A hero is who your story is about. Strong heroes have strong desires and goals. They make choices and take action. Watching that action to see how it turns out for them is what pulls us through the story.
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. Which makes superheroes perfect for telling exciting stories. Superheroes are larger than life by definition, facing huge odds for tremendous stakes. But Ant-Man and the Wasp, the sequel to 2015’s charming and imaginative Ant-Man, shows us that 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 hate him for something that happened in a Marvel Movie I missed.
The problems of an inactive hero start early in the movie. Instead of Ant-Man taking action and seeking out Douglas and Lilly, the filmmakers have them take the action as they drug and kidnap the hero. Ant-Man is literally asleep when he’s taken. And in a metaphor for this film’s central problem, when he wakes up in the back seat, a car chase is already in progress around him. The filmmakers literally don’t let the hero drive his own plot.
For the rest of the film, Paul Rudd is also along for the ride. Douglas and Lilly tell him what his goals are. He gets shown around their lab, rides in their cool shrinking cars, meets with their old frenemies. In one scene he watches the Wasp confront two powerful villains while he sits in the car worrying and watching on TV. Near the end of the film, he’s actually used as a passive body for the spirit of Michael Douglas’ wife, Michelle Pfeiffer.
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. 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.
Here’s a simple mnemonic: picture Paul Rudd asleep in the passenger seat of a van and remember: Always let your hero drive the car and the movie.