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joker-g316b588b3_640.jpgSuperhero stories have come a long way since their first appearance in comic books. Their universal appeal is made evident in their box office dominance, with the Marvel franchise accounting, on its own, for almost half of the ten highest-grossing movies of all time (Childress & Staff, 2022). Clearly, the world has not gotten enough of good-hearted heroes defeating evil. But perhaps in reaction to the simplicity of this narrative, a new trend has emerged across many genres in popular culture, with the increasing popularity of arcs and storylines exploring the past of their nemeses: the “supervillains.”

Movies like “Joker” (Phillips, 2019), “Dr. Strange in the Universe of Madness” (Feige, 2022), and “X-Men: First Class” (Vaugh, 2011) all explore in great depth the traumatic background of many well-known characters. Through these storylines, we learn that before he became the infamous Joker, Arthur Fleck experienced pervasive and extreme psychological and physical abuse at the hands of his narcissistic mother. "Magnet” (Vaugh, 2011) was sent to a Nazi concentration camp where his parents were murdered. After losing her parental figures during the war at a young age, the Scarlet Witch from the Universe of Madness experiences quite a few more traumatic losses. Even satirical works poking fun at superheroes, like the Amazon series “The Boys” (Kripke, 2019-2022), cannot resist offering small glimpses of Homelander’s traumatic backstory (i.e., being raised in a laboratory with no parental figures).

A similar trend is also present outside the superhero genre and in the fantasy and science fiction genres, where the stories of villains are laid bare. For example, the popular kids’ show “Avatar: the Last Airbender” (DiMartino, M. D. & Konietzko, 2005-2008) extensively details their main antagonist’s experiences of parental abuse; in the widely-popular Netflix series ‘’Arcane,” the main antagonist Jinx first witnesses her parents being murdered and later watches in horror as she accidentally kills most of the people dear to her; not to mention Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” franchise (Lucas, 1999) who grew up as a slave and never received the affection he needed to feel safe within his new environment. The audience’s search for understanding is also obvious in the popularity of family-oriented movies such as “Maleficent” (Stromberg, 2014) and “Cruella” (Gillespie, 2021); their main protagonists also experienced significant abuse before turning bad (betrayal and forced amputation; and witnessing the murder of her mother). So apparently, we love heroes for their simplicity and dependable nature, but we crave villains with complex motives and tortured pasts.

Regardless of the genre, however, most villain origin stories have one thing in common: the experience of trauma inevitably leading to madness and/or callousness. My colleagues in the literature department tell me this common plot helps the audience make sense of the villains’ actions, but as a social worker and an academic I am also concerned that it can be incredibly reductive. Although the relationship between adverse childhood experiences, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychopathy is supported by some studies (Ireland et al., 2020; Aebi et al., 2017), most people who are exposed to trauma never go on to commit acts of violence or criminal acts (Barrett & Teesson, 2011). Risk factors are not destiny. Discussing trauma in movies, therefore, becomes a difficult task. How do you explain without justifying, expose without stigmatizing? Portraying trauma survivors, even fictional ones, as broken, morally devious, or unworthy contributes to the perpetual stigmatization of people who have experienced adversity and trauma (Kennedy & Prock, 2018). When discussing this issue with a retired literature professor who loves movies, she reminded me that, unlike therapy, fiction does not necessarily seek healing or conflict resolution but rather an explanation. In movies, trauma creates a context where viewers can quickly understand who the villains are and why they act the way they do. Processing this trauma and healing therefore becomes another story in and of itself, and so, even when it is central to a character’s identity, trauma remains just one piece out of a larger story. At least, not unless writers make it so.

Considering the growing popularity of these types of stories, it is worth pausing and reflecting on how flooding the public’s consciousness with interesting yet reductive stories about how trauma causes violence can lead to the further stigmatization of people who have experienced trauma. Supervillains often appear irredeemable, “stuck” in time, and most experience little to no personal growth or healing after earning their evil moniker. This is not to say that trauma does not play a role in shaping superheroes; it does. Batman, for example, famously witnessed the murder of his parents before turning into a vigilante. That said, superheroes who have experienced trauma in their childhood are often shown as having recovered from their experiences. This creates a strange duality where healing from trauma equates to being “good.” Perhaps it is time to investigate different storylines, such as villains without traumatic backgrounds who evolve, change, and learn from their actions or traumatized superheroes who are still made vulnerable by their experiences, or perhaps even better yet, a closer look at how the social context we are brought up in influences, in part, what kind of story we live out. A broader look could help destigmatize people exposed to trauma by showing them many paths forward instead of the very restrictive hero/villain dichotomy.

About the Author

Josianne Lamothe, MSW, PhD received her doctoral degree from the School of Criminology at the UniversitĂ© de MontrĂ©al in 2021. Since January 2021, she has been completing her post-doctoral fellowship under Delphine Collin-VĂ©zina and Nadine LanctĂ´t researching the impact of a trauma-informed training program on the mentalization skills of residential workers. Her research interests include workplace trauma and wellbeing, social work education, complex trauma, and child protection. She also works clinically helping workers suffering from mental illness reach their goals.


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