Super Specific | Marvel’s success with disabled superheroes

Super Specific is a bi-weekly blog about superheroes in pop culture.

By Diana Velasquez, Contributing Editor

Bucky Barnes, played by the internet-favorite Sebastian Stan, is one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most popular characters. 

While Stan’s good looks and bulging biceps no doubt have a hand in his popularity, there are also a few particular parts of Bucky’s character that seems to have appealed to the masses. One, his metal arm. Two, his persistent and very visible PTSD.

The arm speaks for itself. It’s metal, it’s shiny, and Bucky could crush a man with it if he wanted to. But what about Bucky’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder speaks to viewers? 

In a June interview with IndieWire, Stan spoke about his many interactions with fans, particularly veterans and those with mental health issues of their own. They told him that by watching his performance they felt “empowered” in their own lives. 

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Bucky has been through some rough stuff. Under his moniker “The Winter Soldier,” he was captured by Hydra after World War II, who tortured and experimented on him for more than 70 years — forcing him into the life of an assassin, all while having his memory erased.

Luckily, Bucky is living a better life in the MCU. With some help from the Wakandans and a strong friendship with Sam Wilson, also known as the new Captain America, his story seems to be on the up-and-up. It’s all been very well handled on Marvel’s part.

My point is, Marvel has done a surprisingly good job at handling disabled characters in its films, and for disabled people looking for representation, they don’t have to look far superhero-wise.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 61 million adults in the United States live with some kind of disability. For a better reference, that’s one out of four adults in the country.

This statistic is broken down into subcategories of disabilities — there are many kinds of disabilities and not all are visible to the eye. These can range from disabilities related to mobility, cognitive function, blindness or hearing, among many more.

Bucky inhabits both the “unseen” and “seen” spaces of disability as an amputee with a mental disability. Another early example of Marvel’s success is with the iconic Daredevil in the series of the same name — which ran from 2015 to 2018 on Netflix. 

Matt Murdock has more notoriety in the superhero game as Daredevil. The blind lawyer who moonlights as Hell’s Kitchen’s very own spandex-clad superhero, Matt’s blindness is a literal enhancement for him. It allows him to be hyperaware of his surroundings and contributes to his distinct fighting style.

“Daredevil” is by far Marvel’s best superhero series before the era of Disney+ and even then, I would say only “WandaVision” might have it beat. Barely. 

Marvel has given disabled people space on its screens for a long time, with meaningful storylines attached to its monikers. However, it’s important to note that neither Stan nor Charlie Cox, who plays Murdock, is disabled in real life.

It goes without saying that disabled actors deserve to have their time on-screen. When a role calls for someone who is blind — if it’s possible with stunting — it seems appropriate that the role should be given to them. 

One of Marvel’s most prominent disabled comic book characters is Professor X. The head of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, located in my very own home county of Westchester, New York, Professor X is one of the most powerful mutants ever.

He’s a gifted telepath, and for much of his adult life, he also happens to be a wheelchair user. Professor X has been depicted on-screen twice — initially by Patrick Stewart from 2000 to 2017 and later by James McAvoy as a younger version of the mutant from 2011 to 2019. I love both actors very dearly in their roles, but they are, again, not wheelchair users themselves.

For a superhero film, I recognize that having a disabled actor in the role is perhaps not entirely practical all the time. Professor X, for one, goes back and forth in his wheelchair usage due to various hand-waving sci-fi superhero nonsense. 

For the Daredevil role, I wouldn’t know how to teach a blind person how to do a round-house kick. Surely many of them can, but in the fast-paced penny-pinching land of Hollywood, I imagine they’d just want an able-bodied person to do it.

But Marvel has recently taken a step in the right direction to correct this. 

Lauren Ridloff, known for her role as Connie on “The Walking Dead” and for her Tony-winning performance in “Children of a Lesser God,” portrayed Makkari in the MCU’s latest movie “Eternals.” In the comics, Makkari is yet another forgettable straight white male B-character. Ridloff, however, is a Black deaf Latinx woman, which is about the farthest you could get from the original source material.

“Eternals” is so obscure of a comic that not many people would know about the character’s original presentation, and as far as I can see, no one has been complaining about the change. It doesn’t really matter, because Ridloff’s performance stood out for me in the film — and it’s very clear that Makkari and Druig’s (Barry Keoghan) relationship has already caught the fans’ eyes.

While I expected no less from Academy Award-winning director Chloe Zhao, Makkari is treated with the utmost respect. When she signs, the other Eternals are sure to sign back to her. They include her in all their conversations. It’s a bare minimum, but one I was glad to see nonetheless.

Makkari is a badass too. She holds her own with Ikaris (Richard Madden), the strongest Eternal, and boy was it nice to see her pummel him into the dirt for a good five minutes.

Anyone with a brain cell knows that disabled people shouldn’t be infantilized or treated any differently than able-bodied superheroes. Our movies and TV shows are only just starting to buck this trend. We’ve come a long way from lackluster representation like Artie from Glee, and instead highlight characters such as Tyrion Lannister from “Game of Thrones.” But that isn’t to say that we should slack off on demanding such representation.

But for now, fear not. The future looks pretty bright for disabled representation among superheros. The “Moon Knight” series is set to be released next year on Disney+, starring Oscar Issac as Marc Spektor, who has dissociative identity disorder. An “Echo” series, starring the deaf daughter of Kingpin, is also in production. Here’s to hoping that they keep up with the momentum.

Diana Velasquez is the Culture Editor at The Pitt News. She writes primarily about movies and pop culture. You can contact her at [email protected]