The release of Captain America: Civil War carried on the sobering tone that seems to be prominent in recent MCU films. In the past the stories have often touched upon serious topics, but this darker approach to filmmaking seems to be more obvious of late, arguably starting with Iron Man 3 and staying with most films in Phase Two of the MCU, and well into Phase Three. We've seen themes of loss, identity, war, internet privacy and politics threaded throughout these Marvel films, but one slightly less noticed subject that appears to be cropping up more frequently is that of mental health.
The Struggle Is Real, Even For Superheroes
We often see the heroes within the Marvel Cinematic Universe display superhuman resilience in extremely traumatic situations — whether being held hostage by terrorists or watching a childhood friend fall to his death, these superheroes' psyches tend to be made of pretty stern stuff (which is hardly a surprise, given the fact they are indeed superheroes). Comic book movies aren't made so we can watch our favorite characters crumble under pressure and fail to save the day. But this doesn't mean mental health isn't addressed in these kinds of stories. In fact, it's pretty refreshing to see a superhero struggle with the weight of their responsibilities in a very human way, and then uplifting to see them overcome these struggles throughout the course of the film.
While the problems we see our heroes face are obviously more hyperbolic than what we would encounter in real life, knowing that a character as strong as they are can have these moments of fragility, but then also accept them, makes it easier to acknowledge our own struggles — which is a step in the direction of making things better for ourselves.
So how, exactly, does Marvel teach us about mental illness?
Tony Stark And Anxiety Disorders
In Iron Man 3, we see Tony wrestle with the aftermath of the life-threatening events he experienced in New York in The Avengers; for an ordinary person, this would hardly be surprising because:
- a) He did guide a nuclear missile into a space portal, and
- b) As a result of that, accept the inevitability of his immediate death.
I mean, that's a pretty big thing to come to terms with in a short space of time.
But this isn't just an ordinary person. This is Tony Stark we're talking about here. The guy's Iron Man. He's been in an explosion that very nearly killed him, been held prisoner by terrorists in Afghanistan, watched a friend get murdered by those same terrorists, witnessed the death of Obadiah Stane via nuclear arc reactor explosion, and experienced a fatal car accident on a Grand Prix racetrack, to name but a few of the traumatic situations he's been in. So why, exactly, is Tony Stark experiencing anxiety attacks and signs of post-traumatic stress disorder now?
Logically, it doesn't make sense. And that's the thing with mental illness — it really, really doesn't make sense. Clinical psychologist Andrea Letamendi explains it well on her Under The Mask blog:
The brilliance of the third Iron Man installment rests in the complexity of Tony’s psychology. Iron Man doesn’t work in absolutes either. The movie seems to intentionally depict mental illness with a sophisticated level of ambiguity and dimension, emphasizing the realistic point that the course of mental illness has no clear-cut causes, cures, beginnings, or ends.
We see Tony have anxiety attacks at any mention of the events in New York. We see him working for hours on end without any sleep. We see this negatively affect his relationship with Pepper Potts. And yet, he's still in denial that there might be something wrong. According to Professor of Psychology Travis Langley in Psychology Today:
In Iron Man 3, Anthony Stark appears to meet the full criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder. He either does not know enough about PTSD or he is in denial, refusing to recognize his own problem, which is a common occurence among some of those who suffer similarly in real life.
It's not easy to accept that you have a mental illness; sometimes you think what's happening to you is just a temporary low mood, and that if you wait it out long enough it'll eventually work itself out. Perhaps in Tony's case he feels that because he's dealt with traumatic situations before, he'll be able to get over this one in time and go back to being the charismatic party animal he once was. But the vast distinction between what Tony's experienced in the past and what happened in New York is that this time around he truly believed he was going to die — and in all the life-threatening scenarios he'd faced before, he's never really accepted inevitable death, and that's what kept him going. That determination to make it out of the situation alive.
Iron Man 3 gives us an insight into the irrationality behind mental illness, by showing a seemingly indestructible man in a highly vulnerable state throughout the course of the film. Through this, we're taught that no matter how much resilience you've demonstrated in the past in response to challenges, or how confident in your character and your achievements you are, or whatever high expectations people hold for you, you can still have moments of weakness.
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From Tony's narration of the story, it's demonstrated to us that he's accepted this now — which is the important first step to take when on the road to recovery for a mental illness — and from his conversation with Bruce Banner at the very end of the film (despite its humorous nature, with Bruce's claim that he's "not that type of doctor") we see that he is actively seeking help for his troubles; another valuable piece of advice to take from the movie.
The illogical nature of the disorder and the denial Tony faces in trying to cope with his symptoms gives a very realistic edge to his surreal adventure in Iron Man 3, sending the message that the most important thing to do in order to recover from mental trauma is to accept that something is wrong, and talk to someone about it.
Bucky Barnes And Dissociative Disorders
The matter of Bucky Barnes's mental health is one that's met with a little more controversy. A vital thing to take into account is that while Bucky does display a variety of symptoms of different dissociative disorders, it's not exactly an accurate example of someone who lives with such a disorder. The majority of people who do so are survivors of traumatic events that occurred in their childhood, and have developed it as a way of coping with those circumstances. Bucky is a war veteran and victim of brainwashing and (as far as we know) has not experienced major problems as a child.
A qualified judgment on the matter comes from Travis Langley, who theorizes that Bucky is in a state of dissociative fugue:
"If it's due to the brainwashing and possibly due to some technology, we use the term of dissociative fugue. You've got this disconnect. All the information about who you are, who you really are is there in your head, it's there somewhere, and it can come out, but you're in this fugue state — fugue means flight. Psychologically you have fled from who you really are."
According to WebMD, the symptoms of dissociative fugue include the following:
- Sudden and unplanned travel away from home
- Inability to recall past events or important information from the person's life
- Confusion or loss of memory about his or her identity, possibly assuming a new identity to make up for the loss
- Extreme distress and problems with daily functioning (due to the fugue episodes)
Typically, the frequency of this fugue period tends to increase during stressful times, and tends to be caused by traumatic events, including war. We know that Bucky has spent a lot of time in war zones, but we also know that his loss of identity is caused by brainwashing, and in order to become the Winter Soldier, a special selection of magic words need to be said to him. Due to this incident of brainwashing, it seems as though he doesn't neatly fit into the definition of someone who suffers from dissociative fugue. However, we've learned by now that mental illness has a large amount of ambiguity to it, and it's most likely that not a lot of people with the disorder have experienced brainwashing in their lifetime. I'm pretty sure that's not something that would come up a lot, but then again, I'm not a doctor, so who knows?
At the end of Captain America: Civil War, Bucky is placed back into a cryogenic freeze at his own suggestion. This ending has been met with criticism in regards to its implications about mental health, notably so from blogger Christy Bower, who is open about her own struggles with mental health issues:
The notion that if we can’t have a perfect mind, we need to be fixed—even if that means going into cryo-freeze until there is a cure—is disturbing. I want to point this out because I don’t want to see Hollywood push a new normal on how to deal with mental illness or defect in our society.
And actually, this is a really interesting point that Marvel should take note of. If the studio really wants to address mental health in a compassionate way and show a new side to superheroes struggling with vulnerability, why not show a more understanding accommodation of Bucky's problems?
The news that Steve Rogers has resigned his role as Captain America has brought about great speculation on who will take the wheel as the iconic character; in the comics, Bucky Barnes steers the helm for a while, and going by Sebastian Stan's extensive film contract with Marvel, it seems likely that this could be the case in the movies, too. If we see Bucky become the new Captain America, it could imply a very positive message about mental health — that regardless of the mistakes it's caused you to make in the past, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Even if that tunnel is a really long, murky and dark one filled with a lot of shit, you can change for the better if you just give it time.
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Bruce Banner And Bipolar Disorder
The link between Bruce Banner and bipolar is a visually striking one. When in his Hulk form, he represents the mania side of the disorder; when in his human state as Dr. Bruce Banner, he represents the depression. Usually we see Bruce ashamed of the Hulk, doing all he can to repress and keep his alter ego under control, separating himself from people to keep them safe. When he is the Hulk, he destroys things, and he's happy about it. He has all this energy (and of course, anger) that comes out all at once that he cannot control. When he's no longer the Hulk, he regrets everything he's done and goes into a state of despondency.
This is what we get up until The Avengers, when we are gifted with one of the most memorable lines of the whole film:
And with that, Bruce displays great wisdom on how to balance bipolar disorder.
To clarify, the idea behind that isn't to constantly be in an uncontrollable state of anger, but as the founder of support resource Bipolar Advantage, Tom Wootton put it in Psychology Today:
What Dr. Banner knew was that trying to suppress his anger would never give him the control he needed when anger was provoked. He learned to be angry without allowing it to control him. He was still afraid to let it go too far, but as he grew to understand it he even learned how to harness The Hulk and use the power under control.
Bruce learns how to function through both manic and depressive episodes by recognizing that trying to make these feelings go away will not resolve the issue. Rather, learning what his boundaries are, and knowing when to stop himself from crossing those boundaries, helps him to deal with it. Getting to that point hasn't been an easy ride for him, but he got there, and in doing so he was able to come to the rescue of New York along with the rest of the Avengers.
From this we learn that trying to suppress a mental illness can actually make things worse. But through learning to accept it, and through experiencing the bad things that come with it, we can learn how to balance it and understand how to function.
Superheroes Have Feelings, Too
The way in which Marvel portrays mental health is far from perfect. However, there does appear to be a great level of sensitivity in the way the studio has highlighted the ambiguity attached to this struggle.
Even though the heroes we see on screen are the most highly regarded people on Earth (and beyond), they do have their moments of weakness — and that's nothing to be ashamed of. We can apply this to our own lives by finding a way of getting help ourselves, or learning how we can help a friend with a similar problem. Hopefully, it sets us on a road to recovery, similar to that of Tony Stark.
What important lessons have you learned from the MCU?