X-Men: Putting the X in Exclusion and the Issue of Disability Within Superhero Films

By Madeline Kroner

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Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash

My love for superheroes arose when I was a freshman in high school and I was suffering from an undiagnosed chronic illness. The pain I felt was immeasurable and unbearable. To say I felt hopeless was an understatement. On a whim, I went to see a movie one night to try and lift my wayward spirits. I was not particularly giddy to see the headlining superhero movie, Captain America: Civil War, but anything was better than wallowing. My expectations were far exceeded. I saw so much of myself in the films: struggle, pain, grief, suffering, perseverance. For a desperate 14-year-old, an image like this gave me hope and role models to mimic, no matter how fictitious their storylines were. Today, I am officially diagnosed, still struggling to live my normal life every day, and one of the biggest superhero fans you will ever meet. Nonetheless, as I began to recognize the ableist society around me, I noticed the films I so treasure are also perpetrators of such a toxic mindset.

In the last decade, superhero films have become the juggernaut of the entire movie industry. With most films making over a billion dollars during their cinematic release and the top grossing film of all time being a superhero movie, this film category is a cultural phenomenon. These heroes are written to inspire people, like myself, to create change and find their inner strength. Even with such powerful, well-developed characters of all different backgrounds, it seems the industry struggles to depict one population in particular: the disabled. Often, it utilizes clichés on disability or simply ignores the established disabilities a character has been written to have in their comic book source material. Examples of these practices will be examined in connection to how they are sourced from a greater lack of representation in the film industry as a whole. In cumulation, the solution of implementing measures that promote disabled individuals’ participation in film production will be offered and explored with current diversity efforts being made by the film industry in mind.

Most superhero blockbusters originate from print-based comic books. The readings act as a starting point for the creation of the movies and the general idea of the stories and characters are almost always maintained: their appearances, names, backstories, relationships, and villains. A core element of many heroes' identities has been overlooked in Hollywood’s interpretations: their disability. This is seen with the Marvel Superhero, Hawkeye (alias Clint Barton). In Hawkeye #19, it is revealed that the namesake character has gone deaf. This is not the first time the character has been depicted with this ailment, as in 1983 issue of Hawkeye, Clint became deaf in an accident and used hearing aids: “‘he had issues with his hearing aids that many users face (such as squealing and feedback), but it never stopped him from doing the things that he loved to do. He kept working, he kept being an Avenger. Hawkeye worked with his hearing loss and owned it’” (Jacobs and Dolmage 360). The comic chooses to expand this idea, illustrating the entire journey of his diagnosis. The comic starts in a doctor's office, a symbol of “where disability truly ‘begins” (Jacobs and Dolmage 357). The rest of the story goes on to detail the struggles of coping with such a permanent diagnosis with incredible visual rhetoric: text bubbles are left blank to show that “taking place, but that it cannot be ‘heard’” and the comic panels actually do not fit the bubbles, identifying “the obstruction of communication” (Jacob and Dolmage 358). Similar tools are used to depict the grief this development has on Clint with someone signing his name and he simply looks away showing a “refusal of communication” (Jacobs and Dolmage 359). Such a life-altering experience is as vital to the character’s identity as what they look like, who they interact with, and other things that Marvel chose to include in their movie version of Clint Barton. However, in all five major blockbuster films he has appeared in, not once has his disability been referenced; he has never been shown to wear hearing-aids or know sign language as he was written to. His disability has been completely scrubbed from the iconic movies. Unless a fan knew about his comic history, they would never even know about this removal. Hawkeye is one of the original five Avengers and one of the most recognizable characters in the entire franchise. To remove one of the only disabled characters also removes the only character that a disabled individual can look to and completely relate to: someone who has a disability but is just a normal person living his life independent of that fact. The disabled population is left with no such touchstone and only characters who fulfill outdated tropes about disability.

Superhero films often use stereotypical and damaging cliches when depicting disability in their films. The trope of disability as a means of sacrifice is the most prevalent means of having a disabled superhero. A great example of this is Professor Xavier of the X-Men Film Franchise. He becomes paralyzed in a fight for the greater good due to an injury from the Villian Magento which damages his spinal cord, but he continues to fight even after obtaining his disability. His situation reflects basically all characters with such impairments like Colonel Rhodes and Daredevil. It is true that disability can be a result of a heroic action, but for this to be the only means of harboring a disability again alienates a majority of the disabled population. It sends the message that being disabled is only acceptable if here is a noble reason behind it, something that speaks greater volumes to one’s character than what being disabled insinuates. The idea of the “evil cripple” is also an incredibly hurtful practice. Captain America’s Bucky Barnes is only depicted as a brainwashed villain after his accident where he loses an arm. Before the character is an amputee, he is a hero and perceived as charming. Doctor Maru or Doctor Poison, the evil German scientist from the billion-dollar picture Wonder Woman, suffers from a facial disfigurement that is a huge point to her character but in a completely negative connotation. In these ways, disability is used to invoke visual horror and fear of the villain, exploiting “disabled people by presenting them as embodiments of terror and evil”(Donnelly). There is an “association of disability with malevolence. Deformity of the body symbolizes deformity of the soul… Physical handicaps are made the emblems of evil" (Donnelly). In Maru’s case, it is a cheap way to curate an empathetic villain by providing an excuse to their behavior “that is intended to alter the audience's response to the archetypal antagonist” (Donnelly). This was seen explicitly in one of the closing scenes of the film where Wonder Woman is going to kill her out of anger, but stops in a moment of pity and subsequent clarity after Maru’s prosthetic falls off.

  • Young woman laying on bed with a Captain America T-shirt on.
    Madeline during a flare-up of her chronic illness wearing a shirt with one of her favorite heros, Captain America.

While there exists a handful of superhero characters suffering from a disability, no openly disabled individuals have had an active role in creating their stores, reflecting a greater film industry flaw. This idea of Cripface, when an “able-bodied person takes a role that could have gone to a performer with disabilities” has been in popular practice for years and superhero films are no exception (Heisel). None of the characters listed or any other existing characters are played by an actor with said disability portrayed. It’s not just limited to action films though.

In the Oscars’ entire 93 year history, “61 (nominations) are for actors portraying characters with disabilities. 27 actors are winners and only two of those are actual performers with disabilities” (Heisel). Those two actors won over seven decades ago in 1947 (Heisel). There is also a lack of disabled individuals behind the camera. As of 2019, absolutely no films have been recognized by Sundance that were directed by one or more disabled individuals (Appelbaum “Sundance”). As a whole, the overall inclusion of the disabled population is so low within the greater industry that the overall statistic of how many disabled actors, directors, and other creative minds behind film there are in the industry simply does not exist.

There exists a stark discrepancy between the people who go into making the media consumed by the public and the public themselves. In 2018, approximately 13.1 percent of the entire United States population suffered from some form of disability (UNH 3). That translates to tens of millions disabled individuals in the nation or about 1 in 5 people (GADIM). Nonetheless, this substantial population is not included in the process of creating films that portray aspects of their own life. It is comprehensible why then these tropes are utilized and disabilities are often axed from a character entirely. No disabled party is present in the creative process to accurately advocate for the population or depict the illustrated inhibition. This lack of inclusion is where the rest of these ableist flaws originate from. In order to reverse such a mindset, more people with disabilities must be included in the films to promote healthy, genuine depictions and representations of disabilities in film that do not exist to one character’s benefit or detriment. Including disabled artists in these films provides a movie with first person accounts and evidence that would increase its authenticity when depicting disability. Ways to stimulate finding such participants would be by putting out castings specifically for individuals with the disability to be depicted, like requesting a paraplegic actor to play Professor Xavier. Creating an awareness when studios sign directors and other filmmakers to direct films centering around disability is essential as they are the ones inevitably doing the hiring. If none of the creators have an intimate relationship or knowledge about experiencing disability, the film will by nature fail to provide an accurate illustration that does not utilize stereotypes and clichés as facts.

Such hirings mean cutting back on non-disabled artists, but this does not eliminate their platform. The number of characters with disabilities portrayed in the media is still incredibly small, for instance, “of the 879 series regulars on broadcast programming, GLAAD found that 3.1 percent (27 characters) have disabilities” (Appelbaum “Record High”). Plenty of jobs would still exist for non-disabled people in film even if the industry looked to actively include disabled artists.

As of now, widespread initiatives for increasing disability representation in film specifically are severely lacking. However, some overall diversity initiatives have been proposed and implemented, offering potential models and plans for disability recognition. A game-changing practice to use as guidance for such proposals comes from the Academy. In September 2020, the Oscars established new representation and inclusion standards for 2025 eligibility, dubbed the Academy Aperture 2025 (ACADEMY). They were designed to “encourage equitable representation on and off screen in order to better reflect the diversity of the movie-going audience” and to qualify, a film must fulfil two of the four criteria (ACADEMY). While disabled populations are mentioned, it is still to a lesser extent than other groups who face injustice. For instance, in the criteria for leading and main supporting roles, the disabled population is not listed as an acceptable population to represent for qualification. The criteria of “the main storyline(s), theme or narrative of the film is centered on an underrepresented group(s)” offers the topic of disability as a qualifier, yet nowhere does it require that the actors actually be disabled if portraying a character with a disability. Two measures that could greatly increase disability representation would be the alteration to the Aperture so that the disabled population is added to the significant roles category and expanding the topic category option of disability so that it simultaneously requires actors of said disability to display the desired affliction. While these are great steps, the issue remains that it only applies to films that are potentially Oscar worthy; most movies are made with the intention of never pursuing such a status but that does not mean they should be free to discriminate towards the disabled. Implementing something similar to the Aperture that would be more widespread to the entire film industry would be the natural next step.

When discussing statistics of artists in film with disability, the topic is further complicated because prevalent names in the industry may simply choose not to publicize their health status. This is aided in the fact that many disabilities are dubbed invisible disabilities. An invisible disability is a disability that is not visible when simply looking at someone and includes “individuals with chronic pain, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, HIV,” and other nonvisible ailments (Kattari 478). These individuals often “may not receive as much overt or explicit social stigma as those with more apparent disabilities'' because at first glance, one cannot explicitly tell they are disabled (Kattari 478). People with invisible disabilities thus have passing privilege, the ability to pass as a nondisabled person. This can save the individual from explicit ableism that will inhibit their lives socially, though by doing so the individual may struggle to “find community” and access “the services, support structure, and even physical spaces that they need” (Kattari 478). “The decision on whether to pass or not comes with not only personal implications of stigma and discrimination but also more societal and political implications of outing themselves as disabled,” yet still there remains little question as to why a person may decide to do so (Kattari 478). By passing, they will avoid more explicit forms of discrimination and have more opportunities in society by being seen as “able-bodied.” Former Marvel actor Chadwick Boseman who played the Black Panther or King T'challa is an example of this. This past August, the actor passed away after a four year battle with Colon Cancer at age 43 (Chiu). The world was stunned, many did not even know the actor was ill. Boseman had kept his diagnosis very quiet, even to the leaders behind the films he starred in. During his four year battle, he went on to have hit film after hit film, reaching the peak of his career while his health was deteriorating. While it cannot be truly known why he chose to keep this diagnosis a secret, the question has to arise if he would have reached the success he did if his illness had been public knowledge. In retrospect, he faced many microaggressions in regards to his illness. There was an internet joke going around that the actor looked exhausted during his Black Panther press tour, the tagline “Wakanda Sometimes” spreading across social media like wildfire. The same month as his death, he had been trolled online for looking frail and weak after his drastic weight loss, many felt he looked like the complete opposite of his superhero persona. Comments calling him “Crack Panther” and saying he looked “like Aids” flooded Twitter (Rennex). Little did the world know that he would pass away only a few days after he went trending on the site because of the situation. He faced discrimination and ridicule for simply looking sick, imagine how he would have been treated if it had been known that he truly was. The ableist climate of the world puts many disabled individuals in a corner where they must suffer in silence simply to be accepted, facing indirect discrimination. Perhaps more in the industry are struggling with disability, but until the social narrative around disability changes, it is unlikely that they will step forward with their diagnosis.

Christopher Reeve is a great example of an actor who was able to traverse Hollywood’s distaste for the disabled although being openly impaired. Best known for his role as Superman in the 1980s, Reeve was paralyzed on May 27, 1995 after competing in an equestrian competition where he “fell headfirst across the barrier” erected for a jump (Reeve Staff). He was left paralyzed from the neck down at 42 (Reeve Staff). Many felt that the actor’s life was over, an acting career seemed out of the question. His own mother “begged the doctors to withdraw his mechanical ventilation” and Reeve’s himself “came to appreciate the possibility of ending his life” (Reeve Staff). Nonetheless, he survived and went on to not only have a career in film, but a successful one at that. “He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his work on a TV remake of Rear Window'' and even directed several television films (Reeve Staff). He proved that his life was not over and far from the “ruined life” his own foundation dubbed his time as a paraplegic (Reeve Staff). Reeve’s perseverance shows that not only can the disabled participate in the film industry, but do so on par with any non-disabled individual.

The argument could be made that if the portrayals are in fact fair, accurate, and not unreasonably villainizing towards the disabled, it should not matter if creators involved have experienced disability. Many films exist that are in themselves, great films such as the Theory of Everything or Wonder. Still, they lack authenticity to the disabled audience. At the end of production, after the cameras stop recording, everyone involved gets to go back to their lives without being plagued by disability. That means they get to not only benefit from an ableist society, but also from being disabled. The disabled are left with nowhere to benefit. They don’t get the jobs and they also don’t get the role models or platform. Often, as one of “the most marginalized and discriminated against populations,” it is common that “people with disabilities encounter negative attitudes (both intentional and unconscious) that are held by members of society. Such obstacles can lead to negative self-esteem and reduced community participation of persons with disabilities” (Karr 11). Representation is vital to feeling a sense of self-worth and acts as a way to challenge such negative connotations. Relating again to superheroes, Syrian and American disabled youth worked together at a summit to create a disabled superhero by sharing “experiences, ideas, and cultures, culminating in a creative product aimed to promote the rights of youth with disabilities” (Karr 15). At the end of their time together and the fruition of the character, the children left with rejuvenated confidence. One child said, “I can become a hero. I learned that one must start from scratch and [can] reach ...success” (Karr 21). It was also seen that these children, “rather than focus upon deficiency or pathologize it, as noted by Siebers (2004) when bodily difference becomes a dominant image or symbol, youth participants chose to emphasize that disability can be a source of strength and uniqueness” (Karr 25). This is in complete contrast to the clichés that would be utilized by an individual who has not experienced disability personally. The most powerful statement came from a participant who said, “we discovered that we have no limits and we can do everything” (Karr 24). In saying this, the child was not just referring to being like a superhero. The participant truly meant that they could be anything they wanted as they were the ones who wrote and illustrated the comic, its sole creators. This sentence singlehandedly shows why including disabled people in the creative process is so important. Disabled individuals are often told they will never amount to nor are they capable of anything. By including disabled individuals in such successful projects like the multi-billion dollar superhero movie empire, disabled people are shown that they are not limited by their ailments. It cements the role of the disabled in society and actively works to contradict the unequal views of the greater, non-disabled population.

Superhero films offer millions of fans a source of entertainment and inspiration. No matter how entertaining however, they struggle to accurately and fairly portray the disabled in their million dollar projects reflecting a greater industry lack of inclusion. Creators utilize outdated clichés or simply choose not to include previously written disabilities when depicting their characters. To fix this problem, the film industry and the companies that fund their projects must take an active role in ensuring that disabled individuals are involved in the creation of their media. Doing so will ensure it is authentic to the population’s struggles and help fight the ableist ideals that negatively impact the self-worth of the disabled.