One thing about the first season of THE PUNISHER took me by surprise. The moment that shocked me in the show was Frank Castle sitting down with a veteran group. What was it that made this scene so surprising to me? Simply put, the previous treatment of mental illness in the MCU has not been the best. In fact, most heroes within the MCU seem to be avoiding acknowledging they’re mentally ill, avoiding therapy, or both.

Mental Illness & Therapy in the MCU
Frank talks about his experiences with Curtis’ group.

This is especially true of the Netflix shows, but it’s true of the greater MCU as well. Many — if not all — of the heroes we follow nowadays have trauma. It makes them relatable. It makes them human. However, all these heroes seem determined to work through their trauma on their own. In fact, some of them seem almost convinced that therapy is a sign of weakness.

Heroes being unwilling to get help is a problem. People watching see therapy and medication portrayed as signs of weakness. Our society already enforces the idea that a need for therapy or medication is a personal failing. For people just coming to grips with the fact that they may have a mental illness, seeing this can be harmful. It feeds into a larger problem.

Mental Illness in Media

Before digging into the MCU, it’s good to know what’s come before it. Movies and television seldom show mental illness in a good light. Our society views mental illness as a flaw. Society assumes that there is a “normal” way for brains to work. This assumption also implies that mental illness is a sign of the brain not working properly.

People have slowly begun to work past this. There’s a resurgence of people who suffer from mental illness opening up topics of “normalcy” and how the idea of it is inherently false. People have started to understand that mental illness isn’t someone’s brain being “broken” as much as it is someone’s brain working differently than an enforced standard.

This shift has introduced language to prevent the pathologization of these brains by outmoding the term “illness” and “disorders” when talking about people with depression, autism, personality disorders, and otherwise. (Although for the sake of people who aren’t familiar with this rhetoric, I’ll be using “mental illness” throughout this article as the set terminology.)

Mental Health In the Media When Done Right

Media Stereotypes

Media, however, still seems a step behind. There’s a precedence in media for mental illness to be a sign of either villainy or uselessness. Sometimes both. Horror movies in particular use psychiatry and mental illness as things that are meant to be creepy or terrifying. Genres outside of horror seem to not want to talk about mental illness or therapy at all, most of the time.

As long as the media perpetuates stereotypes, members of society will internalize them. No matter how far forward we try to move with our rhetoric surrounding mental illness, media can get inside our heads. The stereotypes of mentally ill people that we consume affect us — even, and perhaps especially, if we ourselves are mentally ill.

It’s important to keep this in mind when looking at the MCU. Media doesn’t exist in a vacuum — the stories before it influence it. Creators need to consider that the audience’s interpretations are influenced by these stories as well. With a less than savory precedent set for mental illness, the MCU has a chance to change the current perception of mentally ill people by breaking this pattern.

The MCU’s First Foray Into Mental Illness: Tony Stark

Marvel does not exactly shy away from difficult topics in the comics. It makes sense that the MCU would try to follow suit. The IRON MAN film series, in particular, discuss mental illness in the MCU. In IRON MAN 3, Tony suffers from panic attacks due to his brush with death in AVENGERS. Tony Stark in the comics has struggled for many years with addiction as well as other problems. While the MCU doesn’t touch on the alcoholism quite as heavily, it examines Tony’s PTSD and anxiety.

Tony Stark: Sobering Up for the MCU

Tony Stark & Denial

Still, Tony seems to deny possible solutions for his anxiety. Instead of trying to get help, or even reach out to those around him, he tries to fix his problems all by himself. This causes an enormous amount of problems in his personal and professional life.

Mental Illness & Therapy in the MCU
During his struggles in IRON MAN 3, Tony finds an unlikely ally in Harley Keener.

Granted, Tony Stark has to worry about superhero things like villains popping up and trying to sabotage his whole livelihood — but it still stands that Tony refusing to seek help for his anxiety and PTSD was causing a ton of problems. So…why didn’t he get help? It’s not as if the billionaire playboy philanthropist can’t afford therapy.

We’re looking at a broader problem here — one that extends through the MCU.

Tony Stark, for his own reasons, has convinced himself that he’s strong enough to handle PTSD and chronic panic attacks all by himself. Or rather, that he needs to be strong enough to handle these things all by himself. That therapy, or medicine, are not for him. It’s clear Tony sees admitting he needs help as a sign that he’s incompetent.

The sad thing is, Tony Stark in the IRON MAN franchise is a step ahead of quite a few other heroes — who won’t even admit to dealing with mental illness.

Diagnoses Aren’t Dirty Words

For some reason, none of the heroes in Marvel’s other films seem to be able to admit they might be mentally ill. Almost every single member of the Avengers has faced colossal trauma in their lives — it feels like it’s practically a prerequisite for being a Marvel hero. Everyone seems to want to avoid vocalizing their problems. There’s a strange culture within Marvel’s superhero groups of keeping personal issues hidden.

CAPTAIN AMERICA dealt multiple blows to America’s golden boy, Steve Rogers’, mental health. Not only does Steve deal with being a WWII soldier — a war that brought home many veterans suffering PTSD, before the disorder was even labeled that — but he takes a nose-dive into the Atlantic in a plane. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER introduces Steve to Sam Wilson, who also has wartime trauma from seeing his partner die.

Mental Illness & Therapy in the MCU
Fighting his amnesiac best friend probably wasn’t the best for Steve Rogers’ mental health, either.

It sounds like the perfect set up for letting both Steve and Sam speak on their PTSD. Sam works at the VA, running a group specifically for veterans with PTSD, and he invites Steve. Still, when the movie directs the conversation at Steve himself, he seems to deflect it. Steve is willing to admit to struggling with adapting to life outside of war. He’d rather throw himself into a long, arduous road-trip to find his friend than admit he might have PTSD.

Use Your Words

This doesn’t only apply to Steve — Bruce Banner in AVENGERS speaks explicitly about attempting suicide. Despite this, the word “depression” is nowhere to be seen. The only hero who we see proper diagnostic terminology used for is Tony Stark in IRON MAN 3. J.A.R.V.I.S. informs Tony frankly that he has a “severe anxiety attack” in the film. Why can’t this kind of direct language be present in the other films?

The Hulk: A Retrospective Speculation Of Bruce Banner

The films don’t give a reason for its characters to avoid using this kind of vocabulary. The audience can theorize — Steve Rogers may be preventing the reality of having PTSD because he feels like he has to be perfect as Captain America. Perhaps Bruce Banner feels like saying the word “depression” will make it suddenly feel too real. The MCU doesn’t canonize any of these reasons, though. This starts to make the writing surrounding mental illness in the MCU a bit disconcerting.

After all, if the characters don’t have a reason for not saying these things, it feels more like the writers are the ones stopping it from being said. Though it’s unlikely that it’s on purpose, this makes it look like the MCU simply doesn’t want to have characters that are canonically mentally ill.

Subtext and Analysis

I’m not a fan of subtext when it comes to oppressed groups. A lot of creators might feel like subtext feels more natural. However, subtext doesn’t work because of societal standards. Society is conditioned to assume certain things, meaning what people will read as society’s standards always influence “natural.” If a character isn’t explicitly stated as gay, they will be assumed straight. The same goes for keeping mental illness subtextual.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s still a large assumption enforced by media that mental illness is abnormal — and typically dangerous. If people have internalized the idea that mental illness is abnormal, there will be an assumption that most people are not mentally ill. This isn’t accurate — in fact, the rates of mental illness in America are typically 1 in 5. Media neglecting to label a mentally ill character explicitly puts that character in a place of both being and not being part of an oppressed class. It’s a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card that doesn’t give solid representation.

The small upside is that fandom takes advantage of this subtext. Plenty of people have written analytical articles or fanfiction (or both) with assorted diagnoses for almost every member of the Avengers. None of these diagnoses are canonized in the films though. Multiple actors — from Sebastian Stan to Finn Jones — has stated they researched multiple mental illnesses to portray the characters. If the actors can openly say that these characters have PTSD or depression, why can’t the characters themselves?

Sometimes, even word of god confirms these characters’ mental health issues. The words of actors don’t change the script, however. A creator confirming a character’s status as depressed, or gay, or transgender outside of the script doesn’t have nearly as much impact as showing it in the piece of media.

Mental Illness and Therapy

It seems that the simple step to take is to have the characters admit there is a problem. Then, the character can begin working on it. It seems that way. However, Tony Stark has already proven that knowing the problem doesn’t automatically lead to fixing the problem. There are multiple steps to normalizing mental illness in media: letting characters be canonically mentally ill, showing them dealing with their symptoms, and showing therapy and coping methods.

Marvel’s Netflix shows reflect this, as well. The Netflix shows are a mix of the two problems the MCU has — some of the characters clearly have mental illnesses that they won’t even admit to, while others know full well what they have, but won’t get help.

The line of thinking behind this seems to be that being mentally ill is a weakness. While it’s never stated outright, many of these characters cling to their hero personas and the idea that they’re strong as an anchor. In a society where mental illness is seen as a flaw, it’s obvious why both real people and characters would shy away from admitting their own struggles with it. Still, letting protagonists continue with this line of thinking seems to (however accidentally) enforce it.

Do Heroes Not Need Help?

Jessica Jones doesn’t want to seek help for her alcoholism, her PTSD, or her depression. Danny Rand, who has flashbacks and panic attacks, doesn’t even want to admit he has PTSD, much less seek help for it. Matt Murdock doesn’t want to face his personal demons when it comes to his anger issues, his depression, or his past abuse. Luke Cage’s depression and grief over the loss of his wife, as well as his PTSD, don’t even get much screen-time.

Mental Illness & Therapy in the MCU
Danny is shown as dealing with nightmares about K’un-Lun in DEFENDERS, on top of the flashbacks and nightmares, he already suffers from his parents’ deaths.

The MCU doesn’t necessarily portray not getting help as a good thing. In fact, many of their close friends want them to. We have voices of reason like Karen Page, Pepper Potts, and Trish Walker trying to assist our protagonists. This doesn’t fix the root of the problem, though. Therapy isn’t shown as a viable option in these shows because they simply don’t show therapy. The suggestion of therapy isn’t enough. Having characters simply suggest therapy doesn’t stop therapy from being seen as unhelpful, or intimidating, or impossible.

Steps Forward

What, then, does stop therapy from being nothing but a nebulous, disliked concept? The answer to this one is simple: showing therapy. THE PUNISHER was such a large step forward because it wasn’t people simply insisting Frank get help. It moved forward, letting Frank admit that he did need help, and actively pursuing it.

Therapy isn’t a monolith — I like the current approach, which seems to accept that multiple things can be therapeutic. All the Defenders need therapy, and their needs tend to lie in very different directions. Jessica going to an AA meeting and trying to tackle her alcoholism is a very different path from Matt sitting down with a professional therapist and talking about the childhood abuse he suffered. These are just ideas I can toss forth off the top of my head that would show them dealing with their problems. Marvel has plenty of options, though.

How THE PUNISHER Explores Trauma

Balancing Hope and Truth

Not all therapists are good, either — IRON FIST showed us the darker side of the psychiatric world. Specifically, Danny suffers psychiatric abuse and being forcefully institutionalized. I think showing Danny moving forward in his mental health would be one of the most interesting storylines to handle.

Danny has dealt first-hand with being abused by the psychiatric system, so for him to admit that he does have PTSD and find a therapist that actually helps him cope…it would be an important thing for people to see. People have faced situations like Danny’s in real life — to give them hope would be an amazing thing.

Mental Illness & Therapy in the MCU
Danny’s experience so fair with psychiatry is being held against his will, discredited, and drugged.

THE PUNISHER felt like a big step for me. It felt when I saw Frank Castle deciding to talk to people and try to better himself, that it was something manageable. Sometimes, even talking about being mentally ill can be the hardest thing in the world — so having heroes that skirt around it doesn’t exactly help.

Vulnerability

The biggest problem this seems to enforce is that these heroes all think that if they admit to needing help, they’re weak. Being able to handle trauma and mental illness doesn’t come down to an equation of weak or strong, though. With rates of mental illness on the rise, it seems that everybody wants to be able to “handle” it on their own — to be strong.

Marvel has a chance to show that getting help is strong. They’ve brushed on the concept already — but it’d be amazing to see them dig deeper. They have the chance to show these heroes coping in multiple ways. This is a chance to let the audience know they’re not alone in their struggles.

Mental Illness & Therapy in the MCU
Jessica and Trish have an amazingly close relationship — hopefully, Jessica can move forward and let other people become close to her, as well.

In JESSICA JONES, Jessica has already admitted she needs Trish. That’s a step forward. With the addition of Malcolm and her stint on the Defenders, my hopes are she’ll start building a support system. One of the biggest problems people have with mental illness is that they feel it’s a burden they have to bear alone. In actuality, support systems are invaluable for people dealing with mental illness and trauma. To be able to see that reflected on screen would be fantastic.

I hope that Bruce Banner can actually say that he has depression. It’s not a dirty word. Same goes for Bucky, Steve, and Natasha and their PTSD. I hope that Tony can openly admit he’s on anxiety medication. I hope that the characters we’ve learned to look up to can be vulnerable, and teach people that vulnerability isn’t a bad thing.

To Those Out There Watching

With this first step in THE PUNISHER, Marvel has the opportunity to present a whole world of coping mechanisms and ways to be safer and try to be happier. Marvel has such a rich mix of characters who all deal with their problems differently. Because of this, they can present many different paths to coping and healing. No matter which path they take though, seeing these heroes deal with these problems helps the audience know that they’re not alone.

Merely normalizing a discussion of mental illness and therapy can help. I don’t think being able to see superheroes grapple with their own depression will serve as a magical cure-all. Realistically, things will still be tough. But being able to see one’s self in character is a large facet of fiction. It’s part of why people keep telling stories…to help other people get through theirs.

It feels like Marvel’s stepping up to the plate when it comes to representing mental illness. I hope they keep it up.

One Comment

  1. tired

    January 7, 2018 at 4:35 pm

    Highlights exactly the issues

    Reply

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