How many supervillains on the comic book page or in their big-screen adaptations are driven, explained, or reinforced by “criminal madness”? These characters, in one form or another, are a staple of comic books and the art they inspire, but nearly every version of neurodivergence in the medium is full of holes.
Mental illness is always a difficult topic to talk about. Taking an inelegant approach to a very real concern is a common problem in genre fiction, but some questions are more often misused than others. Superhero movies rarely include most of the big topics you might hear on the news, but their approach to mental health is almost deliberately ill-intended.
The belief that neurodivergent people are more capable of violence is extremely widespread, leading to a chicken-and-egg argument. Villains whose motivation boils down to a Hollywood understanding of mental illness are common in most forms of media. Some even go so far as to portray neurodivergence as a superhuman ability, to be used for good or for evil. The main difference between the “crazy” character of standard genre fiction and superhero fiction is tone. There are many different ways superhero media handle their mentally ill persona, but almost all of them lack understanding and narrative weight.
There are a few different archetypes for “crazy” characters in comic book media. Most of them tend to be bad guys. These villains are the least fleshed out of the medium’s representation of those dealing with mental health issues. The laziest versions of these stories just have to point in their direction and expect audiences to understand them as evil. The term “psychopath” is difficult and complex, but most audiences accept it as a villain motivation in its own right.
Neurodivergent people are assumed to be violent in various situations, despite the scientific fact that they are far more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrator. There is a huge infrastructure problem surrounding the treatment of neurodivergent people and the overwhelming likelihood that they will be imprisoned for their different abilities. Superhero media simultaneously empowers and is empowered by this issue. It’s a vicious circle. People think neurodivergent people are violent because that’s what they see in the media, so it becomes easy shorthand for meanness.
Gratuitous villainy isn’t the only standard presentation for the neurodivergent in superhero media. Sometimes heroes are portrayed as differently capable. The go-to example for this concept is probably Deadpool, who is portrayed as “crazy” for comedic purposes. This type of comic relief lunatic is fairly common and theoretically less harmful than the nasty variety. The mental state of characters like Moon Knight sometimes oscillates between source comedy and genuine pathos. The Disney+ iteration removed most of the jokes in favor of Marc Spector’s dissociative identity disorder, in favor of a gripping psychological narrative. The show’s depiction of trauma and recovery is moving, but it still treats DID like the Venom symbiote.
The biggest problem with how superhero media deals with neurodivergence is that it reinforces harmful stereotypes that have plagued human society for generations. The second biggest problem is that it’s very rarely interesting. Everyone’s seen a ton of evil people driven by some Hollywood-level version of mental illness. Everyone has seen a more hedonistic version of Bugs Bunny. Character motivations rarely work if they don’t work from the shared reality of the audience and other characters. The best heroes and villains have logically consistent motivations and consider somewhat understandable causes and effects. Irrational actions lack impact and rational actions make no sense coming from the supposedly criminal character.
There are countless examples of neurodivergent characters in comics, and not all of them are terrible. Tons of characters are encoded with elements of neurodivergence that are never outwardly stated. Sometimes a superhero’s entire story is a metaphor for some form of different ability, just as others are metaphors for race or sexuality. These stories generally handle the idea much better than those that outwardly proclaim that a character is mentally ill. Giving a character some form of neurodivergence is a bold move, but it’s also extremely easy to get wrong.
Worst vs. Best Heroes and Villains often boils down the character to an unhelpful stereotype of Hollywood mental illness. These iterations of the characters are narratively boring and socially unnecessary. Neurodivergent people aren’t bad guys, nor do their unique circumstances give them superpowers. Modern on-screen takes on these existing characters would do well to dig deeper into the aspects that make them unique, rather than casting them as “crazy.” Comic book adaptations need to move past this outdated trope and towards more nuanced portrayals of good and evil. Neurodivergence is a difficult and complicated subject, but with such a culturally dominant genre, superhero media will have to grow.
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