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(Credit: Marvel/Disney/Far Out)

Film

How Marvel are approaching the mental health crisis

@Russellisation

There is no bigger franchise in the landscape of modern cinema than Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), an interlinking series of films and TV shows that creates one staggering narrative whole. Making up 30% of the total box-office revenue of 2021, the MCU has a monopoly over the contemporary box office, having made $25 billion from the total release of their films (as of 2022), with a tight chokehold over the modern movie industry. 

In just 14 years the MCU has fundamentally changed the way that modern blockbusters are perceived, releasing 28 films that each form a singular serialised network of content, supported by TV shows and cartoons that feed into one cinematic behemoth. Each segment of the continued comic-book-inspired story relies on the previous instalment in the series, maintaining the momentum of consistent quality that never dips below a standard average; a well-oil machine preserved by a reliable formulaic lubricant. 

Though, as frequently said by Marvel’s friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and considering so many young people engaging with the modern MCU, Disney has the authority and influence to lead the conversation in several pertinent topics. 

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One such topic that the MCU is putting time and effort into discussing is that of mental health, with the superhero franchise refusing to shy away from the epidemic that is affecting people of all ages across the world. With the MCU particularly appealing to young viewers, Disney has quite the unique captive audience, with the company doing well to normalise the everyday struggles of life, even for earth’s mightiest heroes. 

Growing in influence throughout the end of the 2000s, the first time Marvel attempted to touch on the mental impact of their superhero icons was in Shane Black’s somewhat subversive 2013 flick, Iron Man 3. Pinned down by the central characterisation of Tony Stark who experiences anxiety attacks following the New York showdown of The Avengers, Marvel set a smart precedent in which they attempted to homogenise the lives of extraordinary heroes in with the everyday viewer. 

Recognising their success, the fragility of Marvel’s fallible superheroes has become a staple feature of the contemporary shape of the series, featuring in the shape of Thor’s depression in Avengers: Endgame, Bucky’s deep-rooted trauma in Civil War, Thena’s dementia in The Eternals and even Norman Osbourne’s split-personality disorder in Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Arguably, however, it is on the small screen where Marvel has made the biggest leaps forward in tackling mental health issues, with the serialised nature of TV allowing for the audience to spend more time with their beloved characters. Whilst we explore Hawkeye’s PTSD in his own series, as well as the delusions of Stephen Grant in Moon Knight, it is in WandaVision where Marvel makes the most considerable efforts to discuss such issues. 

Scaling back their usual preoccupation with explosive action, Wandavision takes the time to sit down with their lead characters Wanda Maximoff and Vision to deliver quite the heart-wrenching drama into the pain and acceptance of grief. Providing an in-depth exploration of Wanda’s story so far, WandaVision invited the audience to spend several days slacking with the main characters, easily facilitating appropriate moments of sympathy in which we are provided with a glimpse into the main character’s mourning.

Masking herself from reality by throwing up a facade wherein ‘everything is fine’, the story of WandaVision well reflects the real-life struggles of anxiety, grief and depression where one cannot cope with the realities of everyday life. Hiding from reality whilst grieving the alternate life she believes she deserved, the story of Marvel’s Disney+ series is ultimately a heartbreaking story of a woman’s acceptance of her own unhappiness, moving past this at the end of the series to pursue a brighter future. 

Evidently not just a token gesture of acknowledgement, the MCU is actively trying to provide and promote stories that explore the intricacies and fragilities of modern mental health issues. In the modern superhero landscape, Marvel is trying to make the well-being of their characters just as crucial to their stories as the frenetic action sequences people buy their tickets for, and whilst this still remains imbalanced, at least they’re asserting for change.