Popular entertainment isn’t known for its nuanced depictions of people struggling with mental health, physical disability or prolonged grief. When such topics are broached, they’re typically glossed over or reduced to stereotypes. Even then, studios most often hire able-bodied actors rather than artists with disabilities who would bring authenticity to their roles.

In a culture obsessed with youth, beauty and health, this is sadly predictable. We want escapism, not reminders of our mortality or our potential to suffer life-altering events. And the entertainment industry is all about giving people what it thinks we want.

These attitudes are changing, however, and not just in gritty cable shows and arthouse films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe – arguably the most successful pop culture franchise ever – has begun to seed its heroic tales with layered characters coping with physical, mental or emotional challenges, some of them portrayed by actors with disabilities.

The MCU’s popularity has huge potential to subvert cultural stigmas around these issues, and to underscore the dignity and value of every human being, made in the image of God.

[Spoiler alert: this article discusses themes, plot and characters from various Marvel movies and streaming shows. If you’re planning to see some of these and haven’t yet, you might wish to do so before reading further.]

WandaVision: A study of debilitating grief

“What is grief, if not love persevering?”

That memorable quote forms the thematic heart of WandaVision, Marvel’s first streaming series produced during the pandemic.

The central character, Wanda Maximoff, has known much grief and suffering in her young life. When she was a little girl, her home was destroyed and her parents killed during a conflict in her fictional native land of Sokovia. Later, her brother Pietro died in battle with Ultron. Finally, during the Infinity War, she was forced to slay her husband, the android Vision, only to see him resurrected and killed again before her eyes.

Wanda dealt with her grief by using her power to reshape reality, turning a small town into an idyllic fantasy modelled on the American sitcoms she’d enjoyed as a child. She recreated her husband, the Vision, along with a pair of young sons to help her retreat into carefree suburban bliss. The actual residents of the town became her background characters, stripped of their personalities and forced into the roles she wanted them to play.

Against this fantastical backdrop, WandaVision walked through a sensitive exploration of the stages of grief. In the end, Wanda let go of her fantasy, allowing her imaginary husband and children to slip into oblivion and freeing the townspeople from her control. She left town alone, under a cloud, followed by the hurt and accusing stares of the people she’d harmed through her grief-driven escapism.

WandaVision pulled no punches. There was a resolution but no happy ending to the story, no facile dismissal of the consequences. Wanda was stronger and wiser – but also darker – for her experience. The series was as much classical tragedy as it was superhero show – a poetic yet unflinching meditation on grief and its effects on all involved.

Eternals: Fearfully and wonderfully made

“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” (Psalm 139:14)

“Then the Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?’” (Exodus 4:11)

Eternals is something of an outlier among Marvel movies, cosmic in scope yet strangely subdued in atmosphere. It also serves up a striking embodiment of the biblical principle that each of us is a unique creation of God, complete with our gifts and our limitations, according to his wise purposes.

The Eternals are a group of immortal superbeings who have lived among humanity for thousands of years and were the inspiration for various myths of the ancient world. They were created by the Celestials, an even more ancient and godlike race, ostensibly to protect and shepherd humanity, although as the film reveals, the Celestials had darker motives. Each Eternal is unique, designed with specific abilities according to the mysterious will of Arishem, chief of the Celestials.

A female Eternal named Makkari possesses extraordinary speed, able to circle the Earth in a matter of moments. She’s also deaf, a necessary protection against the sonic booms her speed creates. Makkari’s deafness is never played for sympathy or sentiment. She’s a confident, outgoing woman who communicates her wit and wisdom via sign language. Being deaf is part of who she is, fearfully and wonderfully made.

Makkari is the first deaf superhero in the MCU. More important, she’s portrayed by a deaf actress, Lauren Ridloff, a former teacher with a husband and two sons, all of whom are also deaf. Ridloff’s performance is charismatic and full of joy, bringing a welcome presence as a hero with a disability working as an equal alongside her companions.

Hawkeye: Different paths to overcoming disability

The subject of deafness is explored further in Hawkeye, offered by Marvel as a streaming series with a Christmas theme during the holiday season.

Clint Barton, the hero of the title, is a veteran member of the Avengers who has fought powerful enemies with nothing but a bow and a quiver of arrows. During his adventures, he suffered permanent hearing loss and has become dependent on hearing aids. In semi-retirement, he wants nothing but to get out of New York City and make it home to be with his wife and kids for the holidays.

Naturally, things don’t go as planned, and Clint gets drawn into a new adventure involving a young archer named Kate Bishop, who wants to become his partner in adventuring. In a plot worthy of a Christmas special, Clint loses his hearing aids and Kate helps him communicate with his young son over a long-distance call, in which he struggles to express how much he loves and misses his boy.

Clint is a regular guy facing the challenges of a disability he acquired later in life. During his journey, he encounters another young woman, Maya Lopez, who is also deaf. Unlike Clint, Maya is comfortable with her disability, adept at lip-reading and sign language, her keen observation skills allowing her to mimic the fighting style of any adversary.

In contrast to the brightness and joy of Makkari in Eternals, Maya is fierce and somewhat dark, the product of a difficult childhood. Like Makkari, Maya is played by a deaf actress, Alaqua Cox, a young Native American in her first featured role. In addition to being deaf, Cox is an amputee with a prosthetic lower leg, and both of her disabilities were incorporated as integral to her portrayal. She’s set to reprise her role as Maya in her own series, titled Echo, the first Marvel show to feature a leading character with a disability.

Moon Knight: A lonely struggle with mental health

“The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.” (Proverbs 14:10)

Attitudes toward mental health have improved in recent years, but there’s still a lot of work needed for overcoming stigmas and upending wrong assumptions. For far too many who struggle with their mental health, the words of the proverb ring painfully true. They fight a lonely battle, believing they’re the only ones who “don’t have it together,” afraid of losing their jobs or being rejected by those who don’t understand what they’re going through.

It’s a heavy topic for a superhero story, but Marvel has gone there with its streaming series, Moon Knight. The main character isn’t a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, nor is he a revered war hero and national icon. Instead, he’s a man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID) due to a traumatic event during childhood .

The series opens on Steven Grant, an affable Brit who works in a gift shop at the British Museum and gets bullied by his boss. But Steven is also Marc Spector, an American mercenary who’s not above using brutal violence to complete his missions. To further complicate matters, Marc is the avatar of Khonshu, an Egyptian god of vengeance who wants to take over Steven’s personality.

Steven has blackouts, from which he wakes in unfamiliar places, often with blood on his hands and unconscious bodies at his feet. He struggles in isolation, facing the fallout of Marc’s and Khonshu’s actions, his personal life a shambles. Yet through it all, as he comes to grips with his condition, he remains thoughtful and kind, and viewers find themselves rooting for this nerdy hero, that he’ll somehow find lasting help and a happier life.

Representation and the image of God in each of us

As followers of Jesus, we embrace the truth that every human being is made in the image of God, and therefore possesses inherent dignity and value. We celebrate our unity and diversity as God’s image-bearers, each of us unique, each one fearfully and wonderfully made exactly as God intended, whether we have eyes that see and ears that hear, or not.

Yet all too often, we follow the lead of our culture rather than of our Lord. Perhaps only unintentionally, we ignore or marginalize people with disabilities, reducing them to stereotypes and seeing only the disability, rather than a unique individual with hopes and fears and faults and virtues, just like us. If they struggle with prolonged grief or mental health, we may expect them to “get over it” after a certain point, rather than seeking to understand them so that we might help.

Clearly more education is needed in these areas, and stories are a far more effective means of education than lectures or textbooks. Marvel has a powerful voice in popular culture due to their engaging brand of storytelling. By platforming actors with disabilities and telling empowering stories about characters with mental, emotional or physical challenges, they provide representation for members of those communities.

Through these stories, the MCU is using its cultural clout to break down stereotypes, overturn stigmas, and remind new generations that every person, regardless of ability, is valuable and worthy of respect. It’s a lesson we can’t learn too often, wherever we find it.

[Note: this article does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family Canada of the Marvel movies and streaming shows discussed herein. Consult the full review of each at Plugged In to help you determine whether these are appropriate for you or your family.]

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2022 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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