The Trick Of Balancing ‘Super’ And ‘Human’

The tension between heroics and life beyond them makes for great cape comics.

Ant-Man and the Wasp hits theaters this week. Get your tickets here!

Fair Warning: This article will contain light spoilers for David Aja, Annie Wu and Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye and Adrian Alphona and G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel.

Ant-Man and the Wasp sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Returning director Peyton Reed has taken full advantage of the title characters’ ability to shrink and grow both themselves and the objects around them to craft clear, clever action sequences that work specifically because of the larger-than-life (I’m sorry) superpowers they’re built on. The returning cast gets more to do. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne has become a full-blown superheroine as the Wasp. Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym gets to be funnier and warmer. Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang gets to be more confident in his action scenes and a great deal less scrambled in his interpersonal ones. Any one of the newcomers, who include Michelle Pfeiffer, Walton Goggins, Laurence Fishburne and Hannah John-Kamen, would be exciting additions to the cast. All of them working together with the previously established cast is a downright thrilling proposition. And, while it may not be the flashiest part of Ant-Man and the Wasp, part of its storytelling is particularly exciting for fans of superhero storytelling – the critically important balance between cape work and being human.

In Ant-Man and the Wasp, Scott Lang wants to do right by Hope and Hank, and prevent the nefarious malefactors (Goggins and John-Kamen) they’re up against from acquiring and abusing Pym’s tech. Simultaneously, he wants to be a good parent to his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) – and he’d be the first to acknowledge that he’s struggled on that front. He spent a good chunk of her early years in prison and his initial attempts to become part of her life were painfully ham-handed. With time, effort and some superheroics, Scott, Cassie’s mom Maggie (Judy Greer) and her fiancé Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) were able to make co-parenting work. But that was before Civil War, and before John-Kamen’s Ghost started targeting Hope and Hank. Now the balance between Scott Lang and Ant-Man is in question. It’s classic superhero storytelling, putting the hero’s actions and responsibilities as a superhero in conflict with their needs and desires as a human. The resulting tension makes for a powerful story engine, one that’s been at the heart of some of the finest cape comics ever written. With Ant-Man and the Wasp calling attention, now’s a good time to spotlight two of that engine’s recent highlights.

In David Aja, Annie Wu and Matt Fraction’s beloved Hawkeye run, both of the heroes who use the name – Clint Barton and Kate Bishop – are challenged as severely by their own personal issues as they are by the likes of the fiendish Tracksuit Mafia or Madame Masque. Clint spends a sizeable portion of the run grappling with his self-destructive tendencies and a steadily worsening depressive episode. Kate struggles with a reckless streak, and a repeated failure to consider the bigger picture alongside the immediate moment. To make matters more complex, Clint and Kate’s private lives and work lives intersect repeatedly. This often makes things worse, particularly for Clint. The Clown, the Tracksuit Mafia’s assassin, attacks and deafens him. With the deafening comes memories of childhood hearing issues and an abusive father. Combined with his depression and the traumas he had already been dealing with, this causes Clint to shut down almost completely. It takes some very tough love from his brother Barney for Clint to finally start rebuilding himself. Despite a long estrangement that included Barney becoming a supervillain and trying to kill Clint, Barney knows how to get through to his brother. With the beginnings of Clint’s recovery comes the return of his desire to do good, and alongside his brother and the tenants of the apartment building he owns, he starts putting together a plan to settle things with the Tracksuit mafia once and for all.

Alternately, for something a bit sunnier than Clint Barton’s depression, consider Kamala Khan’s life as Ms. Marvel. A proud New Jerseyan, Pakistani American and massive fan of superheroes, Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers in particular, Kamala acquired shapeshifting powers from an Inhuman-flavored mass empowering event. Between her Muslim faith, her parents raising her to be a good person and her admiration for Captain Marvel and her peers, superheroism is a calling for Kamala. She wouldn’t allow herself to do nothing with power when she could do good. Thus, she adopted the ‘Ms. Marvel’ name and became Jersey City’s resident superhero.

Throughout the first volume of Adrian Alphona and G. Willow Wilson’s marvelous (again, I’m sorry) comic Kamala has to learn how to hero on the job. Fortunately, she learns fast and she’s good at it.  Complicating things though, she’s also a high school student. She’s got classwork to keep up with, friendships she values. She’s starting to put together what kind of person she wants to be and trying to set new boundaries with her loving, occasionally overbearing parents. That would be a lot to juggle for someone who wasn’t also protecting Jersey City from a crazed teenager-hating, half-human half-cockatiel clone of Thomas Edison. When Kamala decides to trust her mother with her secret identity, only to learn that she not only figured it out months ago but is proud of her, her joy and relief are palpable. It’s one of the many weights she’s juggling transmuted into a glorious balloon.

The tension between life and superheroism is just one tool a cape comic can use to tell a story. When it’s used well, whether in drama, comedy or another genre, the results leave a permanent satisfaction in the reader’s mind.