Where the Wonder Women Are: #21 The Wasp

When Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie screened this year, it certainly felt feminist-ish (or at least not unfeminist) to many moviegoers. But it didn’t pass the Bechdel Test, which asks you to consider whether a movie includes 2 or more named female characters who talk to each other, and if not to at least question why that is the case – and Black Widow was also one of the two non-super-powered characters in the team, which would have been less jarring had she not been the only woman. While Black Widow was beautifully written and performed, and given a significant piece of the movie (she has the third most lines of all the characters, behind the two headline acts Captain America and Iron Man), most people who knew their Avengers comics could put a finger directly on which female Avenger was most obviously missing.

There were many women to choose from, actually, including Ms/Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, Spider-Woman, and Hellcat. But the Wasp, AKA Janet Van Dyne (later Pym) was the only woman to be a founding member of the Avengers in the comics. Leaving her out was a bit like doing a Justice League movie without Wonder Woman (or like rewriting the Justice League continuity so Wonder Woman wasn’t the first female founding member, cough). Well okay, maybe not that. Wasp isn’t quite as famous as Wonder Woman. But it was certainly like doing a Fantastic Four movie without Sue Storm, or a ‘first’ X-Men movie without Jean Grey.

Joss Whedon himself was aware of the omission, and said in interviews that he tried desperately to keep the Wasp in the script all the way through, despite this not serving the story he was telling, and that there was basically an intervention by his friends in order to make him take her out. For now.

I’m not complaining about the Avengers movie. I think it was a brilliant launch of the team, and I can agree that there’s no obvious place where the Wasp could have been introduced. Dealing mostly with characters who had been established in previous films was one of its most successful creative choices, and really the only plot spot that could have been taken by an extra female Avenger was that of Hawkeye – and I’m fond enough of Jeremy Renner’s performance to not quibble about that. The Wasp is an interesting character who probably does need to be more substantially set up before being brought in to the Avengers crowd.

What intrigues me most is *which* Janet Joss Whedon kept adding to his script. Because there’s two clearly distinct versions, and now that the Ant-Man (Wasp’s husband) film has been given the green light, it’s not going to be Joss who picks which Wasp belongs to the Marvel film universe. It’s going to be “Scott Pilgrim” (and Spaced)’s Edgar Wright.

Assuming of course that they are going to include Janet in the Ant-Man movie. And I tell you, heads are gonna ROLL if they don’t.

I started out with the Ultimates Wasp (The Ultimates being the equivalent of the Avengers in the Marvel Ultimate Universe, a separate continuity established in the last decade or so), which means that when I think of Janet Pym, I think of an intelligent Asian American scientist who is more important to the Avengers than her loose cannon husband (also a scientist but a less good one). Yes, her superpowers are basically the ability to shrink down and fly around, but Janet’s knowledge of physics and human biology means she uses this to great effect, often disabling her foes by whopping them in the inner ear.

She’s also a troubled, angry woman, whose marriage is unbalanced by her husband Hank’s jealous rages, and who finally leaves him after a fight between them turns ugly and abusively violent. Janet’s next relationship, with the hot-but-anachronistic Captain America, leaves her frustrated as she discovers that for all his sexy gentlemanly ways, he’s a man of the 1940’s in all sorts of ways, and she’s basically dating a geriatric.

I was drawn to Janet as a character, and not just because she was the only woman in the book that wasn’t evil. She was smart, snarky and competent, didn’t suffer fools, and I appreciated the fact that the domestic violence story was taken seriously and that her teammates supported her over Hank, who was also their teammate.

Janet was a strong character despite everything she went through. I was intrigued to find out more about her, and did some research, which led me to the stunning revelation that the Wasp of the standard Marvel Universe was an entirely different personality.

The original Wasp, Janet Van Dyne, may have been the first female Avenger, but as with many 60’s and 70’s super teams (especially in the Marvel universe, I have to say) she was very much the token female, and her character was most often used as comic relief.

Her powers were under-utilised and her costume was silly even by the standards of the day, leading many fans to dismiss her as “lame” (something I heard a lot when the Avengers movie came out from those arguing why she was best not included). She was a super girly girl and her feminine qualities were, well, Of Their Time.

A bubbly heiress and fashionista who eventually founded her own fashion design company, Janet was a rich redhead with a love of shopping. Her romance/relationship with Hank was usually there for comic relief in the early days, with him regularly commenting on what a nut she was for caring so much how she looked, what she wore, and to some extent how everyone else looked and what they wore.

She was fun and adorable, which means that the later storyline in which her husband hit her (while going through a mentally unstable phase) was probably a whole lot more shocking. She was also a good and generous friend, and many of the bits I have seen of the early Marvel Wasp (and indeed the all-ages Marvel Adventures comic now) show her interacting with the many women that later joined the team. It’s also quite refreshing that she didn’t become a superhero (as so many more modern women do) because of some dreadful trauma or angst or tragedy in her past, nor were her Wasp powers something imposed upon her by accident or someone else’s design. She chose to take on those powers, in order to help people. She also wasn’t ‘just’ a girlfriend/wife character, and was at times a member of the Avengers when her husband was not.

Oh but she’s dead now. So there’s that. Though rumour has it that the Wasp may be making a return to the Marvel universe with the Marvel Now not-reboot starting later this year.

So, sweetie pie redhead fashion designer or snarkangsty Asian-American scientist? Which one are we going to get?

I have to say that there is going to be some serious disappointment if Janet is cast as a Caucasian actress. The Marvel filmverse has taken many cues from the Ultimate universe, which tends to reflect more modern sensibilities when it comes to female roles and racial diversity. Notably this led to the casting of Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury, and there’s no denying how amazing he is in the role. (Having started on my Marvel reading journey with the Ultimate universe, I personally struggle with reading comics where Nick Fury is a white man, it makes no visual sense to me)

But there’s no reason that whomever is writing the script for Edgar Wright (is it Simon Pegg? Please say it is) can’t still choose to make Janet a more old school depiction of the character, which would please many fans. If she’s introduced in the Ant-Man movie and not the Avengers movies, her original backstory might be a touch more credible than if a fashionista suddenly arrived on the helicarrier, and it’s not like the superheroes of that world couldn’t do with some serious fashion advice.

I do, however, have a soft spot for scientist Janet (she was my first) and I very much like the way that the more positive aspects of her Ultimates persona were reflected in the Marvel Ultimate Avengers animated movie. With the “adult themes” carefully pared away, we still had a gutsy and interesting character who was a more useful member of the team than her erratic husband, and whose powers were used with intelligence and creativity. Janet doesn’t have to be an anachronistic dolly bird, but she also doesn’t have to be a hardboiled domestic abuse survivor. I’d settle for ‘woman who is good at her job.’

There’s a tendency among older superhero comic fans to assume that gritty is cool, and women depicting traditionally masculine traits (while looking sexy) are the best, strongest female characters. Part of me is quite curious to see the fluffy, frivolous, quirkyfemme Janet of the original Marvel universe thrown among the Avengers pigeons because come on, don’t you want to see her trying to redesign Black Widow’s outfit? Don’t you want her to ask Thor how he gets his hair like that? But Janet could do all that and STILL use her powers really intelligently, and STILL be depicted by an non-Caucasian actress.

I’m a bit excited and worried about what Edgar Wright is going to give us, Waspwise, in the Ant-Man movie. Because whatever he chooses is what Joss Whedon is going to have to work with.

One thing’s for sure, I REALLY want to see the Wasp in The Avengers II. Whichever Wasp she is.

Where the Wonder Women Are:
0: Introduction
1: Black Canary
2: Rogue
3: Hawkgirl/Hawkwoman
4: Black Widow
5: Wonder Girl
6: Captain Marvel
7: Vixen
8: Abigail Brand.
9. Jubilee
10. Batwoman
11. Catwoman
12. Huntress
13. Robin
14. Batgirl
15. Jean Grey
16. Ice
17. Emma Frost
18. Fire
19. Lady Sif
20. Supergirl

3 replies on “Where the Wonder Women Are: #21 The Wasp”

  1. The first Marvel comic I can remember reading was an issue of Spiderman where he and the Wasp ran into a superpowered mercenary called Paladin. I don’t remember much of the plot, except Janet shrank without her outer clothes being treated, and Spidey was upset Janet was being treated like a doormat by the corporation she ran.

  2. […] that way myself and it is endless fun. I am also following Tansy Rayner Roberts’ posts about comic book superheroines. I know virtually nil about comic books so it’s quite fascinating hearing someone who loves […]

  3. […] continues her most excellent Where the Wonder Women Are series with reflections on Supergirl, The Wasp, and […]

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