I’m on my way back home from the American Society ofCriminology annual meeting in Washington, DC, where I learned lots of interesting things. Such as, for example, that prison closures seem to haveresulted in only a 20,000 net bed loss for states, and that while statesreduced capacity for low-level offenders, some of them increased it forhigh-level offenders. Or, that there is a theme park in Missouri in whichvisitors can ride through a flooded mine and shoot chain-gang inmates withlaser guns to prevent them from escaping a natural disaster.
Future posts will definitely feature some of these interesting things, but today I want to talk about the movie I saw on the flight to DC: Marvel Comics’ Ant-Man. This is not an indie documentary for bleeding-heart progressives who can wax poetic about the prison industrial complex. It’s a mainstream movie, featuring CGI animation, superpowers, gloom, doom, and beautiful people, and as such it is remarkable, because it represents what the filmmakers think the mainstream is open to seeing and accepting onscreen. And what it shows them is a skewed and flawed, and yet refreshing, slice of incarceration and reentry in the Bay Area.
Set in San Francisco, the film’s hero, Scott Lang, starts his journey in prison—notably, not a generic, imagined institution, but an imagined version of the very real San Quentin. And it’s a very different cinematic San Quentin than the one in which Oscar Grant spends an important scene in Fruitvale Station; one that resembles Justice Scalia's dark fantasies more than it resembles the actual prison we know. Scott’s first scene in Ant-Man sees him engage in a violent fight with another inmate. The many spectators, as well as Scott’s adversary, are large, black, muscular men. But then, the tension breaks, and it becomes obvious that Scott is on friendly terms with his adversary; we are told that this is some sort of rite of passage in honor of Scott’s impending release. Smiling, Scott says to his fellow inmates, “you have strange rituals.”
“You”, not “us”; because early on it is fairly clear that Scott is a special sort of inmate, one for which filmgoers will feel sympathy: he is a conventionally good-looking white man, armed with graduate education (a master’s degree in electric engineering), and his criminal history is that of a high-level hack for the morally allowable purpose of redistributing wealth. In short, Scott is a non-non-non if there ever was one, and we all root for him as he is released—be it because he terms out or because of Realignment.
But even with this relatively privileged starting point, Scott finds it difficult to cope outside. We see him shack up with friends, all of whom are formally incarcerated, and expressing hope of finding a suitable job soon. But his hopes are shattered: he manages to obtain an entry-level job at Baskin Robbins, where he is summarily fired by an unfeeling boss. Not for smart-mouthing a client (which he does, and which would be unthinkable to, say, an uneducated man of color competing for unskilled labor positions); for having a criminal history. Ban the Box, apparently, only gets one through the door; it doesn’t keep him there. And this is a crisis for Scott, who has to provide for, and win back the right to visit, his young daughter. His ex-wife is engaged to a cop, and both of them think of Scott as the deadbeat dad he is. We, however, know better; we’re rooting for Scott, and that’s partly because we haven’t been exposed to his ex-wife’s travails through his trial and incarceration. But we also learn a lesson: when someone is saddled with a criminal record and a history of incarceration, all the whiteness and the education in the world won’t help. It almost goes without saying that this message is deeply flawed. Race, class, and education make a big difference in reentry—as does another thing Scott has going for him, a supportive family. But it drives home the heavy penalty of incarceration and a criminal history with regard to someone with whom some middle-class moviegoers might identify.
It is this economic desperation, rather than a personality flaw, that leads Scott back into crime with his housemates—all of whom, except for him, are either men of color or immigrants with heavy accents. The film plays fast and loose with stereotypes, which is par for the course for sidekicks in a comic book. They are capable men, but they are capable in limited ways, and only as assistants to Scott, whose competence and ability are played up in the sophisticated heist they plan. The film occasionally takes pleasure in breaking these stereotypes; Luis’s unfocused chatter and confused narratives include references to his visits to a museum and enjoyment of Mark Rothko oils. But even when doing so, the Bay Area scenes that fly before our eyes as Luis describes the potential heist place him squarely within the imagined East Bay working class colorful subculture of dive bars, bikers, chicks and shady contacts. Luis has the info and the contacts, but he is not the brain of the operation.
The scenes depicting the heist planning elevate Scott and his accomplices to the coveted status of garage startup techies, and it is this subtle analogy that portrays them at their most competent and heroic. This nod to Silicon Valley reminded me of The Last Mile and other programs encouraging the involvement of folks of low income and education in the tech world upon their release. The film makes it clear, though, that reentry is not kind to any of our heroes, and if they are to make their way in the world, they must do so themselves. And so, their entrepreneurship is modeled after the “innovate first, ask questions later” model of South Bay, and sold as admirable and competent.
As viewers of the film know, the heist goes awry, and a chain of events is set in motion that sets Scott up to becoming “ant man”: a superhero capable of shrinking to the size of an ant. The adventure, villains, goals, and betrayals, are fairly predictable for the genre. What is less predictable, and surprisingly touching, is the ant metaphor, and how it connects to the incarceration and reentry theme from the movie.
Ants are eusocial insects. They are indistinguishable from each other. The inventor who employs Scott refers to them by numbers, not by names. When Scott complains, the inventor explains, “they are just numbers; do you have any idea how many ants they are?” We treat ants, apparently, the way we treat people in total institutions; we see them as a population, not as individuals deserving of life, health, and happiness. But Scott, reduced to the size of an ant, sees them as individuals, and names one of them Anthony. He learns from the inventor’s daughter how to control the ants with his mind by becoming part of the eusocial structure. Thus, the ants’ impersonality and collective organization is their great advantage. When one is struck down, ten rise in its stead (in fact, Anthony is struck in one of the final raids; Scott regrets it, but hops over and rides another ant in its stead). And together, because of their commitment to the collective wellbeing of the community, they are invincible.
It is notable that the penultimate scene in the movie marshals some of the laughable stereotypes for the beginning to marshal the ant metaphor of community and apply it to the formerly incarcerated. Luis tells a convoluted story yet again; but the bottom line of the story is that an indirect contact wants Scott to join the Avengers: “We need a guy that shrinks”. It is through this informal Bay Area network that an opportunity awaits our superhero. Because, like ants, the people who exit our prisons may look to policymakers, jailers, and employers all the same, and it might be easy to discount them—but when they look out for each other and act collectively, that is the source of their strength.