In this post, I want to share my love of film with you and talk about some of my favourite superhero films. Superhero films especially, because so many of them deal with mental health issues, and in this post, I’ll explain how.
Tobey Maguire As Spiderman
For a variety of reasons I’m not a huge Maguire fan, but I will say that his acting in Spiderman, as well as several other films, is annoyingly good. The man is as talented as he is an asshole, which is frustrating because as a fan I want him to be the good guy and I want him to win, however, his behaviour and the rumours of his behaviour absolutely colour whether or not I choose to watch his films. That being said, Spiderman played a very interesting role.
Not only is Spiderman one of the oldest characters, created before 1962, but he’s also the “every man,” character.
A young man living in the middle class, whose entire life is turned upside down after one trauma after another, usually involving death. From his parents to his uncle, all the people who matter and influence him the most die.
That being said, Spiderman aka Peter Parker is filled with traumatic experiences that both turn him into a great hero, but a complex character with flaws, misunderstandings, and a wide learning curve.
Most people see the action and forget about the mental health issues, but it’s the mental health issues that actually MAKE Spiderman a hero. The spider bite just gives him the CHANCE to be a hero, but it’s his life experiences that turn him into the beloved NYC character he is.
Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man 3
My friend Renita Quirls has been literally stuck on this film for about a year now, completely unable to finish it, and that’s largely because the mental health issues that Ironman experiences in this film are hard to deal with.
I don’t often comment on RDJ’s mental health issues out of respect, but if you existed in the 90s you know they were plenty, so there’s a rawness and a realness that he brings to this role that NO other actor on the planet could have accomplished as believably as he did.
PTSD, Trauma, Anxiety, Depression, Self Harm, Violent outbursts, and the fact that he’s the first human in the history of this timeline in the films, to not only see aliens but to see how vast and powerful their army is and can be. He’s the first, and he doesn’t have the words to explain how traumatizing that is for himself. So instead, he remains quiet and keeps his pain to himself, until he nearly kills his partner and loved one, Pepper Pots.
Why? Because he’s a rich philanthropist that the entire world sees as a genius playboy who doesn’t really care about the world, so when he FINDS something to care about, he struggles deeply with trying to remove the image that the world has of him and say to the world, “hey I’m rich, powerful and everyone loves or hates me, but I need help.”
Ultimately Ironman saves the world – again – but in the process of that he learns to deal with some of his mental health issues, but as with the case of many of us, that doesn’t change the fact that the struggles Tony Stark feel and experiences as a human being, only grow in the number and the devastation that they cause.
No matter what he says, at the end of the day, Tony Stark has to put his own shit aside, and deal with the realities around him, so that he can be the hero that LITERALLY saves ALL the various universes in the multi-verse.
That’s a lot of pressure on one man, and even though he has a team of superheroes to back him up, at the end of the day, in End Game we see what happens. The hero literally gives up his life, to save everyone around him. Whether it’s true or not, many of us who suffer from mental health feel this way, a lot.
Elizabeth Olson as Wanda Vision
Wanda like all the characters in the superhero world of Marvel goes through an entire row of changes. First, she loses her family to Stark bombs, then she goes through a bunch of evil shit to discover and learn how to use her powers. Then she becomes a superhero to fight against the bad guy she helped to create.
Then she fights the bad guy, falls in love, and learns to work side by side with Stark, whose technology helped to destroy her entire villiage and most of her family. Then she loses the love of her life after a truly epic war on a planet that has never faced anything like that.
Then, she takes over a whole town in her grief and spends months pretending nothing is wrong, while everyone around her silently suffers, partially wanting to help her, and partially hating her for destroying their lives because of her un-dealt with mental health issues.
And the only way to undo what she’s done is to give up her disassociational behaviour, in order to undo the majick that destroyed the lives of hundreds of people, who now have their OWN mental health issues, because of her behaviour.
Rather than making her feel better, however, Wanda isolates herself, until she realizes that she can have her dreams, at the risk of everyone on the planet. The major problem? She can ONLY have her happily ever after if everyone on the planet suffers so she can have what she thinks she needs to be happy.
So, in a fit of absolute insanity, Wanda tries to go and repair not the damage she’s caused, but the holes in her life that in large part were caused by the fact that Wanda hasn’t ever been “free” to be herself.
A war, controlled by evil warlords, working side by side with the man who killed her family, and losing the love of her life after FINALLY finding some sense of peace, is just too much for the average person. Let alone a person as powerful as Wanda.
No matter what happens, Wanda is never the hero again because not only does she end up trapped in something or other, but for the most part, it won’t matter to anyone in that world WHY she did what she did, all that REALLY matters is that because of her reasons, lots of people died, and lots of people got hurt.
Sebastian Stan as Bucky AKA The Winter Soldier
Sebastian Stan is an interesting casting choice for the Winter Soldier because he’s completely opposite to any other character in the MCU or DCEU. First and foremost this character comes from NYC, but the actor is Romanian – which is interesting only because of our shared Gypsy connection.
Secondly, as a character Bucky is the guy that Steve Rogers looks up to the most, they’re the best of friends, but when Bucky is captured, it’s actually Steve Rogers that saves him and rather than being the hero he thought he would be, Bucky is the guy pushed to the back who was SUPPOSED to be the hero, who now has to play follow the leader.
Jump forward fifty or sixty years, and Captain America is still an American icon, but Bucky has become The Winter Soldier – a violent sociopath with absolutely zero consideration for how his behaviour affects others.
But here’s the twist. It’s not because he doesn’t want to care, it’s because he’s been hypnotized, beaten, and tortured, into being a sociopathic killer controlled by a specific grouping of words that somehow flips a switch in his brain so that he can be controlled, without having any self-control himself.
This particular story talks a lot about government control and oversight, but on a deeper much more human level, any victim of domestic violence can understand many of the issues that Bucky Barns experiences, which makes this movie really supportive of proper mental health care.
Which Bucky ONLY receives when Steve Rogers gives up his entire life to help Bucky – and several others – go on the run, from a government trying to control creatures they don’t understand.
Batman vs Harley Quinn
Batman to my mind isn’t a hero. He kills people with mental health issues or jails them in Arkham Asylum where they are ALWAYS vulnerable to evil doctors who don’t actually care about them but instead go out of their way to turn people with mental health issues into bigger, more dangerous, and more sociopathic serial killers.
Harley Quinn is a hero for many women, but why? She ACTUALLY decided to become “crazy,” when she fell in love with the Joker, and only became the hero after dumping him. Harley made a concentrated choice, to destroy her ENTIRE life as a successful psychiatrist, for a lunatic – for a verifiable, certifiable lunatic who murders and tortures people for no other reason than…he can.
She speaks more to me than any other Batman character because Harley Quinn’s entire story is about changing yourself for love, (not necessarily for a man,) only to find out that that choice, was probably not the best of ideas.
Harley Quinn becomes a superhero in her first live-action film, just because and only because, she isn’t given a choice. In both versions of Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn is subject to having a bomb inserted into her brain to FORCE her to behave a certain way. Not much different than being the Joker’s girlfriend when the entire premise of the Joker is “do as I say or die while I laugh hysterically.“
Ryan Reynolds Is The Only One Allowed To Play DeadPool, Forever. Always. Eternally. I Will Die On This Hill…Eventually.
Ryan Reynolds is a hometown boy from Vancouver, so he holds a special place in Canadian hearts, but he’s also the only person who can take the humour, the good, the bad and the ugly, of Deadpool and turn all of that into a character that not only makes sense but into a character we all genuinely love and want to take care of.
DeadPool is a fucking lunatic. He’ll kill you for looking the wrong way and for like 2.6 seconds he might actually feel bad about it. Unless your name is Francis.
We love DeadPool because he almost died from cancer, and because he was searching for a cure to cancer, like many patients, he got taken advantage of, lied to and abused. And when he started to fight back he’s suddenly the bad guy.
Turns out it takes a little bit of X-Men, and a lot of Dead Pool to save the day, and with each film that comes out we learn more and more and more about how the ONLY thing that Dead Pool aka Wade Wilson thinks worth is for, is so that he can love his girl Vanessa.
Super sweet, really, except for the hundreds of people he had to kill, maim, and possibly alter forever just so he could have his girlfriend back. Dude, it’s called grief counselling.
Good, Bad, Ugly, and Green, Superheros or Anti-Heros, Explain Trauma Better Than Most Professionals
While these films aren’t a get-out-of-free card when it comes to dealing with mental health issues, it’s easy to see how they connect to folks who suffer from mental health issues. Every single character ever created for television, film, or book, is a character who suffers from or experiences severe mental health issues due to trauma.
- Matt Murdock, a kid whose family is dirt poor grows up without a father because his father gets killed by gangsters. Turned into a superhero by an accident that takes his sight and FORCES him to learn to live without it. He only becomes a hero because he…well honestly he just has nothing better to do. He’s a narcissist who really only enjoys his own company and struggles to connect to other folks, regardless of their situation. Being a hero gives him the opportunity to feel good about himself, without telling the world that he NEEDS to be a hero, so he CAN feel good about himself.
- Luke Cage is a prisoner whose forced to go through a horrific science experiment designed to turn him into a fighter to make money for the prison, with the promise that one day he might have freedom. He only becomes a hero, because he realizes that he’s the only one who can save his corner of the world. He also comes across as an egotistical douchbag who starts to care more about fame than the damage he causes.
- Magneto is a character who survives the original Nazi army but not until after he watches his mother taken away from him and only after being subjugated to several science experiments that only make him stronger and viciously more dangerous as the years go on. Instead of getting therapy, he finds that “no one on the planet can understand his struggles,” and becomes an evil separatist douchbag who tries to kill everything – even his best friends – along his way.
- Carol Danvers was hit by an explosive light ray that changes her blood and alters the chemistry of her make-up and then is forced to live side by side with the killers of her mentor with no knowledge herself, of what they’ve done until she returns to Earth and remembers without their constant conditioning and reminders to behave in the way they demand of her. Um, question…who the fuck do you talk to about super evil aliens taking you away from your planet while convincing you that you’re one of them until you realize that you’re just a badass human who can do weird shit? I’d love that number. (Just kidding)
- Hulk is transformed by a science experiment and throughout the years Banner chooses to spend more and more time alone as he tries to find a way to live as Banner and the Hulk simultaneously. In this story of the film, Banner ultimately chooses isolation over love and never gets the chance to be with the woman of his dreams, Black Widow AKA Natasha Romanoff
- Romanoff is a woman who was raised by the Russian spies that we only often hear stories about, literally prevented from having children by a forced hysterectomy, in order to ensure that her ENTIRE focus is on killing as many people as the people in charge demand.
Now realistically very few of us are going to have to deal with evil science experiments, (1932 America), but even those of us who don’t have to deal with extreme circumstances have mental health issues. That’s why these films are so important.
They teach us – especially youth and young adults – that mental health issues don’t have to be the end all and be all of your life. There is always potential for us to turn that trauma into heroic behaviour that saves the world or universe.
It’s a lot to ask those of us with mental health issues, but for me at least, it helps to know that when Stan Lee first started Marvel he did so with the idea that he would take the art and stories of thousands of artists, and turn it into inspiration for those of us who need it the most.
Sending all my love,
Devon J Hall