The portrayal of mental health in superhero TV shows

How portraying the mental health of superheroes helps the viewer.

Ross Bennett
24th May 2022
Image Credit: IMDb
Recently, Marvel’s newest hero – Oscar Isaac’s Moon Knight – has leapt onto our screens in his own Disney+ streaming show. But what separates this character from the practical pantheon of colourfully costumed do-gooders possessed by Marvel? Well, this one deals with a much more different threat than evil aliens or secret organizations…Moon Knight’s biggest enemy is his own mental illness.

The protagonist of this new series is Marc Spector…and Steven Grant. Both are Moon Knight. You see, Marc Spector suffers with dissociative identity disorder (DID) which means that he himself has the dilemma of possessing more than one personality: the other being Steven Grant. Whilst this does offer mystery and even unexpected humour in certain situations to the viewer, there is a greater sadness present in the show.

Marc’s disorder is comedically yet beautifully handled, with Isaac’s depiction of DID being praised by critics and psychologists alike. The series touches on a range of mental health related issues from traumatic abuse to discussions of suicide. Often hard and heart-breaking to watch at times, Isaac’s performance is a tour-de-force display of acting prowess.

Marc’s disorder is comedically yet beautifully handled, with Isaac’s depiction of DID being praised by critics and psychologists alike.

Whilst this foray into the real-world problems of mental health seem to initially be something new for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man 3 (2013) touched on Tony Stark's (Robert Downey Jr) PTSD and WandaVision (2021) delved into Wanda's (Elizabeth Olsen) debilitating grief and mental health. Though, previous instances of superhero television have been delving into the mental health side of super-heroism for years.

Marvel’s Daredevil (2015-18), which was jointly produced with Netflix, followed the blind hero Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) as he battled the crime ridden streets of Hell’s Kitchen. Yet, his own inner battle with depression was one of the more fascinating elements of the series, with Season 3 especially delving into his disturbed psyche. Matt’s own guilt and self-hatred resulting from his rigid Catholic faith and perceived failings are incredibly tragic to watch on screen.

Image Credit: IMDb

Another example being Marvel’s Punisher (2017-19), which, again was produced with Netflix. The Punisher focuses on a former marine who was a witness to the brutal murder of his family and wages a bloody one-man war on crime. This show expertly detailed the effects of PTSD and grief on one man and gave what could have been a Charles Bronson Death Wish rip off some astounding depth.

But what is the appeal of a superhero dealing with mental health? Surely, these characters are meant to be infallible titans of justice that are uncompromising in their fight for a better tomorrow… aren’t they?

It was the Marvel maestro himself, Stan Lee, who suggested that the best kind of hero is the one with real world problems – somebody relatable. And it’s hard to get more real world than the diseases of the mind. After all, with an estimated 1 in 10 people suffering from a mental disorder, these problems are all too relatable.

Image Credit: IMDb

But aren’t these for children? What possible benefit is there to giving a character like Moon Knight DID or Daredevil depression? Well, to put it simple, these characters are meant to inspire. To uplift. And to most people, it’s much more heroic to see someone fight their own mental illness than a giant alien warlord or a horde of robots.

After all, if Daredevil struggles with depression then it shows the world that even our bravest can struggle. And if Daredevil can fight his way through mental health issues…then you can too.

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