Ep 1.2 of the new Marvel for Netflix Iron Fist series was written by series creator Scott Buck and staffer Dwain Worrell, and did not allay my concerns in the slightest about representational issues. Instead, it seems to have doubled down in this episode with something so awful I’m having trouble comprehending it: relentlessly pathologizing mental illness and those who suffer from it.
Marvel, why did this happen on your watch? And how do we keep it from happing again?
It’s a struggle to describe my feelings about this toxic ep while maintaining the professional distance that I pride myself in being able to summon. It’s no secret I have lots of fan feels for the Marvel Universe in all its forms, but I still apply the analytical toolkit from my education, even (especially) when I approach the things I love. Now that I’ve recovered sufficiently from slack-jawed horror to say anything at all, let’s start with the structure and build inwards.
The framing device for the ep was a rewarming of an oft-repeated genre plot: Our hero is wrongfully imprisoned. Once inside, he discovers how just corrupt the staff and dangerous the inmates are, the emphasis on how equally deserving the inmates are to be there, as he is undeserving. Only his innately good nature rescues him somehow in the end. And apparently, in a writers room, someone came up with the brilliant twist that this plot could be made satisfying and “new” again if they hit every last one of those notes but–big twist, kids–set it in a mental institution.
Lowlights of this ep dropped into this framework:
- Danny’s fellow inmates–Dangerous! Delusional! Violent!
- The orderlies–sadistic! Pumping you full of hurtful medication!
- The doctors–plotting against you with shadowy outsiders!
- Villains (and only villains) taking anti-anxiety (?) medication.
Meanwhile, Danny keeps proclaiming his sanity loudly to everyone he encounters, but it’s hard, with this plot so instinctively recognizable to anyone who’s watched more than maybe 20 hours of American television drama, not to hear “innocence” the whole time. They’re accusing him of being crazy, which is a bad thing, and he is a good person, so he can’t be crazy. And somehow, this is happening on a television ep airing in 2017, because here we have an experienced writer’s room somehow failing to recognize that genre plots have baggage they carry with them when transplanted.
(And that’s a charitable assumption of intent)
What’s tragic about this epic failure (even beyond the undeniable harm it does real people living with mental health issues to see themselves vilified in media), is the huge irony/missed opportunity created in this ep, in terms of Danny’s actual mental health status. The man so insistently proclaiming his total mental health suffers from PTSD flashbacks so severe he sometimes blacks out, and sometimes deals with intense frustration by lashing out physically. I guess if it’s in service of rapidly establishing backstory, it doesn’t count for the DSM V?
This felt like a huge step back for Marvel’s screen franchises in dealing with mental health topics. I’ve been surprised and pleased with the sensitivity used in addressing such issues in several of the movies, where past trauma is usually treated as something difficult to live with, not giving you a +4 in battle or a way of picking up groupies. IM3 had some weird structural problems (among others) but gave us Tony Stark dealing with severe PTSD, naming it and treating it with compassion. Steve Rogers shows up at a support group his new friend Sam Wilson is leading at the VA in Winter Soldier, and stands, listening with respect and understanding to those speaking, while waiting for Sam just outside the door. Marvel Cinematic has depicted a world where scars aren’t just physical, and largely addressed them with sympathy and complexity. It’s a serious bummer that Iron Fist took such a huge step backwards from this precedent.
For our coverage of ep. 1, go here.
How did you feel about this ep? What have been some high and low points you’ve noticed in Marvel media re: mental health issues?