How Superhero Shows and Movies Portray Mental Illness
Marvel’s latest TV show moon knight (the first episode premiered on Disney+ Hotstar last week) is a bit of a throwback to the “mummy horror” subgenre – both protagonist and antagonist are controlled by Egyptian deities, for starters. The villainous Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), paired with the funerary deity Ammit, leads a suitably insane religious cult. It’s hero Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), however, who has the much more savory origin story – he’s a Jewish American man with dissociative identity disorder, sharing his body with a mercenary. called Marc Spector and frequently controlled by the moon god Khonshu (F. Murray Abraham). In the age-old Hollywood tradition of using mirrors to portray characters questioning their sanity, there are plenty of reflective surfaces around Steven during the moments when he realizes he’s wasted time or has injuries he can’t explain.
That its protagonist’s mental illness is such a big part of moon knightThe narrative of has been in line with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) strategy since Avengers: Endgame (2019). In this film, the action quickly jumps to five years after Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped out half of all life on Earth. The very first scene at this point sees Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) lead a group therapy session, where people share stories about loss, trauma, survivor’s guilt, and all the other psychic scarring. inflicted by ‘The Snap’ or ‘The Blip’ as he is variously called in the MCU. “The world is in our hands,” Rogers said at one point. “It’s up to us, and we have to do something about it. Otherwise, Thanos would have had to kill us all. It was a widely acclaimed scene and for good reason – it suggested, gently, that once the superheroes are done battling, it takes equally heroic individuals to pick up the pieces afterwards, emotionally speaking. .
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To post-End of Game, Marvel has begun to seriously examine the psychological impacts of The Blip, through its line of streaming shows on Disney+ Hotstar. The episodic format allowed the writers more leeway, and we began to see how the war on a planetary scale affected our heroes as well as those around them.
In Wanda Vision (2021), the immensely powerful (with telepathy, telekinesis, and even some sort of mind control) Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) creates an entire small-town fantasy universe (inspired by classic American sitcoms) – this act was designed as an expression of Wanda’s PTSD, due to the events of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), where she saw her lover Vision (Paul Bettany) die twice in front of her eyes within minutes (time reversal was involved).
In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021), there are two distinct therapy scenarios. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been pardoned for murders he committed while under mind control in his Winter Soldier persona. But he has to go to court-mandated therapy with the cunning and pragmatic Christina Raynor (Amy Aquino), who ends up helping him a lot. Meanwhile, Barnes must also fix his off-kilter, “enemy” equation with Sam Wilson/The Falcon, before the two fight dangerous people together. A dark and funny scene, where Raynor finds himself urging them to communicate better, plays for the most part to “buddy-cop” laughs. But Stan’s haunting and restless performance as a man reconnecting with his consciousness betrays the very real scar tissue beneath.
There are several substantial criticisms to be leveled at Marvel movies and shows, but their portrayals of mental illness have been undeniably powerful. And they’ve almost always portrayed therapists, psychiatrists, and the general idea of palliative and emotional care in a positive and optimistic light (that last element is, of course, key to Marvel’s overall wellness brand) .
The DC films, however, have shown decidedly mixed results on this front. On the one hand, Matt Reeves The Batman, released earlier this month, handled the trauma-induced rage and grief of Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) quite well. On the other hand, there is Joker (2019), with its inaccurate and dangerous amalgamations of mental illness and criminal intent. “It’s technically a great film, well directed, well acted,” said Delhi-based psychiatrist Dr Alok Sarin. “But in many ways it blurs the line between ‘psychiatric illness’ and ‘illness’. Because here is a person (Arthur Fleck/the Joker) who we learn is hallucinating. The state stopped his drugs and he also continues to kill. So the lines between his disease (and there’s obviously disease there) and his murderous behavior are left to the judgment of the viewer – and at the same time, it invites judgment where the two things intersect. Dr. Sarin also discusses how, in the Batman movies and shows, the “Arkham Asylum” mental hospital is a de facto penitentiary housing the Joker, the Riddler, and other villains, “blurring the lines between lunatics and the villains”.
This crazy/evil blur effect can be seen in DC Comics from the 1980s. by Frank Miller Return of the Dark Knight (1986; a faithful animated film based on it was released in 2013) makes his contempt for psychiatry and rehabilitation clear in his characterization of Dr. Bartholomew Wolper (Michael McKean in the film), a psychiatrist who treats at the both the Joker and Harvey Dent/ Two Faces. Dr. Wolper believes Batman is a “fascist” and that his brutal actions have driven criminals like the Joker insane.
Later, Wolper’s failures only get worse; Dent’s rehab fails and he reverts to his villainous two-faced persona. The Joker tricks Dr. Wolper into thinking he’s sane and convinces the doctor to introduce him to a live television studio audience on a talk show. The scene ends with the Joker strangling Dr. Wolper and then gassing everyone else to death. More recently, the TV show Gotham (2014-2019), which served as a Batman prequel, featured an “evil psychiatrist” storyline on more than one occasion. by Zack Snyder suicide squad (2016) introduced us to Dr. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who begins to treat the Joker (Jared Leto) but is quickly seduced by the charismatic villain to become his murderous, baseball bat-wielding partner in crime.
Noah Hawley TV Show Legion (2017-2019), based on an ensemble cast of supporting Marvel characters, is perhaps the best show involving the convergence of superpowers and mental illness. Here, protagonist David Haller (Dan Stevens) is a diagnosed schizophrenic who realizes that the supernatural parasite causing his mental illness has also given him the ability to store various personalities in his body, each with a super separate power. Armed with this delicious premise, Legion continues to do interesting things with the genre; early episodes often feel like a surreal cross between the classic “asylum movie” girl interrupted and the X-Men.
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Whether moon knight reached those heights remains to be seen, of course. Based on the evidence from the first episode, Oscar Isaac certainly hits the right notes as Steven Grant, a man who questions not only his sanity, but his very identity, his foundations. Marvel supposedly has big plans for Isaac’s character, especially his role in future Avengers films. If that happens, the good work that started with Avengers: Endgame will come to some kind of realization. Until then, we can enjoy successive iterations of Isaac’s pick fights with mirrors.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.