It’s the middle of the big Wakanda fight scene. Thor and Captain America banter about haircuts, M’Baku and Okoye crack skulls, and for a moment, Rocket Raccoon meets James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes. The audience is ready to laugh the second the raccoon eyes up the veteran. They know what’s coming.
Rocket compliments Bucky’s prosthetic arm, asks to buy it, and the audience tenses up.
Bucky says it’s not for sale and returns to battle.
Rocket mutters that he’ll steal that arm.
And the audience laughs. I don’t. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been wooed by Infinity War’s frenetic action and cosmic scope only to be yanked out by a joke or tragedy that’s at the expense of a disabled character. It feels like a gate built out of my own experiences, and the shared experiences of so many disabled friends who’ve been treated as pity cases and jokes.
Infinity War is a staggering achievement of crossover cinema. It’s the 19th Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film, referencing and continuing the stories of characters from across the decade of Marvel’s blockbusters. Vision ponders committing suicide for the greater good by asking Captain America why he once plunged into the Arctic Ocean. Gamora forces Peter Quill to take her seriously by making him swear on his mother. These moments are more powerful than most of the uses of continuity in the characters’ own series.
But when it comes to disabled characters, that continuity is wielded carelessly. They exist to suffer or be laughed at. In the greatest crossover in cinema history, disabled people are expendable.
James “Rhodey” Rhodes is the straight man to much of Tony Stark’s comical narcissism. In Captain America: Civil War, Rhodey once again fought at Tony’s side in an attempt to lock up Bucky. In the melee, Rhodey wound up paralyzed from the waist down. Both that moment and Rhodey’s few later appearances in the film were all about humbling Tony. Tony’s feelings mattered more than Rhodey’s entire existence. It was a problem that intersected with the MCU’s long-running issues with people of color, and part of why Black Panther was so important.
In Infinity War, Rhodey gets one moment of relevance. He Skypes with General Ross, who is the very vision of patriarchy and military excess. Ross, Tony, and Rhodey used to be on the same side. Now Ross chides Rhodey for changing his mind.
Rhodey gestures to the mechanical leg braces that allow him to walk and says he paid the price for being on the wrong side. He uses the braces to “stand up” to the hologram of Ross, embracing a masculine stereotype. He’s proud of his punishment.
Disability is not a price you pay for being wrong. If you’re disabled, people will tell you that it’s a divine plan, or that it’s the result of your laziness and lack of ambition. Most of my own disabilities are the result of medical malpractice, not a moral failing on my part. We are not paying a debt by living.
Black Widow and Captain America interrupt this moment, and the movie moves on. Rhodey never corrects this horrible message. He never matters again. He was only included so that his disability could augment how righteous the abled heroes are.
Nebula’s arc in the Guardians of the Galaxy films is one of trauma. As a child she was always pitted against Gamora by their abusive father and Infinity War’s main villain, Thanos. Every time Nebula lost a fight, Thanos cut off a piece of her body. In an echo of Rhodey, her disabilities were supposed to be representation of her mistakes. Now her adult body is mostly comprised of prosthetic parts. She’s a ball of mutilation and anger issues.
My favorite part of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is Nebula reconciling with Gamora. They have an over-the-top fight and finally spare each other, recognizing neither of them is the real problem. Thanos is. It’s sad, but in 2018 we still need reminders that the villain is the villain, not the people so hurt by him that they didn’t stop him.
The abled members of the Guardians begin Infinity War by running a mission and ogling Thor. They banter, they angst, and prepare a big fight scene against Thanos. They are real characters in this movie, in contrast to how Nebula is handled.
Nebula isn’t with the Guardians. She’s introduced into Infinity War as a failure. Thanos has already captured her. Her prosthetics, which mean mobility and freedom to real disabled people, are pulled apart to keep her helpless. The sight of her body splayed like so many Jenga pieces is perhaps the most viscerally upsetting single image in the movie. Then Thanos tortures her.
For a scene, Thanos is a stand-in for every sadistic physical therapist I’ve ever had. He reminded me of the surgeon who told my 13-year-old self that I didn’t need anesthesia for my biopsy, and then, with his scalpel inside my arm, chastised me for crying as his assistants held me down. These are not the things you want to think about during a popcorn movie, particularly not when the character never accomplishes more than crying. Nebula has more grunts and cries of pain than she has lines in this movie.
That’s because Nebula isn’t her own character in Infinity War. She and her disabilities are plot devices to further Gamora’s sympathy and story. Thanos isn’t even really torturing Nebula—he’s really torturing her sister by making her watch.
Gamora is the character.
Nebula is a disabled prop.
Like Rhodey, once Nebula has served her purpose for the abled heroine, she’s gone. It’s easy to forget she even survives the finale while standing behind Tony Stark.
Contrast that with Jim Starlin’s original 1992 Infinity Gauntlet comic, the inspiration for this movie. There, Nebula steals the Gauntlet from Thanos and begins his downfall. You can only hope that’s still to come, but you doubt it.
Thor and Rocket Raccoon
Rocket Raccoon has bothered disabled viewers since the first Guardians of the Galaxy film. His running gag has always been that he loves stealing prosthetics from disabled people. Is this an arm or a leg? Did he need it for an escape plan? Nah. Robbing amputees is just his hobby.
The audience always laughs, and I always feel kicked out of the movie. The director, writer, actors, and abled audience have this happy conspiracy to enjoy disability at the expense of my friends.
In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor lost an eye almost nonchalantly, not even pausing to reflect on his injury in the race to stop Hela. It was an awkward moment in a movie that’s mostly so funny. Was it a Norse cycle in which, having taken Odin’s place as the leader of their people, Thor had curiously come by his father’s disability?
It turns out that Thor actually lost an eye to set up a bonding moment with Rocket Raccoon in Infinity War. The two already got along and had a heart-to-heart about Thor’s habit of losing everyone he loves.
Still, Infinity War tosses in a scene where it turns out Rocket stole a prosthetic eye from someone and gives it to Thor. Neither of them cares who he stole it from. Thor pops it into place, and presto, Chris Hemsworth is handsome again, I guess because there was such a shortage of two-eyed hot men in this movie. His disability is erased. Perhaps once or twice you notice his eyes are different colors.
I immediately made mental notes of friends who I had to give a heads-up about this. I warned them because if you’ve lost an eye, this scene is not great. It’s a gross distraction from the charisma and determination of Hemsworth’s Thor, who has become one of the most lovable characters in the entire MCU.
Earlier in the movie, almost the entire Guardians of the Galaxy had a crush on Thor. He was supposed to be desirable while disabled. But they don’t let him stay visibly disabled because they know that’s not appealing to the audience. In this movie, visible disabilities are for people like Rhodey and Nebula—people who don’t matter.
Then Rocket says the eye was probably dirty and Thor should’ve washed it. Thor’s injury is resolved in a bad punchline.
The audience always laughs.
Despite being central to the plot in Winter Soldier and Civil War, we never see Bucky’s mental illness dealt with. At the end of Civil War, he’s tossed into a Wakandan meat locker. We’re told the Wakandans will science him until he’s better.
He stays there until a post-credits scene of Black Panther, which establishes that his mental illness was erased off-screen. We don’t get a single minute of therapy or treatment. His decades of being serially tortured, abused, and forced to harm others for Hydra don’t matter. He is calm and conditioning his hair.
If you’ve been to trauma support groups, or A.A., or helped someone in therapy, you know the MCU has cut out the heart of Bucky Barnes. All of his growth is absent, and anyone who could have used the sight of a hero going through that is clearly not welcome in this fantasy. Our society hides the mentally ill, either in institutions, or in increasingly criminalized homelessness. So many veterans die without support.
This erasure is Bucky’s context in Infinity War. We get a brief glimpse of him contentedly farming in Wakanda with one arm. He seems as happy as he’s been since he was double-dating in the 1940s. Then T’Challa arrives, plunks down a weapons-grade prosthetic arm, and tells him to go fight. That’s enough off-screen healing for him. The arm is necessary to make him look “whole,” and to be wholly capable of violence. Because the movie is rushing to fit everything in, Bucky barely consents before T’Challa basically treats him like Hydra used to and sends him to battle. Bucky is still a weapon.
Bucky meets an end Hydra wouldn’t have minded: he dies with a snap of Thanos’s fingers.
All that work off-screen, all that trauma, and he’s gone.
Stephen Strange, whose controversial movie nevertheless was the MCU’s best attempt yet showing a disabled person attempting to recover their sense of purpose, also dies in that moment.
Falcon, who ran a therapy group for soldiers with trauma, dies in that moment. Falcon dies, and Rhodey walks right past him in an accessibility device.
Disabled characters should die in Infinity War. This movie kills half the universe; if none of us died, then we’d all be erased from relevance inside a protective plot bubble. If the ending of the movie works, then we’re angry for Bucky in the same way we’re angry for T’Challa and Peter Parker. Thanos winning is supposed to be upsetting. It’s Empire Strikes Back times infinity.
It’s a slap in the face because of everything else Bucky has been through, and how little Infinity War has thought of every other disabled character it has.
The MCU’s failure isn’t intentional; it’s from the lack of intention.
If Disney doesn’t grapple with these things, then it won’t get better. It’s why the rumor that Captain Marvel will be the “schizophrenic patient struck by lightning” mentioned in Dr. Strange’s movie worries me. I don’t trust the creative process of the current MCU to do justice to schizophrenia.
This isn’t about one movie, or the first movie in a two-parter. It’s about a decade of movies. Tomorrow’s another sequel. There are disabled consultants and disabled screenwriters who would love to help shape a more inclusive MCU. There are millions of disabled audience members who would be touched by better representation. All we’re asking is for Marvel to care.
© 2018 by John Wiswell