Under the Mask of the Avengers' Mental Illness

Under the Mask of the Avengers' Mental Illness

By Matt Gleason
Mental Health Association Oklahoma

Take away the Avengers’ superpowers: The Incredible Hulk is just a scientist named Bruce. He has anger management issues, to say the least, and has experienced the loneliness of wandering alone and homeless. Iron Man isn’t a walking tank; he’s only a snarky guy named Tony, who happens to be a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist … and a recovering alcoholic dealing with anxiety. And Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, isn’t a super soldier; he’s a WWII veteran dealing with the PTSD that came with watching his best friend, Bucky, die in combat.

Since I was a kid, I have obsessed over the Avengers’ comic book adventures. So, as I get ready to geek out during the opening weekend of the new Avengers flick, I started thinking about why I loved the comic books, and have seen the first movie at least 10 times (I even watched the super dorky director’s commentary.) What I realized is that it’s not the exploding buildings, and epic fight scenes, that keep me coming back for more. I’ve seen the world almost end more than a dozen times on screen, so it’s actually pretty clichéd at this point. Nope, what draws me back to the Avengers movies every time is the human side of my favorite superheroes. And now that I work for the Association, I can see past the armored suits, monstrous green flesh, and beneath Cap’s star-spangled getup. Deep down, I love these heroes because they represent some of my own weaknesses, and they inspire me because they can overcame their many challenges to not only save civilization, but to live a life in recovery. OK, maybe the Hulk still gets mad, but when aliens aren’t attacking, Bruce is able to manage his Hulk-outs.

That being said, I’m not a mental health professional, so I’m not going to play pop psychologist and put my beloved superheroes on the couch and diagnose them. But plenty of people have done this over the years, so here are a few of my favorite takes on the mental health of Iron Man, the Hulk and Captain America.


“Tony’s struggle with anxiety is poignant because it allows us to realize that he is, in fact, still human. To this end, it doesn’t matter to me if his panic attacks are indicative of clinical PTSD, complex PTSD, subclinical anxiety disorder or another psychiatric category we can use as a label. The point is this: A brilliant, powerful, and tough guy can be vulnerable, scared, and confused. Tony Stark is a superhero with the psychological makeup of a human. He is “just a man in a can,” after all.” – Dr. Andrea Letamendi, a clinical psychologist and avowed comic book fan


“Intermittent explosive disorder is yet another form of psychopathology that undermines the efficacy of several more prominent superheroes, including Wolverine and the Incredible Hulk. The DSM-IV-TR defines the disorder as “the occurrence of discrete episodes of failure to resist aggressive impulses that result in serious assaultive acts or destruction of property. In a sense, superhero stories would not be as entertaining or compelling if their protagonists could not explode into righteous or otherwise morally justified rage against one of the many villains that threaten or accost them. We rely on heroes to do heroic things, but the price in destruction of property, loss of life, and the generalized chaos that follows these destructive rampages call into question the sanity of the superhero.” – Mental Illness in Popular Media: Essays on the Representation of Disorders


“There’s no way to prove for sure whether or not Steve Rogers is depressed, but taking a look at how symptoms are playing out in his life and showing such a strong figure struggling in any way emotionally is a step forward for representation of mental health in media and should be encouraged as a way to de-stigmatize mental health issues and encourage discussion. Captain America serves as a multi-dimensional look at depression, offering a case study that is wholly unique and heart wrenching. For those who see it, Captain America is even more of a hero not just for saving the day, but for waging a seemingly endless war within his own mind as well. That kind of strength is seldom recognized, and even more seldom seen on the big screen.” – Captain America: A Case Study in Depression 



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