Superhero films are Hollywood’s hottest genre. “Black Panther” alone has brought in over $1 billion; “Avengers: Infinity War” is currently the fourth highest grossing film of all time. “Deadpool 2” opened May 19 to what Variety called a “heroic” $133 million in 4,349 theaters across North America. And these numbers don’t even begin to capture their films’ cultural influence with audiences who’ve felt marginalized or ill-treated within society.
Hero movies, and the comic books that inspire them, have always had outsize importance for underdogs. With its black protagonist and its setting in a technologically advanced African kingdom, "Black Panther" has especially resonated with African-Americans. "Young people will finally see superheroes that look like them on the big screen," Michelle Obama wrote on Twitter. "I loved this movie and I know it will inspire people of all backgrounds to dig deep and find the courage to be heroes of their own stories."
Yet as today's buff heroes leap gracefully across the screen, they stir a deep ambivalence among another set of underdogs: people with disabilities.
The origin myths of many superheroes lie in life-altering accidents or bodily mutations. Fans of the genre emphasize that disability, largely unrepresented in other forms of fiction, is part of these characters' stories. But those stories then go on to wish disability away, via bionic implants and armored suits. " 'Disabled' superheroes aren't disabled at all," says Chris Gavaler, author of "On the Origin of Superheroes."
In the end, the bad guys are usually beaten down with physical force alone. "Avengers: Infinity War," for example, features the very mobile Dr. Strange and Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), who battle their archenemy Thanos with no sign that either went through life-altering incidents that resulted in physical impairments. And in "Deadpool 2," the title character has scar tissue from a failed attempt to cure his cancer. But when he's in superhero mode, those scars are nowhere to be seen.
The absence of characters living with permanent disabilities affects the way viewers and readers see themselves, argues Rachel Kolb, an Emory University graduate student who is deaf and writes widely about disability in literature. "If we don't see ourselves within the cultural representations that surround us," she says in an interview, "it becomes more difficult to imagine ourselves in various kinds of situations, various ways of exercising agency and justice and power and goodness. And all the other themes that tend to be a part of superhero movies."
In one sense, the genre's fidelity to depicting physical excellence is a matter of practicality: "How else to muscle, batter and force one's way in the world?" wonders University of Washington professor Jose Alaniz in his book "Death, Disability, and the Superhero." Still, Alaniz writes, super-bodies tap into popular desires to "cure" physical conditions that depart from the norm. Comic books and superhero films, he says, privilege "the healthy, hyper-powered, and immortal body over the diseased, debilitated, and defunct."
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According to Lawrence Carter-Long, spokesman for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund , about 20 percent of Americans identify as disabled, while only about 2 percent of characters on television and in film have disabilities. Arguably, the man most responsible for shaping the way they’re portrayed in superhero movies is Stan Lee. The legendary Marvel writer regularly centered his characters’ origin stories on harrowing experiences that prompt them to become better and stronger than ever before.
Usually, the traumatic event proves essential to the advent of superheroes' powers. Punished by his father, Odin, for his excessive pride, Thor (1962) is relegated to earth in the form of Donald Blake, a medical student who uses a cane. The police officer Misty Knight (1975) sports a bionic right arm to replace the amputated original after a bomb attack. And Matt Murdock as Daredevil (1964) is blinded from radioactive liquid after saving an already blind man about to be hit by a truck. Luckily enough, this ordeal gives him radar sense that obviates Murdock's need for a cane he uses all the same.
For writer Valerie Kalfrin and her son, these kinds of characters are a boon. Writing for The Guardian in 2016, she celebrates that "storytellers of any genre can take a page from Marvel Studios" when it comes to "portraying people with varying abilities." Particularly because her young son with spina bifida "adores them." In fact, they've used "heroes as analogies. He has Batman's brains, Thor's silky blond hair, Cap's heart, Spidey's energy, Rocket's swagger, Iron Man's creativity — and his armor, too." That is, forearm crutches and leg braces. These similarities, Kalfrin writes, remind him that he can still be a hero.
Other disabled individuals wonder, however, how this is possible when the films they're supposed to be plumbing for inspiration emphasize the physical excellence antithetical to their identity — and make no room for people with impairments unable to be "fixed."
Advocates are also wary of plots that go out of their way to portray disabilities as inconsequential, in a way that minimizes the genuine challenges they pose. When Netflix launched a show based on Marvel's Daredevil character, a New York Times reviewer wrote that the central superhero "is sightless but not blind to crime." In fact, he doesn't seem blind to much of anything, including women or agile villains.
Herein lies the concern that many others in the disability community have with so-called "positive stereotyping." "More than being inaccurate," the disabled scholar David Bolt writes in "The Metanarrative of Blindness," "cultural representations of extraordinary senses serve, at best, to render magical the talent and achievements of people who have visual impairments and, at worst, to justify the ascription of various animalike characteristics" to them.
"This cultural expectation to be a 'super-crip,' or to turn some experience of disability into a superpower, circulates in a lot of the narratives we tell ourselves," Kolb says. She tells me, "I used to make jokes about becoming 'bionic woman,' like I was getting access to a new superpower or a new range of sounds and sensations after getting my cochlear implant several years ago."
Ultimately, Kolb came to believe this resulted from societal pressures for disability to be "an experience that in some way must transcend itself, or lead to 'overcoming' technological interfaces or superpowers of some kind, rather than being just an ordinary part of life and ordinary human experience." She insists that "we need to learn more ways to talk about it in an ordinary, everyday way" — largely so that people can take pride in their identities as disabled, rather than feeling like they're doing something wrong if they can't cure it.
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So, how might superhero fiction portray disability in a more constructive way? “I would like to see a one-armed hero who doesn’t have a bionic arm or who openly displays their scar tissue,” Gavaler quips.
Author Dan White took matters into his own hands by conceiving Department of Ability, a coalition of disabled superheroes. The project all began, he told the Huffington Post, when he realized that his comics-loving daughter Emily, who lives with spina bifida, was "very frustrated" because she "couldn't find anything to relate to, at all" on TV. The lack of role models from her favorite genre only exacerbated Emily's feelings of estrangement and alienation from a world obsessed with ability.
Similarly touting the importance of interdependence, Carter-Long says he would like to see "disabled superheroes, and comic book characters in general, actually engaging with the disability communities that their impairments would place them in." It would be a real sign of progress, he argues, "for superheroes to be seen hanging out with, learning from, and ideally enlisting assistance from, non-super colleagues and trusted friends who have, due to their disabled existence, become more adept than most at adapting to meet the situation, improvising to meet the need, and assessing all possible angles, obstacles, and barriers before proceeding accordingly."
It's hardly a stretch to think that what movie characters do on screen can affect audience members' lives. Michelle Obama certainly thinks so. Fundamentally, what Carter-Long and others want are more complex representations of people with disabilities — and not just in superhero blockbusters. "If there are few disabled characters being created or shown for disabled people to identify with, we then have fewer opportunities to be a meaningful part of what a huge number of non-disabled people simply take for granted," Carter-Long said.
In superhero movies, as in real life, people with disabilities need to be able to imagine themselves as part of the action.
Pasquale S. Toscano is a Rhodes Scholar studying early-modern English at the University of Oxford.