What is a hero? It’s who your story is about. Strong heroes make choices and take action. They have strong desires and goals- whether or not they get them is what your story is about.
A mute woman rescuing a monster, a lawyer facing down the bigotry of his 1930s community, a woman of color who just wants to do math for NASA– all great heroes. who take risks and take action. They are the reason we care: we sit on the edge of our seats, waiting to see what they’ll do next, and how it goes for them. 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. And vice versa.
Superheroes are larger than life by definition, facing huge odds for tremendous stakes. They’re perfect for telling great stories. Thus the success of the Marvel Universe. 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 hero can’t carry a story if you block them from owning it.
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 video or film is about your hero. Make the hero’s desires and choices kick off the beginning of the story, let the hero’s 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 focuses 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.