Daredevil Season 3: Bullseye and Marvel’s Mental Health Problem

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Daredevil Season 3 saw the introduction of an iconic Daredevil character, the villain Bullseye. Although the character has appeared in film, the version portrayed by Colin Farrell in the 2003 Daredevil movie showed a much different character. Farrell’s Bullseye is a slick hitman for hire whose only goal is brutal profit. The character’s backstory takes him all across New York and has him battle against everyone from The Punisher to Daredevil himself. His grudge against the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen is legendary, the two of them exchange wits and have a relationship much like the one portrayed in the show – without Fisk’s corrupting influence.

The television show saw Bullseye get a far more developed backstory. As Benjamin “Dex” Poindexter he is an impressionable FBI agent with an uncanny, almost unnatural aim, a history in the army, and a mental health diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder with some psychotic behavior thrown in for good measure.

Marvel’s Netflix shows have never shied away from describing mental illness. They tackle every trauma with a degree of respect not often shown in genre television. From Typhoid Mary to Kingpin (and perhaps even Joy Meachum to a certain respect) no one in Hell’s Kitchen is really truly “well.” That said, while Marvel’s Netflix team has made efforts to showcase how these people are victims, it’s time for them to consider using their talents in creating these villains to create a hero that can compete with the Defenders, and Bullseye is a perfect reason why.

Mental Health In the Marvel Netflix Universe

The series introduces what, to many, might be a sympathetic backstory. Orphaned at a young age,  Bullseye kills a man and is instantly swept into the mental health care system. They catch his issues young and he gets help – seemingly – by finding a therapist who is determined to “teach him empathy.” While he’s violent and has very little control over his emotions, she gives him a framework that’s designed to keep his violent impulses and extreme emotions in check. 

Marvel has proven time and time again that they can create excellent villains with mental health conditions, but what differentiates Bullseye is he was several turns away from being a hero with the right support structure and the right “North Star” for him to look up to. The idea of a person to emulate to fill a void left by Borderline Personality Disorder isn’t an uncommon one albeit a dangerous one that the therapist should have avoided sharing with Bullseye. Kingpin later takes advantage of it and ultimately removes Bullseye’s support structure – turning him into a new villain of Hell’s Kitchen and Daredevil’s nemesis.

While the series does do an accurate job of portraying that it’s not Dex’s illness that is causing him to turn to the dark side, it is another example of something that happens far too often in popular  media – people who live with a real disease are shown that the only path for characters with their diagnosis is villainy. That’s a serious problem.

Don’t get me wrong, Marvel has taken some major steps forward with mental health. Less then 10 years ago characters with depression, anxiety, PTSD, or other issues wouldn’t have been mentioned at all. Thanks to Marvel and Netflix each one of the Defenders carries heroism like a cross. Their goal with their villains, so far, is to create a cautionary tale. While they show pity and love to their villains, oftentimes the heroes have a leg up on their enemies that makes it an unfair comparison. Jessica and Kilgrave’s brains were wired completely differently (or, depending on interpretation, Kilgrave was simply just a monster), Luke Cage had the advantage of role models like Pop as well as community support, and Danny had the training from the Monks along with 12 years with his parents.

There’s no clearer example then Daredevil and Bullseye. The former had the support of his community, friends, and ultimately family. The latter had a rigid support structure that didn’t offer any room for new support. The writers created a compelling villain by setting up Bullseye to fail. No therapist treating anyone for Borderline Personality Disorder would recommend a person rely solely on themselves. (For proof of that all you have to do is turn to another show spotlighting the disorder, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend where the main character sees a therapist and has a support group.)

Ultimately, that’s fine. It does serve as a cautionary tale – any person with that diagnosis will tell you that structure is key to successfully coping with the disorder. Creative licenses are allowed when coping with mental health disorders and the writers did take pains to point out that Dex is a victim, just as much as he is a volunteer. However, 1.6% of the population of the United States suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder. Opportunities for positive representation are rare. Netflix has proven that it can write about more common disorders. With that under their belt, it’s time to tackle a hero.

What Could Be Next for Bullseye

Stories like Bullseye’s can spread misinformation about those who have mood disorders. Thankfully Marvel fans are already beginning to rally and ask serious questions about the character, but even telling stories about creative and complex villains can contribute to stigma. The struggles the character went through are real for over a million Americans and NAMI – the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suspects that the number might be even higher.

At this point Marvel can’t take it back, so they need to address it moving forward. While Dex is sick, his moral choices leave a lot to be desired. Sometimes all a person needs to do is ask for help and perhaps that’s what Dex could do. Consider however that even without the influences of Kingpin, in a world where characters with mental illness are traditionally villains, how difficult it would be for him to ask for help.

Dex’s brain is wired differently from Matt’s which allows Kingpin to prey on him. Wilson Fisk is right about one thing. It’s unlikely he would find anyone who understands him, largely because misinformation and social norms make it difficult for people to sympathize with him.

Thanks to shows like Marvel’s Netflix programming more people may feel comfortable saying “I’m depressed”. They have Daredevil’s journey with trauma to look up to. Jessica Jones represents a stepping stone for women struggling with the trauma of sexual assault and Luke Cage shows the struggles of the being black in America.

For all people to have that however, individuals with Dissociative Identity Disorder, severe childhood trauma, and borderline personality disorder need to be more than just villains. It’s time to balance the scales. When Netflix, or Marvel, create new characters or build upon their existing ones either in television or movies, they need to show people with mood and personality disorders as heroic figures.

There are no other arguments to offer in terms of story beyond “this is a trope that’s been done.” The mentally ill villain isn’t particularly new or revolutionary. It adds dimension to Bullseye’s character but it would only enhance the storyline if Matt encountered someone else on a different path dealing with similar issues.

Mental illness is not a monolith and there’s no reason to discount the series because of this one aspect. However, it is worth asking Marvel to do bettr. Dex could have found a North Star in the Defenders.  If they can be our heroes why not his? After all, one could argue that’s what fictional characters are made for.

Marvel’s Daredevil Season 3 is currently streaming on Netflix.

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  1. It’s also not particularly accurate. BPD and a lack of empathy are on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, so it’s highly debatable whether or not someone could even HAVE both of those traits. While it’s admirable for Marvel to want to discuss mental health, creating a character with a diagnosis that is ALREADY highly stigmatized, and then on top of that give the character mannerisms that are (at the very least) unlikely to come close to reality, is far more hurtful than helpful. People with BPD already feel like they are monsters, ostracized from the rest of society. Thanks Marvel, for adding fuel to that fire.

  2. I am a person living with Mental Illness, specifically Borderline Personality Disorder. I agree what you say that the Mentally Ill Villain stereotype has been overdone and the entertainment industry needs to do better. My problem is that it is far too easy to use Mental Illness as a scapegoat to grotesque behavior in fictional characters. Millions of people see these depictions and draw certain conclusions based on this. This continues to feed into a very real Stigma me and my community face especially when a heinous violent act is committed is real life it’s just far too easy to scapegoat once again that it’s because of Mental Illness. Statistically the vast majority of violent crimes are NOT done by people with a Mental Illness and the vast majority of people with a Mental Illness are not violent, at least not towards others. Just because “everyone is doing i” doesn’t make it right and things need to change. I have started a campaign against Netflix because of how Bullseye was portrayed. People can in-fact have violent tendencies and/or a skewed moral compass without being Mentally Ill. Netflix does still have the opportunity to try to make things right and they should with something as simple as a PSA explaining this was a pure work of fiction and in no way accurately portrays someone with this disorder. I have met various Mentally Ill people throughout my life in varying parts of their journey and I have yet to meet one even remotely lose to what the entertainment industry likes to represent us as. It’s offensive.

  3. I just remember watching it and feeling incredibly offended and ashamed. On one hand it was a great season, I’m not saying this one hiccup should upend that. But it’s scary to me that someone could watch it with no previous context to bpd and actually think we’re all like that. They did get some things right, like when he thinks the girl he’s been idolizing for years has blocked all contact with him, he feels like he’s dying, that hit home for me (no pun intended). But the urge to kill? I admit I’ve wanted to kill my abusive step father, but even at my worst I knew that wasn’t something I could ever go through with. I’m trying to remember so if I’m wrong forgive me, but I don’t recall any scenes where he expressed any desire to kill himself. To me that would’ve been a lot more accurate. I also understand that someone with bpd could be capable of anything depending on the person who has it, but the shows frames it as if the disorder is the source of everything he does and that’s just not true. Besides needing to have certain people in his life that he idolizes I didn’t really connect with much else.