The Marvel Superhero Who Saved Me
I outsourced my emotional wellbeing to ‘The Infinity Saga’ this summer — and I couldn’t be happier
The first time I dreamt myself into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I was Maria Hill. S.H.I.E.L.D. commander, human woman, competent as hell, possessed of both the righteous toys of war and the respect of Director Nicholas J. Fury to deploy them as needed, and unflappable in the face of galaxy-smashing chaos.
I cannot swear I was actually asleep when I slipped into her skin — possibly just drifting into hypnagogia during one of my many multi-day MCU binges — but with whatever faculties I could muster, I tried to remain there. Because when I wake, I am Mantis.
I outsourced my wellbeing to The Infinity Saga this summer because it’s safer for me to have a project rather than fixate on why the sun is out, the air is warm, and I still feel sad. In years past, it’s been the intensive self-assigned study of serial killers or dissociative identity disorder, visiting various local bodies of water, or perfecting my biscuit-making technique. At some point in the late spring, I watched The Avengers on an airplane, then Avengers: Age of Ultron right after, and desperately needed context for why Tony Stark was such a cocky prick and Hawkeye was allowed to share oxygen with the rest of these splendid beings.
This wasn’t my first foray into emotional fandom; I specifically requested afternoon kindergarten so I could watch the classic ‘80s cartoon Star Blazers in the morning and lose myself in the quest for Cosmo DNA before having to weather the tensions of the playground. The latter-day Battlestar Galactica remake was a balm for a job I was terrified of screwing up, and there is a specific Buffy episode I put on when I need to cry and can’t seem to dowse the tears. (It’s “The Prom.” But “The Body” or “Becoming, Part Two” can also do the trick.) Watch enough galaxy saving, and your own travails seem as remote as a speck of dust wafting across the surface of Vormir.
I’m late to the game, but I’m grateful for that. While I’ve occasionally been proud of loving something before the masses discover it, there can be comfort in delving into art with a long-established canon. Intimidation, too — fans can be territorial, weirdly cruel, and occasionally IRL violent in the stewardship of a world that’s mapped onto their psyche, but at this point in my life (I’m 47! And a ladyperson on the internet!), I have the cultural metabolism and lizard skin to brush or block as needed if someone simply feels compelled to Ghostworld at me. Clearly they need this superior perch more than me. But that’s not what happened.
When I tweeted about how I was delving into the MCU for the very first time and charge into the fray and might have some questions, people expressed nothing but kindness, guidance on the potential order in which to watch all 23 films to get the most out of the crossovers, cameos, and mid/post-credits scenes, and benign jealousy that I was getting to experience this for the very first time. Per the Spaghetti Order, I cued up Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and the like and dove off the pier with my final destination on a faraway shore: seeing Avengers: Endgame in a theater when it came back for a victory lap.
I drowned so happily. Suddenly, I could differentiate between Chrises and maintained a personal ranking thereof. I was driven giddy and mad upon discovering that “Tony Stark” is a perfect swap in for “baby shark” and now you must suffer that with me, too doo doo doo doo. I cackled and screenshot the moment Vision printed out a Saveur recipe to make chicken paprikash for Wanda, mused on the physics of Bruce Banner’s pants, thoroughly convinced myself in a jetlagged and sleep-starved state that I could hurl my suitcase into the back of an airport Lyft with the force of Natasha Romanov (the driver had to help), developed a very confusing crush on Loki, and was unexpectedly gutted by the potential loss of an ambulatory tree that I’d assumed would be too cutesy to bear. The MCU swallowed me like a Tesseract into a Flerken, and I couldn’t have been happier. And then I met Mantis.
For about a month the previous summer, I wanted to die. Not actively, for the most part, because that would fly in the face of the work I was doing, but being alive was becoming almost physically unbearable. I write about food and I advocate for mental health conversations in the restaurant industry. When Anthony Bourdain killed himself last summer and the world screamed out in pain something in my blood reacted. I flew around the country talking to cooks and servers and bartenders and general managers and dishwashers and anyone who would listen, one-on-one, by the dozen, by the hundreds about why we needed to speak openly about depression, anxiety, addiction, mania, stress, and everything that was felling hospitality workers, as if Thanos had snapped his goddamned gauntlet. I’m titanium, I thought. Pour it all into me.
But every vessel can be overfilled. The toughest metal still corrodes. And I am regrettably, painfully mortal. My body broke first — mostly in the form of a monthlong, unceasing panic spiral that robbed me of calm, sleep, sanity — before my brain could completely give way, and a dream team of a therapist, a physician, my husband, trusted friends, and random internet strangers, as well as a cocktail of herbal supplements and prescription pharma helped glue me back together, fractures showing, but still whole. The strength to perform emotional labor, as it turns out, is not an infinite or mystical resource. It needs a rubdown at the end of the day, rest, vitamins, and maybe even some shawarma from time to time.
Mantis is the strongest being in the MCU, and she’s treated like a dim child because she doesn’t pop anyone in the jaw or zip around in a technologically muscled-up suit. She is, by all indications, an actual bug, complete with antennae and an intergalactic pep squad costume; was kidnaped as a larva to serve as a sentient binky to a Celestial egomaniac, and tee-hee — she talks about feeeeeelings. Her gods-given superpower is her empathy, which doesn’t smash buildings or swat hordes of Leviathan from the skies, but rather lulls the most fearsome beings in the universe into a state of calm vulnerability so they can be more easily dispatched — unless Star-Lord’s dumb ass gets in the way. Despite her expressed self-doubt, her mind and bare hands accomplish what Hulk’s fists, Iron Man’s machines, and Thor’s hammer couldn’t, despite their bloody best. It costs her, and you see it, but I know in my heart that she’d give more if she felt it would help. She would give it all.
She is Mantis, and she saved me from myself this summer. She is a superhero and I am not. I’m trying not to let it bug me.
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