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How superhero shows and films are depicting mental illness

Series like Legion, WandaVision and the recent Moon Knight have shown superheroes dealing with serious mental health issues

Oscar Isaac in 'Moon Knight'. Image via AP
Oscar Isaac in 'Moon Knight'. Image via AP

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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 villain Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), associated with the funerary deity Ammit, leads a suitably crazed religious cult. It’s the hero Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), however, who has the much more tasty origin story — he’s a Jewish American man suffering from 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 time-honoured Hollywood tradition of using mirrors to depict characters questioning their mental equilibrium, there are a lot of reflective surfaces around Steven during the times he realizes he has lost time, or has injuries he cannot explain.

That its protagonist’s mental illness is such a big part of Moon Knight’s narrative is in line with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) strategy since Avengers: Endgame (2019). In that film, the action shifts pretty quickly to five years after Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped out half of all life on Earth. The very first scene at this point in time sees Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) leading a group therapy session, where people are sharing stories about loss, trauma, survivor’s guilt, and all of the other psychic scars inflicted by ‘The Snap’ or ‘The Blip’, as it’s variously referred to in the MCU. “The world is in our hands,” Rogers says at one point. “It’s left to us, and we’ve gotta do something with it. Otherwise Thanos should have killed us all.” It was a widely praised scene and for good reason — it suggested, gently, that after the superheroes are done fighting, it takes equally heroic individuals to pick up the pieces afterwards, emotionally speaking.

Also read: 'WandaVision' season review: Marvel makes TV magic

Post-Endgame, Marvel began to examine the psychological impacts of The Blip in real earnest, through its lineup of streaming shows on Disney+ Hotstar. The episodic format allowed screenwriters enhanced wiggle room, and we began to see how war on a planetary scale affected our heroes as well as those around them.

In WandaVision (2021), the immensely powerful (with telepathy, telekinesis and even a kind of mind control) Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) creates an entire fantasy universe of a small town (styled after classic American sitcoms) — this act was framed as an expression of Wanda’s PTSD, owing to the events of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), where she saw her lover Vision (Paul Bettany) die twice before her eyes in the span of a few minutes (time reversal was involved).

In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021), there are two separate therapy storylines. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been pardoned of the murders he committed while he was being mind-controlled in his Winter Soldier persona. But he has to attend court-mandated therapy with the canny, no-nonsense Christina Raynor (Amy Aquino), who ends up helping him a lot. Meanwhile, Barnes also has to repair his off-kilter, ‘frenemy’ equation with Sam Wilson/The Falcon, before the two of them are off fighting some dangerous people together. One darkly funny scene, where Raynor finds herself urging the two of them to communicate better, is played for ‘buddy-cop’ laughs, for the most part. But Stan’s haunting, restless performance as a man getting re-acquainted with his conscience, betrays the very real scar tissue underneath.

There are several substantial criticisms to be made of Marvel films and shows, but their depictions of mental illness have been undeniably powerful. And they have almost always depicted therapists, psychiatrists as well as the overall idea of palliative, emotional care-giving in a positive and optimistic light (that last bit is, of course, key to Marvel’s overall feel-good brand).

DC films, however, have shown decidedly mixed results on this front. On the one hand, Matt Reeves’ The Batman, released earlier this month, handled Bruce Wayne’s (Robert Pattinson) trauma-induced rage and grief fairly well. On the other hand, there’s Joker (2019), with its inaccurate and dangerous conflations of mental illness and criminal intent. “It is technically an excellent film, well-directed, well-acted,” said the Delhi-based psychiatrist Dr Alok Sarin . “But in many ways, it erases the distinction between ‘psychiatric illness’ and ‘evil’. Because here’s a person (Arthur Fleck/the Joker) who we learn is hallucinating. The state has stopped his medication and he is also going on killing sprees. So the boundaries between his illness (and there’s obviously an illness there) and his homicidal behavior are left to the judgment of the viewer — and at the same time, it invites a judgment where the two things intersect.” Dr. Sarin also speaks about how in the Batman films and shows, the mental hospital ‘Arkham Asylum’ is a de facto penitentiary housing the Joker, the Riddler and other supervillains, “blurring the lines between the mad and the bad”.

This mad/bad blurring effect can be seen in DC Comics from the 1980s onwards. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986; a faithful animated movie based on it was released in 2013) makes its disdain for psychiatry and rehabilitation quite clear in its characterization of Dr Bartholomew Wolper (Michael McKean in the film), a psychiatrist who treats both the Joker and Harvey Dent/Two-Face. Dr Wolper believes Batman is a “fascist” and that his brutal actions have driven criminals like the Joker insane. 

Later, Wolper’s failures only escalate; Dent’s rehab fails and he reverts to his villainous Two-Face persona. The Joker fools Dr Wolper into believing he is sane and convinces the doctor to present him in front of a live TV studio audience, at a talk show. The scene ends with The Joker strangling Dr Wolper and then gassing everybody 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. Zack Snyder’s Suicide Squad (2016) introduced us to Dr Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who begins treating the Joker (Jared Leto) but is soon seduced by the charismatic villain into becoming his murderous, baseball-bat-wielding partner-in-crime.

Noah Hawley’s TV show Legion (2017-2019), based on a set of secondary Marvel characters, is perhaps the single best show involving the convergence of superpowers and mental illness. Here, the protagonist David Haller (Dan Stevens) is a diagnosed schizophrenic who realizes that the supernatural parasite causing his mental illness also gave him the ability to store various personas within his body — each with a distinct superpower. Armed with this delicious premise, Legion proceeds to do some interesting things with the genre; the first few episodes often feel like a surreal crossover between the classic ‘asylum movie’ Girl, Interrupted and the X-Men.

Also read: The Batman review: Ominous, intense and overlong

Whether Moon Knight achieves those heights remains to be seen, of course. On the evidence of the first episode, Oscar Isaac is certainly hitting the right notes as Steven Grant, a man who’s questioning not just his sanity but his very identity, his foundations. Marvel supposedly has big plans for Isaac’s character, specifically his role in future Avengers movies. If that happens, the good work that started with Avengers: Endgame will come to a kind of fruition. Until then, we can enjoy successive iterations of Isaac picking fights with mirrors.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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