With Marvel announcing a slew of new series and the release of shows like WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier, it seems appropriate to end mental health awareness month with an evaluation of how Marvel handled mental health issues. Back when Marvel was still releasing its series through Netflix, the streaming platform gave its shows the freedom to go to darker places.
The Netflix Marvel shows did just that, they took their characters on serious, difficult journeys that explored issues ranging from PTSD to borderline personality disorder to various traumas related to the horrifying experiences of its characters.
We see this primarily in Jessica Jones, a show whose protagonist experienced sexual assault and a violation of the mind at the hands of the series’ main antagonist, Kilgrave. Kilgrave, real name Kevin Thompson, had the ability to control minds and compel anybody and everybody to do anything he told them to without limit. He used this on Jessica when he first met her, inducing her to tell him her name and why she wanted to help people, then had her follow him.
From there he took her on dinner dates, dressed her up, and raped her, repeatedly. As Jessica put it, “not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head.” The experience has a profound impact on her as she develops PTSD, as seen with the symptoms she experiences; she deals with survivor’s guilt and self-medicates with alcohol and isolation.
Season two also shows her dealing with anger issues. When her business is threatened by fellow private investigator Pryce Cheng, and he points out how volatile she is, she physically lashes out by hitting him. Throughout the season, Jessica is repeatedly shown to struggle with restraining herself from having violent outbursts, a problem she shares with her mother Alisa.
Yet, the show handles PTSD in a remarkably sensitive and caring way as it doesn’t allow Jessica to be defined her trauma. Her personality and her powers were present before her meeting Kilgrave. She isn’t motivated by her PTSD, either, and she uses her powers to help people before Kilgrave found her. She continues to do so after she escapes him, albeit more reluctantly.
Jessica’s personality stands in stark contrast with Daredevil’s Matt Murdock, who is a more conventional, refined hero. Matt, like Jessica, is a character plagued by loss who struggles with a penchant for violence. He lost his vision and his father as a child and was trained by Stick, another blind man who was part of the organization called the Chaste, who was obsessively dedicated to their mission and was distant and cruel to Matt as a child.
After Matt overheard a young girl living near him being assaulted, he decided to become Daredevil, donning a mask to fight crime in the streets. Throughout the show, Matt has to work hard to restrain himself from going too far with his violence. He also has an ongoing inner turmoil that deals with the question of why he does what he does. Matt seems to battle crime because he enjoys the brawling. The fighting seems to be an outlet for him and all of his repressed rage over the loss of his father to criminals and later his lover Elektra.
Another, more specific exploration of mental illness in Daredevil is through the character of Benjamin Poindexter, who is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder with psychotic tendencies. Poindexter, or Dex, lost his parents at a young age, and he revealed his violent inclinations when he murders his coach as a child for benching him during a baseball game, despite the coach being a compassionate parental figure. He is placed in therapy, where he’s advised to seek out a “North Star,” someone with a demonstrably high level of empathy he can emulate.
This portrayal is more problematic as, while this character is given some sympathetic qualities in how hard he tries to be good, he is still a villain. While the series does make it clear that Dex is a victim whose illness is preyed upon by the main antagonist, it implies that people with borderline personality disorder are more susceptible to being bad people and that their only path in life is one of villainy. This representation risks suggesting that those struggling with borderline personality disorder are also violent and dangerous.
Netflix Marvel shows have also struggled to depict black women dealing with trauma in a sympathetic light. Luke Cage’s main antagonist of season two, Mariah Dillard, is a victim of rape and incest and was forced to give birth to the child that resulted from her assault. The show also deals with victim-blaming through her cousin Cornell accusing Mariah of having wanted what happened to her at the hands of their uncle. Mariah reacts in justifiable rage, and shoves him out of the window of the nightclub ‘Harlem’s Paradise’, before beating him to death while screaming, “I did not want it!”
This does effectively reveal her trauma, but the event also acts as a catalyst for her becoming a villain. She isn’t afforded the same humanizing qualities as the male villains of the show. Her pain is used to pit her against everyone, including her own daughter, instead of her being allowed to develop as a complex character struggling with the challenges of being a black woman in politics who is also a survivor of rape.
Another character dealing with PTSD is Frank Castle, AKA the Punisher. He is traumatized by his time in the military as well as the murder of his wife and two kids. When he is introduced in the show Daredevil and finally arrested for murdering a bunch of gangsters, his defense team suggests mentioning that he has PTSD. He fervently denies that he does, claiming that saying so is disrespectful to soldiers who genuinely do struggle with PTSD.
Nevertheless, Frank is shown to have flashbacks not only to his happiest moments with his family but to their deaths. He also deals with survivor’s guilt and feels responsible for the deaths of his family. Unfortunately, The Punisher series falls into the same trap Daredevil does, villainizing a character struggling with mental illness, as we see with the character Lewis Wilson.
Wilson, like Frank, is a veteran who struggles to readjust to civilian life after he returns home from the war. He befriends a conservative veteran at a support group, who starts him on a path of terrorism. Frank, Mariah, and Lewis Wilson may work as examples of what can happen when people dealing with trauma don’t seek the help they need. Lewis Wilson explicitly refuses the help that Curtis offers him with the support group, demonstrating the ways that toxic masculinity discourages men from seeking mental health treatment when they need it.
When Frank himself finally ends the season by getting the help he needs by attending a support group meeting, he is shown to be much more peaceful and on the path to recovery. Still, by depicting these characters as violent criminals, these shows risk adding to the stigma surrounding mental illnesses like PTSD and borderline personality disorder.
To their credit, these shows do try to give a nuanced exploration of mental health through the stories of their characters. It isn’t only villains struggling with these illnesses, and at their best, they do manage to be sensitive, authentic, and relatable to audiences also going through similar problems. Marvel, Netflix, and the media as a whole do still have work to do with regards to how they portray mental illness, but these series do demonstrate that at least the effort is being made.
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