Marvel Comics and Disability

November 24, 2016 by dccinc

Doctor Strange tops the Box Office charts for its second week of release making a gross of $153 million dollars so far. This may not be a surprise to many. It is the most recent film in the highly successful Marvel Comics film franchise and has a cast that includes several A-list celebrities, such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejifor and Tilda Swinton to name a few. The movie also includes tantalizing 3-D graphics and CGI effects. However, these are not the only reasons Doctor Strange is being talked about.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant yet charming neurosurgeon.  After a car accident impairs the function in his hands due to irreversible nerve damage, Strange goes to a variety of lengths to “fix” his hands. Strange comes across a man, Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who was a paraplegic but is now able to mysteriously walk. Pangborn directs him to Kamar-Taj, a small community in the Himalayas. In Kamar-Taj, Doctor Strange meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) whom mentors Strange in mysticism. Strange learns about the astral plane and other dimensions in the universe.

Hollywood films have been scrutinized about their diversity or lack thereof. Last year’s Oscars the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was trending as it was the second year in a row the Oscars only had white actors and actresses in four of their prominent categories. Questions of whitewashing prominent character leads have also been circulating tabloids, media outlets and amongst fandoms. The upcoming movie Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson as The Major received significant backlash from fans as the actor in the original manga and 1995 anime is Japanese. Doctor Strange was also placed under scrutiny as they cast the Ancient One as Scottish actress Tilda Swinton rather than an Asian actor whom the character usually is.

Where does disability fit in this discussion?

In Doctor Strange the Jonathan Pangborn and Doctor Strange characters are not played by actors living with disabilities or the character’s specified impairments. But able-bodied actors playing disabled character roles is not new. For example: Sean Penn played a man with a developmental disability in I am Sam (2001); Jamie Foxx played blind singer Ray Charles in Ray (2004); Eddie Redmayne played Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014); and Julianne Moore played a women living with Alzheimer’s in Still Alice (2014). These performances are met with an Oscar nomination or critical acclaim from the Hollywood Foreign Press rather than critical scrutiny for why these roles are not being portrayed by actors living with these disabilities or illnesses.

Both Jonathan Pangborn and Doctor Strange also seek to find a “cure” for their disability and impairments. Which is also not a new tale. However, while Pangborn seems to be able to walk, Doctor Strange never “fixes” the impairment in his hands. Doctor Strange achieves remarkable feats but nearing the end of the movie Doctor Strange looks down at his shaking hands. There could be several reasons for why Doctor Strange never receives the original functionality he had in his hands. Perhaps if Doctor Strange was “cured” he would return back to the medical field and not protect the Earth from other dimensions. However, I would argue that Doctor Strange learned to accept and live with his impairment. And therefore he did not need to find a “cure.”

There are other super heroes living with disabilities in the Marvel Universe. For example, Iron Man/Tony Stark played by Robert Downey Jr. In Iron Man (2008), Stark is wounded by a grenade and needs an electromagnet in his chest to stop the shrapnel shards from reaching his heart and killing him. Stark later builds a more powerful arc reactor and armour to help him in combatting the corruption in military weaponry. Additionally, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is explored in Iron Man 3 (2013). Iron Man 3 takes place after The Avengers (2012). A pivotal act in The Avengers is when Iron Man stops a nuclear missile from hitting New York by taking it through a wormhole. After Iron Man successfully detonates the missile away from Earth, he plummets down the wormhole. On earth the Hulk saves him from crashing to his death. Throughout Iron Man 3, Stark has panic attacks, physical and mental distress and insomnia due to his flashbacks from these scenes. Interestingly, disability is also used as the scapegoat in Iron Man 3.

Daredevil is a successful series with its first season being released on Netflix in 2015 and with a scheduled third season to air in 2018. It is based off the comic book character by the same name. Daredevil/Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is a practicing blind lawyer and a vigilante at night. Additional to his visual impairment his other senses are heightened.

While there is still a long way super hero films can go to explore disability. The notion that a person living with a disability can be a person living with a disability and doing extraordinary acts are more progressive than ads that show persons living with a disability as extraordinary because they are living with a disability.

Along giving the audience 120 hours of ignorant bliss, movies say a lot about the current political climate and what people care about. Additionally super hero films display to the younger generation what a super hero can look like and what makes a person extraordinary. So movies need to be questioned about whether they are being inclusive and equitable in their character depictions because these representations show who are deemed important.

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