DC Comics is notorious for its exploration of dark, sensitive themes, leaving it distinguished from Marvel Studios as a less family-friendly viewing experience than Marvel’s lighthearted, feel-good narratives. For example, the recently released The Suicide Squad (2021) features graphic scenes of decapitation and bodily mutilation. While Marvel Studios is known for its less gruesome approach to character origins and plot points, recent endeavors have shed some light on the upsetting concepts that plague its ensemble of heroes. Here are some examples of instances where Marvel Studios has embraced its darker themes.
WARNING: The following article contains mentions of sexual assault, kidnapping, mental illness, terrorism, child kidnapping/experimentation, genital mutilation, and murder.
Jessica Jones (2015-2019) – PTSD/Sexual Assault/Kidnapping
Jessica Jones (2015-2019), created by Melissa Rosenberg, debuted on Netflix in 2015. Marvel Studios’ superhero noir crime-thriller is riddled with dark themes. It gained a substantial following for its breakthrough portrayal of alcohol addiction, sexual assault, and trauma. Jones encounters Kilgrave, a mind-controlling, textbook narcissist. He was instantly drawn to her impressive displays of super-strength, delicately pretty complexion, and snarky attitude.
Kilgrave takes Jones as a mental prisoner, forcing her to have sex with him and murder innocent civilians against her will. Throughout the series, Jessica Jones explores the PTSD that its titular character suffers as a result of the horrific mistreatment she endures before becoming a private investigator. Not only did Kilgrave physically assault her, but he targeted her friends, including her half-sister, Trish Walker.
Furthermore, Jones’ PTSD prompts violent outbursts, bouts of paranoia, and occasional panic attacks. Following the sexual assault from Kilgrave, she is reluctant to form intimate personal relationships and becomes extremely distrustful of others.
Iron Man (2008) & The Avengers (2012) – PTSD/Anxiety/Terrorism
Tony Stark is a billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist. He lives the ideal life – so they say. In Marvel Studios’ Iron Man (2008), Stark’s multi-million dollar inventions become the global interest of several terrorist organizations. His lavish lifestyle falls apart. Abu Bakaar, an Afghanistan Terrorist, leads an ambush on Stark’s vehicles following a Jericho missile demonstration.
Stark almost dies, but the terrorists abduct him and save his life. In return, they ask him to build the Jericho missile under supervision so that Bakaar’s soldiers can follow suit and build the weapons for themselves.
In Marvel Studios’ The Avengers (2012), Loki and his Chitauri army invade and plan to subjugate Earth. Tony Stark intercepts a nuclear missile aimed at Manhattan and guides it through a wormhole to destroy the Chitauri armada. After the wormhole closes, Iron Man’s suit loses power, from which he fully expects to die. He lives through the trauma of, what he believed at the time, was the end of his days. Subsequently, Stark retains an ever-constant fear of dying alone and develops a severe mixture of PTSD and anxiety – which he never truly overcomes.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – War Bombing/Child Trauma
In Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), viewers are first introduced to Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, fraternal twins born with dormant superhuman abilities. At just 10 years old, the Maximoff twins endured a citywide bombing and Stark Industries supplied the weapons in the attacks. As a result, Wanda and Pietro develop a strong animosity for Tony Stark and all that he stands for.
During the attack, a mortar shell struck their apartment building and instantly killed their parents. Wanda and Pietro were trapped under the wreckage. Another mortar shell landed three feet in front of them; they stared at the shell for days, expecting it to detonate at any moment. Its hard cases had “Stark Industries” as an inscription.
From this, the twins were horrifically traumatized. Seeking to destroy Stark Industries and The Avengers, the Maximoff twins joined the widely renowned terrorist organization, HYDRA. They agreed to undergo a series of tests conducted by List and Wolfgang von Strucker, where they were exposed to energy from the Scepter, which had fatal effects on all the other volunteers. Although the twins unlocked the true potential of their powers, they risked their own lives in the process – and HYDRA was inconsiderately permitting it.
Black Widow (2021) – Child Kidnapping/Genital Mutilation
Marvel Studios’ Black Widow (2021) envisioned the origin of the infamous titular hero, Natalia Romanova (Natasha Romanoff), and her bond-not-blood sister, Yelena Belova. In the opening sequence, Natasha and Yelena are seen as carefree young children, unsuspecting of what would become of them.
Their “parents”, Alexei Shostakov and Melina Vostokoff work as undercover agents and pose as a family in Ohio with Natalia and Yelena as their daughters. They steal S.H.I.E.L.D. intel and escape to Cuba, where their boss, General Dreykov, has Romanoff and Belova taken to the Red Room for training.
During the rigorous Red Room training, known as the “Black Widow program”, young orphan girls are transformed into elite assassins named “Black Widows”. To accomplish this, the girls undergo strenuous daily training, including hand-to-hand combat training, acrobatics, weapons training, and tactical skills.
For the “graduation ceremony”, after the trainees have completed their physical and mental tests, the young women receive involuntary hysterectomies. Thereby, removing their ability to bear children and, by extension, eliminating their menstrual cycles.
Captain America: Civil War (2016) – Murder
Further delving into dark themes, perhaps the most blatantly horrendous moment in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe comes in Marvel Studios’ Captain America: Civil War (2016). In the dramatic climax, Tony Stark infiltrates a Siberian HYDRA facility and strikes a truce with Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes. Therein, they encounter Zemo, who shows them footage of the automobile accident in 1991. Tony discovers that the passengers inside are his parents, Howard and Maria Stark.
Although Barnes was brainwashed and under HYDRA’s influence, Stark is understandably enraged to discover the identity of his parent’s murderer. To make matters worse, the footage clarifies that the accident itself instantly killed Maria, but Howard survived for moments after. To finish the job, Barnes strangles Howard. All the while, Tony watches on in horror.
To make matters worse, Stark asks Rogers if he knew about Barnes’ past and more specifically – the murder of his parents. Steve Rogers reveals that he knew all along and kept the secret from Tony. As a result, Tony turns on both of them and a brutal fight ensues.