The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a cultural phenomenon, with record-breaking movies and television shows reaching a countless number of people.
With Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania coming out soon to kick off Phase 5 of the MCU, it feels meaningful to reflect on the role that mental health has played in the MCU so far, especially in the recently concluded Phase 4 that contained a multitude of movies and shows, with a number of them focusing less on saving the world, more on the mental and emotional difficulties that come along with attempting to shoulder the burdens of being a hero.
While not always done perfectly, the MCU has made considerable efforts to help increase the awareness and understanding of complex issues by shining a light on the heroes and the struggles that make them more human to the rest of us.
From a young age, Wanda Maximoff experienced an immense loss and trauma. As a child, Wanda and her brother Pietro were subjected to the horrors of military air-raid bombings that claimed the lives of their parents. Through this experience, the MCU was able to give a glimpse of the experiences and grief that individuals in war-torn places are forced to endure.
Wanda’s character is also shown later in the television show WandaVision going through the stages of grief as she mourns the unexpected passing of her partner, Vision. After the events of Avengers Infinity War & Avengers Endgame, the show WandaVision shows Wanda grappling with the loss of her partner and grieving the loss of their future together. She uses her powers to create a series of warped realities modeled after sitcoms she watched as a child, in which she lives out her dreams of building a family with the man she loves.
The audience bears witness as Wanda heartbreakingly negotiates the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining and depression. Through most of the series, Wanda is in denial, but by the end, she is forced to accept the loss of Vision and their future together and return to reality. However, in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, an enraged Wanda is willing to do whatever it takes to make her wish for a family reality — a representation of the “what if” in the bargaining stage. Grief, superhero or not, is a universal human experience that rarely goes in a straight line. Instead, people often find themselves reworking various aspects of grief.
Bucky Barnes is an individual riddled with guilt because of the numerous attacks and assassinations he was tasked with when captured and brainwashed by the villainous organization HYDRA. After finding a way to rid himself of HYDRA’s mental programming and regain agency, he was shown experiencing PTSD symptoms in response to the flashbacks, nightmares and memories of the people he hurt while acting as the Winter Soldier.
He is also the first character in the MCU to be shown engaging in individual therapy, which can help reduce the stigma that makes it difficult for individuals to seek the mental health treatment they may need.
The nerdy heart in my chest will always have a soft spot for the Norse God of Thunder. His character arc throughout the most recent phases of the MCU only caused my love for this character to grow.
After the traumatic and tragic loss at the end of Avengers Infinity War, Thor is shown going through an intense depressive spiral and grief over having failed to stop the Mad Titan Thanos. This provided an illuminating glimpse into the process of depression and the struggle in working through the thoughts, feelings and emotions that come along with it. In Thor’s case, he resorted to isolation and self-medicating with food and alcohol to avoid processing grief, sadness, guilt and shame associated with Thanos’s win against the Avengers.
Thor eventually achieves a deeper understanding of himself and is later shown in Avengers Endgame to still be worthy of wielding the hammer Mjolnir. This beautiful message communicates to the audience that even when we endure the adversity that inevitably arises in life, we are still capable of great and sometimes even heroic things.
Clint is a character that grows and develops layers of nuance and complexity as the MCU progresses, especially in his character’s representation in the Infinity War and Endgame movies and his Phase 4 television show, Hawkeye. In the previously mentioned movies, Clint is subjected to the horrific loss of his entire family because of Thanos’s use of the Infinity Gauntlet to wipe out half of the universe’s population. As did Wanda, Clint falls into a deep and vengeful depression whereby he isolates from his peers and other support networks. This turn of events is one most of us can connect with, as we all have had to cope the pain of losing a loved one.
Throughout Hawkeye, Clint processes his grief and PTSD. A recurrent theme is Clint processing all the events that occurred during his tenure in the Avengers, especially during the battle in New York from the first Avengers movie, including the loss of his close friend Natasha Romanoff (AKA Black Widow) in the Avengers Endgame.
Clint’s story and character arc are meaningful for the audience as it drives home the message prevalent throughout Phase 4 of the MCU: that even though the heroes of the MCU exhibit powers and abilities out of this world, at the end of the day they are all still subject to the same difficulties and struggles we all face as we try to make our way through life.
Note: This content originally appeared on Mind Matters from Menninger, our Psychology Today blog.