ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK
Marvel’s ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ and Hollywood’s Misunderstanding of Disability
The Marvel movie’s antagonist suffers from chronic pain. Instead of exploring a way for her to cope, the film simply conjures up a magic cure and ableist tropes about disability.
With widespread discussions about who gets to tell stories about marginalized communities, it remains rare to see characters with disabilities in mass-market media. Marvel’s latest, Ant-Man and the Wasp, could have been incredibly forward-thinking with its introduction of Ava, played by Hannah John-Kamen, a woman of color dealing with chronic pain. Unfortunately, short-sighted filmmakers hamper this depiction which could have furthered the conversation on race and disability with ableistic tropes, including the desire for a miraculous cure.
John-Kamen plays Ava in Ant-Man and the Wasp, a woman whose condition is due to the effects of quantum forces which leave her cells unstable and constantly “phasing” between dimensions. Desperate to make her pain stop, she turns to attacking scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), with the intent of stealing Hank’s technology and extracting enough energy from Hank’s wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) to save herself.
Film portrayals of disability often ignore race; the majority of disabled characters in mainstream media are white men, according to a 2016 report from the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative. That report found that just 2.4 percent of characters in the top 100 movies that year had disabilities and 71.7 percent of those characters were white. Only 31.4 percent of characters overall that year were women.
That Ava, a.k.a. Ghost, is a black woman is worth celebrating, as is the interplay of her backstory with white privilege. In a flashback shown to Hope and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ava recounts how her father acrimoniously parted ways with his ex-coworker Hank Pym, before Pym “discredited” Ava’s father’s reputation. Her dad, driven to engage in off-the-books quantum energy experiments, ends up causing a disaster and dies along with Ava’s mother, leaving Ava forever crippled.
This information comes immediately after the audience meets another former associate of Hank’s, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), who accuses Hank of appropriating his ideas. Though we see that Ava’s father is white (her mother is black, as is Bill), it leads to an unspoken question of whether Hank’s respectability at the time was due to his race. Would his ability to discredit these two men—one of color, one associated with it—be different if he wasn’t white? The film does not contextualize or further discuss the matter. That could be an oversight on the screenwriters’ part due to narrative pacing, or the fact that, with white men working on the script and directing the feature, they simply failed to notice its importance.
Ava’s chronic pain is another step forward in terms of promoting underrepresented facets of disability. Author (and chronic pain expert) Porochista Khakpour pointed out in an interview with Shondaland earlier this year that “the world of chronic illness and disability has...been very white.” (Arguments regarding whether chronic pain is a disability are divisive, but for the purposes of this article I am considering it one, since the film presents it as such.)
Ava’s constant “phasing” leaves her not only riddled with pain, but struggling to simply stand. When she isn’t fighting to steal Hank and Hope’s lab, she’s forced to lay in a special chamber to keep her cells briefly stable. Bill mentions that the chamber and her special suit do little more than quell the pain and are no longer working as effectively as they should. Her condition leaves her no quality of life; she is fated to literally waste away until she turns “to dust” without a cure. This race for a cure is an ableistic trope common to disabled narratives, whether it’s romantic dramas like Me Before You (2016) or the 2010 feature Extraordinary Measures, or the sci-fi fantasy film Charly (1968). Ava’s pain is no different from a genetic disorder, per Hollywood, and thus is debilitating, deadly, and can/should be fixed.
Instead of helping Ava find a way to cope (and not necessarily eradicate) her disability, the film seeks to provide a cure. It does so with its own version of “white science,” a term coined by author Carol Clover in her psychoanalytic exploration of horror films, Men, Women, and Chainsaws. It refers to anything considered to be “Western traditional medicine,” usually dispensed or controlled by a white man. The quantum realm functions as this film’s white science, a magical but wholly scientific world discovered by Hank Pym. Once she is freed from the realm, Janet offers to save Ava by transferring her quantum energy into her. She lays her hands on Ava—a technique often associated with tent revival preachers who “cured” poor, afflicted people by touch—and saves the woman through scientific technology.
One could say Janet’s benevolence absolves Hank of his sins, or posits her as a white savior for this disabled woman of color, but it’s unclear whether any of that is directly coded into the film. Again, it plays as if the filmmakers were simply blind in this area. In the end, Ava is “cured” of her her disability entirely. This is perceived as the happy ending of the feature.
Ant-Man and the Wasp’s treatment of disability will go under the radar. But in a landscape where disability remains marginalized, particularly for women of color (and people of color in general), a character like Ava could have helped opened the door. Chronic pain remains a hot-button issue in the disabled community, and having Ava live with it could have presented something relatable. Instead, Ava is stripped of her problem in order to make her rational, quantifiable, and controllable.