Mental Health and Superheroes

Over the past few years, superheroes have become a buzz topic in movies and the media, and they have just continued to grow. Armed with this knowledge, multi-million dollar franchises have been taking on the stigmas of mental illness that media has been ignoring for so long.  In almost every good superhero movie or franchise, they have been given a background that leads to their necessity to do good, but this necessity sometimes comes along with a few things in the past that have pushed them to the edge, and sometimes over the edge, sometimes to the point of having a mental illness. Sometimes, they are easier to see, like Jessica Jones’ PTSD, Tony Stark’s (Iron Man) severe anxiety, or Malcolm Ducasse’s addiction. But sometimes, they’re more repressed, harder to see until you really dig into who a character is and what they have done, like the Black Widow or the Hulk.

Many of the superheroes we see in today’s mainstream media suffer from mental illness, and I do not believe this is an accident. By showing the illnesses in the media, and focusing on all of the good that you can do through everything inherently bad and negative, the makers of the shows and movies are making an active decision to show these illnesses in a positive light, making the viewers who suffer from the same illnesses finally have a television idol who they can identify with.

While there are so many mental illnesses and superheroes to discuss, I’m going to focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety/paranoia, and addiction.

 

PTSD:

Captain America/Steve Rogers

When we first meet Captain America in Marvel’s The Avengers, he’s fighting a punching bag - but to him, the punching bag means so much more. As we see him beating up the punching bag, he is also going through World War II flashbacks. Captain America was recruited as a young man by the U.S. Army, after being caught lying on his draft because he wanted to fight in the war. They sent him to a medical facility, where he was tested on and turned into a super soldier, created to fight the Nazis and overpower HYDRA, the super-secret evil organization run by the Nazi party. But after World War II, he flew a plane into the ocean and went “under the ice,” saving him for a time and place when he would be needed once again to save the world from destruction or domination - and he is found in the water and pulled from the ice at the end of the first Captain America movie, and he stays thawed out throughout the events of the active Marvel cinematic universe, starting with The Avengers.

The aforementioned flashbacks, along with an anger that he places towards himself and his own actions, return throughout his time as an Avenger and are the main reasoning behind his becoming a superhero in the first place, even though his original intention as Captain America was simply to fight for his country. He knows all of the things that he has done, and they have definitely had an impact on his life in the present.

But, even through all of his pain, anger, and flashbacks, he is still Captain America. He still fights for the betterment of others, especially those who cannot fight for themselves, which he has always wanted to do, ever since he was just a short, scrawny kid from New York City. In Captain America: Civil War, he goes as far as standing up for what he believes when it’s not necessarily the “right” thing to do. He stands his ground and always takes action when it is needed, and even though he suffers from PTSD, he is always able to stay strong and defeat the enemy.

 

Jessica Jones

Jessica Jones, from the Marvel/Netflix series of the same name, is the superhero that led me to this thought, and just about every other academic paper that I wrote this year; and she suffers, perhaps the most, from post-traumatic stress disorder. When she was a teenager, her parents and younger brother were killed in a car accident, when they collided with a tanker full of radioactive materials on the way to Disney World. While the car crash was fatal to the rest of her family, Jessica survived, though not without being changed. She learns that she has super-strength, and the ability to jump incredible heights, but she is always aware that she gained these powers in the same situation that caused her to lose her parents.

She is adopted by “Patsy,” a young radio and television personality, and her mother Dorothy, though only because the mother thinks it would be good for Patsy’s reputation. Jessica learns very quickly that Dorothy is both physically and verbally abusing her daughter, whose real name is Trish Walker. While Jessica struggles to hide her powers from others because she thinks they make her a freak, Trish accidentally walks in on her one day holding a sink over her head and learns Jessica’s secret. The first time we see Jessica actually use her powers is on Dorothy when she forces her off of Trish and into (and almost through) a wall.

However, Jessica’s main trauma doesn’t come from Dorothy, but instead from a man named Kilgrave, who has the power to use his words to “manipulate the air” and make those around him do whatever he tells them to. He uses this power over Jessica and creates a romantic relationship between them, and even though Jessica finds her conscience in this relationship and learns she wants nothing to do with him, she is still forced to stay with him in all aspects of a relationship, plus the added bonus that he’s a psychopath who uses people to do his own dirty work. It is not until after Jessica kills someone for him that she finds the strength to leave him, but his presence haunts her for years, forcing her into therapy, seclusion, and rampant alcoholism.

For the bulk of the series, we see her both mentally and physically fighting Kilgrave and his actions, since he now has his mind set on getting her back. Through all of her fighting, and the time she spends as a private investigator on the streets of New York, she suffers from - and through - her PTSD. She places her anger towards Kilgrave into the people around her, usually herself, and uses it to power her investigations, which mainly center around relationships. She suffers from all sorts of flashbacks, both conscious and unconscious, that can be triggered by anything from hearing a collision on the street to seeing a violent relationship on the street to drinking too much whiskey before bed. Her PTSD is very real, and very relevant, perhaps the most relevant than the other supers mentioned, just because of how awful and active it is in her lifestyle.

Throughout the whole of the first season, viewers see Jessica struggling with her lifestyle, her flashbacks, nightmares, and alcoholic fits slowly taking over her life. Even her coping mechanism, naming the streets around her childhood home, is poisoned by Kilgrave when he purchases this home and takes away her safe mental space. But as she grows stronger against Kilgrave, becomes more mentally stable and able to fight his powers, she also gains a control over her life that she never really had before, and finds more agency by the end of the season than she had ever had in the past, even through her PTSD. She is able to not only save herself but save the lives and minds of all of the people Kilgrave ever had a hold over, simply by finding her own strength and ability to overcome her obstacles.

 

Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff

While Jessica Jones suffers the most from her PTSD, I would argue that the Black Widow, or Natasha Romanoff, has the worst background story, especially from a feminist perspective. She was raised in a Russian community to become an assassin, bred to be a killing machine. While not very much is known about her past except for the fact that she wants to get away from it, the Scarlet Witch’s ability to show people their worst nightmare makes it all very real for her, revealing a side of her that we don’t really see at any other time.

While the Avengers are fighting Ultron in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Scarlet Witch manipulates Natasha’s brain to show her a vision very much unlike that of her teammates: while the other Avengers are shown visions of their worst nightmares, Natasha is instead shown a flashback to her childhood, specifically her time spent in the “Red Room,” where they made her into the killing machine that is sent to take out members of S.H.I.E.L.D., the person Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) decides not to kill a few years before The Avengers takes place.

 

In this flashback, she is a young girl again, learning the arts that are necessary for the life of a teenaged Russian assassin, specifically ballet, martial arts, and self-defense. This all seems awful enough until we reach the end of her flashback: a sterilization procedure performed on all of the young girls as their “graduation” from the Red Room, done, as Natasha describes later in the film:

“In the Red Room, where I was trained, where I was raised, um, they have a graduation ceremony. They sterilize you. It's efficient. One less thing to worry about. The one thing that might matter more than a mission. Makes everything easier, even killing."

Even though the Scarlet Witch affects all of her teammates, Natasha is the one most affected by what she sees, and has to be carried out of the battle: it has obviously had a toll on her body and her mind. When she does regain control of herself, she is obviously changed by her flashbacks, and turns inward, barely speaking until they arrive at the Barton’s farm and she is greeted by Clint’s children, who call her “Auntie Nat.”

While her flashbacks may not have started until Age of Ultron, she has always known of and remembered her traumatic past, and it has shaped her into the woman and the fighter that she is in the present-day Marvel Cinematic Universe. She knows what she was made for, and she despises it until she is taught to harness the things she was taught to overpower the evil instead of taking the wrong side. After her flashbacks in Age of Ultron, however, she is changed: she has been forced to remember something she had spent so long oppressing, and it has hurt her. Perhaps it is because of this (though there are other fan theories that believe otherwise) that she begins to think about her future or the future that might have been if she had not undergone the graduation procedure in the Red Room. She also then doubts her ability to help anyone, because she was created to be a monster, so much so that she contemplates running away. (It’s at this point that Bruce Banner, the Incredible Hulk, intervenes and convinces her that maybe a future without children is not the worst option because he was also created to be a monster, but in a different way. They then contemplate leaving together, which fixes nothing.)

In the final scene of Avengers: Age of Ultron, we see her at the training facility with Captain America, having chosen to hang around for a while longer instead of disappearing with Banner, who has gone off the grid. We can see that, although she was given an alternative, she has chosen to stay with the Avengers and continue to use the things she has learned to train the new recruits, the Scarlet Witch, Vision, War Machine, and Falcon, who Cap comments, “are not the ‘27 Yankees” but are “not a team.”

She has been through so much turmoil in her life, a life that began with training her to become the greatest and most dedicated KGB spy and assassin, then brought her to S.H.I.E.L.D. to completely reanalyze what she wants to do. But even as she remembers all of the shit she’s been through, the people she’s killed, the missions she’s carried out, she’s become stronger, more willing to set her life on the line to save others’ - something she probably never would have learned has she continued to work for the KGB. As she tells Clint Barton, her greatest friend, after his mind has been controlled by Loki, she knows “what it’s like to be unmade,” because she was. And while there are things she cannot undo and things she cannot simply forget, she has learned to use her training for good, and not for evil. She, too, has come out on top.

 

ANXIETY:

Chato Santana/El Diablo

While Suicide Squad is full of DC Comics’ villains, some, like Harley Quinn and Deadshot more known, and others, like Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc, maybe not so well known, the one character that stands out the most as the main “hero” at the end of the film  is Chato Santana, or El Diablo. While the original El Diablo is actually three different characters; as an article on Screen Rant explains, “So over the years, the role of El Diablo went from being a heroic alter ego, to a spirit of vengeance occupying that man’s physical body, to a creature from Hell manipulated into Lane’s body by Wise Owl, eventually vanishing and returning Lazarus Lane to the land of the living.”

However, this is also not quite the El Diablo that we meet in Suicide Squad; this El Diablo doesn’t wield a fiery whip and ride on a demonic horse, but instead simply has the ability to create and wield fire as a weapon, or pyromancy. Unlike the other main characters, the viewers learn fairly little about his background, the little that we do learn is absolutely heartbreaking. While the other villains joined the squad because they thought it was a great idea, El Diablo thought that he had a debt to pay to society, a past misdeed that he needed to forgive. He had always had the ability to wield fire, it was not a gift given to him by a dying man or a demon; and unlike the comic book that his story is most closely based, he does not use his powers to take out a rival gang lord, accidentally killing innocent women and children. The El Diablo that we meet in Suicide Squad, in a fit of rage one day, accidentally blew too far off the handle and killed his own wife and children.  

Although he joined the Suicide Squad to pay a debt, he refuses to use his powers even when he knows that he can use them for good, until the end of the movie, where he realizes that he must embrace the curse and releases El Diablo from his body (which then gives us a really awesome scene where he transforms into a giant, burning skeleton wearing a Central American headdress. He embraces the thing that he shied away from for so long, and ends up being the very person they need in the end.

 

Iron Man/Tony Stark

Of all of the representations of mental illness in superhero movies, Iron Man/Tony Stark’s anxiety is perhaps the one that is most obvious, since he has now begun to talk about it, starting with Iron Man 3, where he is asked to sign pictures children drew of him during the Battle of New York and has to leave the building in order to calm down enough to stop his anxiety attack. Here it is depicted that he only feels safe when he is inside the Iron Man suit. He also explains to Pepper Potts that he has started to feel inferior since New York, because he used to be the greatest, but now he is up against gods and aliens.

(He also suffers from mild PTSD, defined by his repetitive nightmares about not being able to protect Pepper and losing her and his active obsession with creating more and better suits, but his anxiety is both more prevalent and more predominantly shown.)

By an odd (and completely his fault) series of events, he winds up in Rose Hill, Tennessee, specifically in the workshop of ten-year-old Harley Keener, who reminds him of himself. When Harley asks him about the Battle of New York, he has another anxiety attack, after which he admits that he should probably be on medication for his anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

Even though he suffers from severe anxiety and mild PTSD, he is still one of the best-known names in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both as Iron Man and Tony Stark. I’m really hoping that they continue to discuss and grow this concept of Stark’s mental illness because I’ve seen so many positive reactions to such a realistic presentation of stress and anxiety.

 

Hulk

When the Incredible Hulk was created, he was a foil to Captain America. Dr. Bruce Banner wanted to develop his own Super Soldier Serum, and when he tried it on himself, the experiment went awry and the radioactive materials within his serum reacted with his blood, creating the entity that we now call the Incredible Hulk.

However, the Dr. Bruce Banner that we meet within the Marvel Cinematic Universe hates one thing more than anything else: the Incredible Hulk. It really is a situation right out of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (which makes sense, because that was the basis of his creation story to begin with.) Bruce may try to believe that he can control himself, and try to convince others of the same, but in reality, he cannot control the Hulk, just as Jekyll could not control Hyde. At the very beginning of The Avengers, Agent Phil Coulson sends Natasha Romanoff to find Bruce, who has hidden himself away in India in order to both get away from the stressors of everyday life and hide from people who would try to take advantage of him and his “powers.” He has become so afraid of the Hulk and what he might do that he gave up the life he knew to cast himself out of society:

"In case you needed to kill me, but you can't. I know! I tried! I got low. I didn't see an end so I put a bullet in my mouth, and the other guy spit it out. So I moved on, I focused on helping other people. I was good, until you dragged me back into this freak show. You put everyone here at risk.”

Banner does all he can to stop himself from becoming the Hulk and tells his teammates that instead of allowing the Hulk to rage unexpectedly, he is “always angry,” and has taught himself to choose when he rages out and when he does not. However, this does not always work: in The Avengers, Norse demigod Loki tells Black Widow that his plan is to release the Hulk to destroy the Heli-carrier that they are on, killing everyone. Natasha tries to warn Bruce but instead ends up locked in with him after the Heli-carrier is attacked, in a moment when he cannot control his own emotions, where the aforementioned quote stems from. He is paranoid that when he becomes the Hulk, he will harm people, going against his doctoral oaths and moral compass. He does not want to be the Hulk, will do anything he can to stop from transforming into him - but in the end, has no more power over the Hulk than anyone around him.

 

ADDED BONUS: ADDICTION

Note: neither of these characters are the supers themselves, but people that are close to or important to their main characters. However, because I think both of these interpretations of addiction are both super relevant and incredibly well done, I’m going to talk about them anyway.

 

Malcolm Ducasse (from Jessica Jones):

I don’t know about other viewers of Jessica Jones, but when I first learned that Jessica’s addict neighbor was being used by Kilgrave, I assumed that Kilgrave targeted him because of his addiction - but boy, was I wrong. Instead, it’s the other way around: Kilgrave chose Malcolm after Jessica saved his life, and turned him into an addict to make him rely on Kilgrave to keep him going. When Kilgrave has someone under his power, the effects seem to wear off after 12 hours; however, Kilgrave needed Malcolm to bring him pictures of Jessica once a week, not twice a day, so he had to find another alternative.  

When Malcolm described his situation to Jessica, we learn about his backstory. He was a social worker raised in a household that helped people, a counselor for kids who grow up in the bad neighborhoods and who need someone to help them find their way out - and he was both passionate and good at what he was doing. But one night, he was attacked and mugged, saved by Jessica, who then was “taken” by Kilgrave. When Kilgrave needed a spy to watch Jessica, he chose Malcolm, who moved in next to Jessica to make his job easier. When Jessica begins to take care of him and try to get him help, handcuffing him to the toilet so he cannot get high, he explains to Jessica that he only took the pictures of her to get the drugs from Kilgrave. Jessica gives him a choice: he can either continue to spy on her for the drugs or can choose to try to overcome his addiction and become the person he is deep down. By the end of the episode, he has thrown his drugs into the toilet and flushed them, the first step in overcoming his addiction and becoming himself again.

 

Ward Meachum (from Iron Fist):

(pictured on the left, with Danny Rand [center] and Joy Meachum [right])

I’m only on episode six of Iron Fist, but I was so moved and awe-inspired by their rendition of Ward Meachum’s addiction that I just had to add it. Though the series introduces the thought slowly, much unlike Malcolm’s addiction, viewers soon learn that Ward Meachum, head of the multi-million dollar Rand company, is addicted to painkillers. He takes them to calm his nerves, but his addiction slowly gets worse, even in just the first six episodes. He even experiments with the heroin that Danny Rand is investigating, an experiment that ends with his sister Joy finding him passed out on the couch in his office. It is because of this that Joy forces him to throw out all of his pills (she doesn’t know it’s heroin, but she knows how much he likes his pain pills), and after that action, viewers can see the extent of his addiction escalate as he goes longer and longer without them.

When it is especially bad, Ward slams the car door on his hand, breaking multiple bones, but the nurse at the urgent care facility refuses to give him anything without a doctor checking him out, and he ends up leaving when Joy shows up and leads him out of the building.

The aspect of this that I’m the most awe-inspired with, though, is the way that Ward’s appearance falls apart as his withdrawal grows. In the first few episodes, he is bright and healthy, but as he swirls on the downward spiral of withdrawal, his face becomes sunken, loses its color, and his eyes turn a deep bright red. It’s obvious that he’s addicted to them, even if just shown by the way his body is reacting to being without them.