The superhero genre is not without its dark moments, both in book and movie form. Anyone who has dabbled in Batman can see that quite quickly. That story and its characters, more than any other comic book-based films, highlights mental illness as an obvious character trait. Batman and the Joker, after all, are just two sides of the same coin. However, did you ever stop to think that even the lighter, often tongue-in-cheek tones of Marvel are also addressing mental illness, too?
In this article I'm going to look at some of the more obvious examples. Then you can tell me later if you spotted any others.
Iron Man 3 - PTSD / Anxiety Disorder
After the Battle of New York, Tony Stark isn't doing too well. He doesn't sleep much and instead stays up to make 42 more iterations of his Iron Man armor. This is a classic distraction technique. I used to make Iron Man suits of armor when I suffered from anxiety. Well, no, I wish I had. It would have quashed a lot of my fears, but distraction is a key coping / avoidance tool for anxiety sufferers. Not to mention, Stark has several obvious on-screen panic attacks at the mention of New York.
While these scenes have been criticized, in some cases, heavily, for undermining the character, I can only conclude that these people have never suffered a mental illness. I'm glad for them, as mental illnesses are terrible, but I'm also sad because it means the message missed the mark.
The Avengers - Anger Management Issues (and a variety of other disorders)
"That's my secret, Cap... I'm always angry."
And with that line we were treated to one of the best shots in action movie history. Still, this line didn't sit well with a lot of people. They thought it was a cop out just to have Banner suddenly be able to control the Hulk for the purposes of having a big fight at the end of the film. I can see that. However, again, I can only assume that the critics have never had a mental illness. The Hulk is an obvious metaphor for a rage problem, perhaps even Bipolar Disorder, and the thing about mental illness is that it never goes away. When you first start suffering you want it to, you desperately want it to - you bargain, beg and plead with whatever gods or forces you believe in - and you feel like the world is going to end if it doesn't. However, slowly you learn more about it, understand it, and find ways to cope (sometimes over many years). You do become stronger, but it never, ever goes away. It becomes part of you and you can never go back to how you were before you acquired the affliction. Yet, would you really want to? It becomes part of who you are, and there's nothing to be ashamed about in it.
My point being that Banner's rage was always there. He was always angry. He had learned that he could let it out when he chose to, and that knowledge probably kept him going through tough times. That was one of his coping techniques. Mental illness sufferers have plenty of those. Some critics amongst you might point to his transformation aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier to debunk my theory, but obviously there are times when people lose control, despite all their strategies and coping mechanisms. Banner was already boiling over, influenced by Loki's staff and fighting with his 'team', then a physical attack happened. That's why people call them panic attacks. Depression attacks. Rage attacks. They aren't gentle, people.
Spider-Man 2 - General Anxiety Disorder
A strange thing happened in this movie that most people just didn't get. It's explained away by Doctor Octavius when he says, "If you keep something as complicated as love stored up inside it could make you sick". This line does feel like a cop out to me. It feels like a studio-forced line to spoon feed the masses who don't want to think about their entertainment. However, what happens to Parker is classic GAD. He starts to lose his powers. His strength, agility, his webbing and his ability to stick to walls; they all start to fade away, so much so that he embraces being normal. Then, when he recovers his powers and once again becomes Spider-Man it's because he chooses to. It's all the power of his mind.
I've suffered from an anxiety disorder for 13 years and let me tell you, I've convinced myself of some pretty crazy things. Through being anxious, I've been able to give myself colds, terrible balance and temporarily weakened eye sight. I've convinced myself that level areas of floor are shifting into a slope. I've felt my skin burn as if on fire - not just a mere hot flash! - all from the power of negative thinking. What Spider-Man does then makes perfect sense. He'd been so stressed about what to do with his life, what he should focus on, that it affected even his superpowers, which until that point, in movies, were more of a binary system: you either had them or you didn't.
Guardians of the Galaxy - Autism
Man, that film was so full of lovable characters, wasn't it? From the gun-toting raccoon and walking tree to the mix-tape-playing space captain to assassin hellbent on redemption, and, oh yeah, the berserker dude with autism. Drax cannot understand metaphors. He takes everything literally. That is both cute and funny, in the realms of the movie, but in reality it is a key pointer for autism.
Ok, I'm a little off-topic here. Autism isn't really a mental illness, as it is rooted in genetics. However, as the story behind this entry inspired the whole article, I couldn't leave it out: It was the man who posted a message on the Internet thanking those who made Guardians of the Galaxy because his autistic brother finally had a hero that he could relate to. They both took things literally and did not understand metaphor. So that message got through. That makes me very pleased.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. I could have addressed Tony Stark's alcohol addiction and his narcissism, which are bordering on mental illness. I could have mentioned Steve Rogers whose good nature is practically an illness nowadays. Hawkeye has a problem in the comics that I won't spoil here, but I hope they bring to the movies. Then there's Deadpool, Mystique, Loki, Wolverine, etc.
These movies are reaching millions of people and I applaud that they are openly tackling a slighted and misunderstood series of afflictions that need the attention and they need more people to understand them. By showing powerful, beloved heroes as also being afflicted by such illnesses, it's acknowledging for many that these problems exist and it's showing people who suffer that it is ok - they are not alone! When you are curled up in your room at night, convinced you're not going to see daylight because the anxiety is really going to kill you this time, for example, that really helps.
So have you seen any mentally ill superheroes? Let me know!