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What is a Hero? Lessons from “Ant-Man and the Wasp”

ant-man and the wasp

Okay, who’s the hero again?

What is a hero? It’s who your story is about. Strong heroes make choices and take action. They have strong desires and goals. Watching them pursue those goals pulls us through the stor

A mute woman rescuing a monster she’s in love with, a lawyer facing down the bigotry of his 1930s community to save a man’s life, a woman of color who wants to do math for NASA to save a mission– all great heroes. They each take big risks and strong actions.  When they win, we feel their triumph. When they lose, we feel their tragedy.

Generally speaking, the stronger the hero, the tougher the odds they face, the better the story. Superheroes are larger than life by definition, facing huge odds for tremendous stakes. Which makes them perfect for telling great stories. But Ant-Man and the Wasp, the sequel to 2015’s charming and imaginative Ant-Man, shows us what happens if you don’t let your hero make choices and take action. Even the strongest super-hero gets boring fast if you keep them from making choices and taking action.

In Ant-Man and the Wasp, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is about to be released from house arrest and live happily ever after with his adorable daughter. But after a mysterious flashback vision, he’s kidnapped by Michael Douglas and love interest Evangeline Lilly, who ostensibly hate him for something that happened in a Marvel Movie I missed.

Instead of Ant-Man taking action and seeking them out, the filmmakers have Douglas and Lilly drug and kidnap him. He’s literally asleep when he’s taken. And in a metaphor for this film’s central problem, when he wakes up in the car, a chase is already in progress around him. The filmmakers (mostly literally) don’t let the hero drive his own plot.

For the rest of the film, Paul Rudd is literally along for the ride. Douglas and Lilly have to tell him what his goals are. He gets shown around their lab, rides in their cool shrinking cars, uses their tech, meets with their old frenemies and at one point is used as a passive vessel by Michael Douglas’ wife, Michelle Pfeiffer. He even watches the Wasp confront two powerful villains while he sits in the car worrying and watching on TV.

It’s not Ant-Man’s desires that drive the film, it’s Michael Douglas’s. Ant-Man should be worried about violating house arrest, frantic to get back home. But he’s not, because the Wasp team has it all handled. He should be uncomfortable in a car with a woman he still loves who hates him. The relationship with the Wasp should be fraught with anger and sexual tension. Instead it’s  just sort of— not a big deal. The filmmakers even gave the climactic Quantum Universe rescue scene to Douglas instead of Rudd. While Douglas gets the girl, Ant-Man battles a villain that he’s barely interacted with before and who doesn’t even hate him.

The result is a nice-enough movie. But once you realize how passive the lead character is you can’t stop noticing it. And you can’t stop wishing that Paul Rudd, a super-charming guy, was really the hero of his movie.

The lesson for the rest of us: Make sure your hero owns their own story. Make the hero’s desires and choices kick off the beginning of the story, let their difficulties motivate the middle, and let your hero’s strengths or weaknesses lead them to the story’s end.

Heroes don’t need to wear costumes or have a secret identities. Your 5-year-old can be the hero of your home video. A customer could be the hero of your TV spot. A rat can be the hero of your animated movie about French food. Focusing on your hero makes us wonder- and care- where the story is going next.

Just picture Paul Rudd asleep in the passenger seat of a van and remember: Always let your hero drive. The car and the movie.

 

 

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