Do the main characters of the MCU have superhero PTSD? It’s not easy being a superhero. This is a pretty obvious statement — but it’s easy to forget in the midst of all the heroics that supers are people, too.

The serial nature of comics and a movie industry willing to exhaust any and all sequel potential lends itself to prolonging a character’s emotional arc. Bad things happen but properly dealing with the consequences and emotional fall out doesn’t. More recently, however, television shows and films have delved a little deeper into the effects wrought on superheroes after saving the world.

Tony Stark: Billionaire Playboy Philanthropist

It’s commonly known that Tony Stark was a defense contractor before becoming the Iron Man we all know and love. In IRON MAN (2008), the Ten Rings abduct Stark during his trip to Afghanistan to demonstrate the effectiveness of the new Jericho missile. During his abduction, Tony and fellow captive doctor Yinsin develop the first Iron Man suit and the arc reactor keeping the metal shrapnel from piercing Tony’s heart.

Tony Stark: The MCU’s Biggest Asshole

As you can imagine, avoiding death by using a magnet to push away literal metal shrapnel from piercing your heart is stressful. IRON MAN 2 brings to light the realization that the palladium core in Tony’s chest reactor has been poisoning him — and there’s no known alternative.

As a result, Tony becomes despondent and reckless. He names Pepper Potts the CEO of Stark Industries and tells no one that he’s dying. In addition to this, Tony must deal with the fall out of telling the whole world that he’s Iron Man.

The culmination of this pressure comes at the end of AVENGERS (2012). Tony attempts to sacrifices himself by launching a missile into a wormhole containing the Chitauri alien fleet. His suit loses power and sends him into a free-fall back to Earth. The Hulk manages to save him just in time.

superhero ptsd
Hulk is a day one. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Almost Dying Sucks… Especially When It Keeps Happening.

This near-death experience proves to have long-lasting effects on Tony Stark. In IRON MAN 3, Tony suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. His panic results in the obsessive creation of hundreds of Iron Man suits. Tony’s workaholic tendencies begin to distance him from Pepper, straining their relationship.

Tony’s reaction is a typical example of superhero PTSD — the parallel drawn between Tony’s superhero PTSD and the literal exploding veterans from the Extremis project convey a dire sense of tension. Tony develops a fear of everyone he knows and loves dying in a terrible supervillain disaster.

Scarlet Witch taps into this fear in AGE OF ULTRON, showing Tony a vision of the Avengers lying in a dead heap, the earth scorched around them by the Chitauri fleet. As Captain America dies, he whispers to Tony,

“Why didn’t you save us?” 

The desire to fend off this possible future motivates him to proceed with developing Ultron against the wishes of the rest of the team. Ironically, this nearly precipitates the end of the world anyway.

Black Widow and the Winter Soldier

Natasha Romanoff made her grand appearance in the MCU as a villain in IRON MAN 2. Her past has been seldom discussed, though a terrible vision in AGE OF ULTRON reveals the torture she underwent in the Red Room. Training was endless and brutal. Natasha was involuntary sterilized.

The Red Room’s philosophy behind the sterilization hinged on the fact that being unable to have kids would reduce the risk of defection. Natasha’s visibly shaken in the wake of the vision, as are the rest of team. In the first AVENGERS film, Natasha tells an entrapped Loki that her ledger is stained red.

The missions she completed while part of the Red Room and the Black Widow program haunt her. After Scarlet Witch’s attack in AGE OF ULTRON, Natasha tells Bruce Banner,

“Still think you’re the only monster on the team?”

Visions? Yikes! Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Similarly, Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier underwent H.Y.D.R.A brainwashing, murdering hundreds over the decades since World War II. Though fighting with Cap in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER begins to jog his memory, the recovery process is painfully slow.

Once Bucky begins remembering the dual parts of his life, he agonizes over the crimes he’s been forced to commit. On top of all that, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR reveals that with certain trigger words, Bucky can be forcefully reverted to his killing machine Winter Soldier persona.

What Will Happen To The Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes In The MCU?

Superhero PTSD In The Netflix Universe

The Marvel Netflix universe acts as the grittier, street-level counterpart to the macroscopic MCU. One of the benefits of this, in addition to the added screen-time, is that shows like JESSICA JONES and THE PUNISHER have the ability to really delve into the psyche of their characters.

Season one of JESSICA JONES finds Jessica recovering from the trauma of her ordeal with Kilgrave. Beyond getting her powers in an awful accident that killed her family, Kilgrave put her under mind control for a year. Kilgrave abused and brutalized Jessica, forcing her to kill an innocent woman.

She experiences awful flashbacks, reciting names of streets in her old neighborhood as a method of anchoring herself to the present. When that doesn’t work, she drinks to forget. Jessica vehemently does not want to be a hero, but when Kilgrave makes his presence known again in her life, Jessica goes full-throttle in her efforts to stop him, facing her superhero PTSD head-on.

JESSICA JONES Season Two: Why Jessica Jones Doesn’t Want To Be ‘The Superhero’

Frank Castle: A Veteran

Similarly, THE PUNISHER explores trauma and PTSD in war veterans. The death of Frank Castle’s family is an earth-shattering event in his life. His introduction in DAREDEVIL season two as a foil to Matt’s Catholic-guilt bound vigilantism features a heart-wrenching speech about his family.

The desire for revenge motivates Frank to hunt down everyone involved and methodically kill them one by one.

How THE PUNISHER Explores Trauma

It’s bloody and gruesome, but the show takes time to unfold the extent of Frank’s superhero PTSD. Or more accurately, war PTSD. Frank’s nightmares always begin with his wife waking him up in the morning. Frank watches helplessly as a masked man enters the room and shoots her in the head.

Later, the man removes the mask to reveal himself as Frank. Even before the massacre of his family, Frank experiences difficulty readjusting to civilian life. His wife remarks that he’s distant and select scenes show Frank is prone to sudden rages. A prominent aspect of THE PUNISHER is the veteran support group Frank’s old war buddy leads.

One of the attendees, Lewis Wilson, a young veteran suffering from PTSD, recreates his living conditions overseas in his backyard. The familiarity of it is comforting. His steady decline as he tries and fails to find ways to cope is a tragic illustration of PTSD.

The Chance for a Better Future

Trauma recovery is not a straight line. Jessica Jones’ methods of coping with her superhero PTSD are not always the healthiest. In season two, the reemergence and subsequent death of her mother force Jessica to think about her life. Is she living, or just existing? Though Jessica remains separated from Trish and Malcolm at the show’s conclusion, her budding relationship with Oscar and his son marks a step in the right direction.

God, I hope nothing bad ever happens to them. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Similarly, after exhausting his murder revenge quest, Frank Castle attends, and more importantly, participates in Curtis Hoyle’s support group. He acknowledges the fear he has about finally confronting life without the laser focus of achieving justice for his family. What new purpose could Frank have? Hopefully, season two will answer this question.

After INFINITY WAR, who knows what’ll happen to our favorite big screen heroes. There’s no doubt that absolutely no one, including me, will be okay afterward. It’ll be interesting to see how the MCU tackles a Thanos-level fall out over the course of Phase Three.

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