This week’s trailer for Ant-Man and the Wasp marks a curious milestone for Marvel Studios. It might have taken a decade since the studio’s first release (2008’s Iron Man)—and 19 previous movies—but for the first time, a Marvel film finally has a woman’s name in the title. This should be a big moment for the superhero studio … so why does it feel like a missed opportunity?
Unusually, Ant-Man and the Wasp gives the sense of Marvel playing catch-up, which isn’t a position the studio has found itself in previously. While Marvel was nowhere near the first movie studio to put out a superhero flick—that would arguably be Republic Pictures, which released the Adventures of Captain Marvel in 1941—there’s no denying it has become the market leader over the past 10 years. It set the pace with its shared cinematic-universe world and post-credit sequences, both of which have become staples of the genre since their introduction.
Yet Marvel’s primary competition, Warner Bros., pulled ahead last year with the release of Wonder Woman, the first female-led superhero movie of the “modern”—read, post-Iron Man—era. As the success of the movie, both critically and commercially, should demonstrate (especially when compared with Warners’ other DC Comics-inspired projects), Wonder Woman fulfilled a need in audiences that Marvel seemed unable, or simply unwilling, to handle: a superhero film where the men stand back, and the women get to save the day.
“The sequel could have only been called The Wasp and really driven home that Marvel knew they screwed up and wanted to give Evangeline Lilly the spotlight.”
After years of Marvel being the market leader in superhero movies, it was unexpected to see them fall behind on this front, especially considering that fans had been asking for it for years, with Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige fielding questions about a Black Widow solo movie since 2010. It’s into this landscape that Ant-Man and the Wasp appears, seeming at first a step forward for the studio and yet somehow a sign that Marvel can’t quite commit to its female fans.
On the plus side: Yes, it’s a movie with a woman’s name in it for the first time. This is a bigger deal than it should be, for the reasons listed above. Sure, that it’s taken 20 releases for Marvel to put a woman center stage feels faintly embarrassing and seemingly recognition that the studio sees Marvel as predominantly a “male” property despite statistics showing that more than half of all moviegoers are women. But it’s a step forward nonetheless.
And yet, it’s a half-measure. Literally. The Wasp (a.k.a. Hope van Dyne, Evangeline Lilly’s character from the first Ant-Man movie) is one of two names in the title, and essentially a derivative addition to Paul Rudd’s eponymous hero from the first movie in the series. It’s hardly a blow for equality or female independence. Worse still, Marvel fans have seen this dynamic before: Both the Iron Man trilogy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier featured their female leads as costars with essentially equal weight to the story as the male leads, so all the ground that’s being broken here is in terms of the title and, presumably, placement on the final poster.
“Marvel had every opportunity to beat Warner Bros. to the punch with a female-led superhero film but kept prioritizing sequels over introducing a new character,” says Jill Pantozzi, managing editor of Gizmodo Media’s sci-fi and pop culture site io9. “When you consider The Wasp, one of the founding members of the Avengers in the comics, had to sit in the background while Ant-Man was brought to life after several other Marvel male characters, it looks even worse. Especially when you consider the film framed her as way more capable of the task at hand.”
Wonder Woman fulfilled a need in audiences that Marvel seemed unable, or simply unwilling, to handle.
Pantozzi adds, “The sequel very well could have only been called The Wasp and really driven home that Marvel knew they screwed up and wanted to give Evangeline Lilly and the character the spotlight, but once again it feels like she’s playing second fiddle.”
It’s an odd position for Marvel to be in, not least of all because the company’s television arm has found some of its greatest successes with ABC’s Agent Carter and Netflix’s Jessica Jones. Even stranger is the fact that Ant-Man and the Wasp, announced in October 2015, effectively replaced what would have been Marvel’s first solo female lead, Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson; that movie will now be released in 2019.
“It was way back in October 2014 when [Captain Marvel] was announced with an initial release date of July 6, 2018,” Pantozzi explains. “While Marvel hasn’t had full use of some of their biggest female characters thanks to past business deals, Captain Marvel was their best comparison against Wonder Woman, and even that feels like it’s coming way too late. We had sneaky set photos make their way online before they revealed Brie Larson in an official photo shoot. It doesn’t look good.”
It’s possible that Ant-Man and the Wasp will turn out to be a movie that effortlessly establishes Marvel Studios’ feminist bona fides and moves women to tears while watching, although that would take more than just making jokes about her having wings, or ensuring that she isn’t wearing heels. Until then, the studio should probably accept that it needs to try harder to prove that there’s more to its superheroes than particularly boyish power fantasies.