How the Ant-Man Movies Subvert the Toxic Step-Father Trope
(contains minor spoilers for Ant-Man and Ant-Man & the Wasp.)
There are so many reasons the Ant-Man movies have become some of my favorites in the MCU. The humor, the nuanced and interesting characters, the small stakes, Scott Lang being a hero BEFORE he got powers, the introduction of a multi-generational female superhero lineage in The Wasp. But one of my favorite aspects, which they introduce in the first movie, and then quietly re-affim in the second, is how thoroughly they reject the traditional trope of the step-father/rival dad, as the villain who keeps our hero from being with his love.
The rival step-father trope isn’t as pervasive as that of the evil step-mother, but you’ve likely seen it many times, especially in action movies, cop stories, or the like. Our hero is a Good Guy; he justs went through some hard times- he was drinking, he was too busy with work, he wasn’t emotionally available enough, (cause c’mon, he’s a hero, a man’s man!) etc. His woman (the possessive aspect of that phrase is intentional, and quite relevant) has left him, and is now living with another man along with the kid(s) she had with our hero. Now, either as the main story or a side plot, it is the hero’s goal to demonstrate to ‘his’ woman that he is a good guy, her new beau is a buffon, and thus ‘win-back’ his family.
The step-father in these stories is normally portrayed as either a buffoon, or a scheming villain. But either way he is almost always somewhat effeminate, certainly not a ‘real man’ like our hero. He practices yoga, and teaches it to the kids. He tells the kids to talk to the school bully, instead of punch him. He is set-up as the obstacle that stands in the way of our hero winning back his woman, and the kids which are just as much a possession to be fought over as their mother.
In short, the trope winds up demonstrating some of the worst aspects of toxic masculinity. Women as possessions for men to fight over. Women who either have no agency, or who make the wrong choice, and thus have to be manipulated so they will see our hero is the better choice. Strength and guts over intellect, emotion, or sensitivity. Children as pawns to be fought over, without any regard for the damage the hero might have done to them, or the bonds they have formed with their mother’s new partner.
All of that is why it is so important that Scott Lang never tries to win back his ex-wife, Maggie, or break up her relationship with Jim, her new partner. At the start of the first movie, Jim is hostile toward Scott, and I feared that we were going back down the same old road. But by the end of the movie we see that trope flipped on its head in a few key ways. First off, Scott wants to be a part of his daughter, Cassie’s, life again, and wants to win back Maggie’s respect so they can co-parent together, but he never tries to win Maggie back, or break up her and Jim. Jim does appear hostile toward Scott at first, but for good reason- he is concerned about his wife and step-daughter, given that Scott has hurt them in the past. Most significantly, by the end of the first movie, Jim has changed his mind about Scott, and actively helps him. The movie ends with all three adults recognizing the value they each bring to Cassie’s life, and finding ways to co-parent together.
The recent Ant-Man and the Wasp carries this even further. Scott is facing a number of challenges, but he is doing so with the support of his family. His daughter, whose life he gets to be a major part of. And his ex-wife and her new husband, both of whom have become his friends and supporters.
That last part is so important, not just because it subverts the trope. But because it represents a kind of family that is today as ‘normal’ as any other, but which we don’t see anywhere near as often in media. I want more stories in superhero media of parents who continue to be amicable after a divorce. They might not always be best friends; there are fights over who gets the kids at Christmas, or different ideas over curfews or the like. But I want more stories that show parents and step-parents, not as bitter rivals, but as people who want to work together in raising their child(ren). And where the men can get past the idea that they are rivals, with women and children as the prizes to be won or lost.