant-Man, Lang ends up taking on the black superhero, Sam Wilson, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie). The battle is as much farce as adventure—the tiny Ant-Man bounces around and thumps his oversized opponent, who spins and thrashes haplessly. The scene recalls the first introduction of Sam Wilson in Captain America: Winter Soldier, where Captain America literally jogs circles around him. "In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, viewers experience the white protagonist's superior physicality in contrast to a Black inferior," critic James Lamb writes at my site, the Hooded Utilitarian. Falcon serves the same purpose here: His inferiority (and the inferiority of the heist team) underline Lang's awesomeness—an awesomeness which is not incidentally linked to his whiteness.
Ant-Man's race, then, isn't an accident. The film wants to tell a story about a lovable rogue—a criminal who doesn't really deserve to be a criminal, a man who has made bad choices and is unfairly stigmatized for doing so. It adamantly does not want to think about actual inequities, or how prison for many isn't a poor choice, but is instead the result of the ways in which widespread systemic injustice, poverty, and joblessness close down options.
Ant-Man is designed to show the little guy rising above his circumstances. So to rise above those circumstances, to heroically transcend them, the film presents Lang as a white man who walks among people of color, but is not of them. This dynamic is perhaps in part why Rudd's performance comes across as so raffishly smug. He's ebulliently hip for the squares, but too self-consciously self-confident to seem convincing as an ex-con. It would have been nice to see what Michael Peña could have done with the lead, if given the chance to mix his comedy with some straighter dramatic moments. Or to see Wood Harris (who plays a bit part in the film) bring some gravitas, depth, and perhaps bitterness to the part. Instead, Rudd coasts somewhere in the middle, a bland default—which is presumably what the director was going for.
Casting a person of color as Ant-Man could also have ended up in stereotype, of course. To make it work, the film would have had to thoughtfully address issues of injustice and racism, and there's no evidence the director or the studio had any interest or ability to do that. Still, even if the film overall might not have been any better, it would have been a nice change in Marvel's lineup to have a superhero film helmed by a person of color now, rather than waiting until 2018.
Instead, Ant-Man is white—and he's white for basically the same reason he was white back in 1962. The default assumption in pulp entertainment remains that protagonists will look a certain way. Certain people control their own destinies; certain people rise above their milieu; certain people are the good guys. Even in prison, Ant-Man tells us, white people can be heroes, and all the heroes are white people.
Ant-Man is playing in theaters nationwide.
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