Warning: This article contains spoilers for Source Code…and, for that matter, Avatar.
Recently in Hollywood, the physiological capabilities of our heroic protagonists have owed a great deal to modern medicine and technology, specifically from the military. Whether it be the unique opportunity provided for the paraplegic Jake Sully in Avatar, the incredible and unwanted responsibility of the nearly-dead Colter Stevens in Source Code, or the intravenous hyper-bulking of Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger, Hollywood has given us a spate of unlikely protagonists connected specifically by the fact that their initial disabilities provide for them a unique opportunity to become exceptionally enabled.
As I will discuss further on, the specific disabilities of Stevens and Sully engender special opportunities for them. Rogers (Chris Evans), by contrast, is not so clearly disabled physically, but socially. His short and scrawny stature prevents him from functioning as the heroic wartime male he so desperately wants to be. There is a masculine ideal in 1940s America, and Rogers is decidedly not that. Thus, while his strong will may be enduringly present, his physical stature is antithetical to his determined personality. When he becomes the subject of a military experiment, then, his resulting hulky body is not as much a new and strange phenomenon for Rogers as it is the natural exterior manifestation of his interior self. Thus, when Rogers emerges as a muscle-bound Captain America, he takes little time to orient his new physique before pursuing justice on his two new feet.
However, a strange Catch-22 surrounds this logic. Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) finds Rogers to be a perfect subject for the experiment specifically because of the apparent contradiction he embodies between personality and physique: Rogers wants so desperately to give of himself to his country, but is woefully unable to because of his stature. Agreeing to partake in a dangerous experiment, then, is framed as something of a final effort, of ultimately encountering a way he can help which is also quite possibly the only thing he is able to do.
Erskine positions Rogers’s physical inadequacy as something that has emerged from his strong-willed personality rather than opposed to it because, as he states plainly, Rogers is uniquely able to possess empathy for those victimized in society. How does he know Rogers has reached a state where his personality is locked and that empathy will continue unchanged in Rogers’s new body? After all, if Rogers’s old body was so essential to his personal makeup, to think that a change in that body wouldn’t, in turn, result in a change in personality is selective logic.
But Rogers’s actions seem to speak to a lack of veracity in Erskine’s observation, for Rogers’s personality is portrayed as steadfast completely irrespective of, rather than emboldened by, his size. In fact, there’s a slightly morbid streak to his relationship between his will and his body, for it’s his body specifically that he’s so eager to sacrifice for his country, illustrated bluntly when he reflexively falls onto a dummy grenade during basic training. And, because of Erskine’s experiment, it is indeed his original flesh that he ends up sacrificing.
Captain America, perhaps accurately, reflects back to an era in which one’s sacrifice and patriotic contribution was a primarily physiological. After all, if Rogers’s primary motivating force was his desire to vanquish America’s enemies, he could have pushed all that incredible will power toward education and the design of, say, weapons technologies like the similarly physically unimposing (but decidedly foreign) Erskine. Rogers’s eager bodily sacrifice, which borders on chasing martyrdom, suggests a desperate desire to escape his body as much as it projects his feeling of nationalist duty.
There are many similarities between the experiences of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Steve Rogers. Sully as paraplegic is unable to give his physical body to the duties of his military, though because all of Avatar takes place away from Earth and accounts a private arms mission with the aims of acquisition and plundering, Sully’s desire seems to come not so much from patriotism as it does from a feeling of being trapped that occludes his ability to get involved in the action. His desire to contribute – or, simply, to participate – thus grows exponentially. Thus, it is because he has little to lose and everything to gain that he is uniquely available for a dangerous experiment.
Like Captain America, Avatar contains a scene in which the now-enabled protagonist can explore the unique physical opportunities of his newfound body. Sully’s initial experience, unlike Rogers’s, is one of aimless but joyful abandon rather than direct purpose, suggesting that Sully’s motivation to partake in the experiment was, more than anything else, to escape the apparent limitations of his own body. Unlike Rogers, Sully’s personality changes along with his body as he realizes the injustice and destruction perpetuated by his own people. This is empathy on a different level, as he literally sees through the eyes of another, or rather ‘the other.’
Finally, Sully is fully able to escape and bid farewell to his old body, not because he sacrificed it for the people he worked for, but because he has no more use for it. Rather than only seeing his human body as limited, Sully by the film’s end sees humanity as a disability in of itself.
Source Code is certainly the most tragic of these three cases, as it’s a case where the protagonist is technologically enabled despite his own will, agency, or awareness. When it’s revealed that Capt. Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a barely living, half-there vegetable, the character’s circumstances switch immediately from frustrating military duties to cruel experiment. It is because Stevens’s options are limited and he is, in many ways, unable to fight back that his “body” is perfectly suited for the Source Code project. However, Stevens has no allegiance to the body he borrows on the train and no awareness of his real body, mistakenly thinking that an arbitrary projection of his mind is the “real” Stevens.
Stevens’s choice by the film’s end, unlike that of the other two protagonists, is not one of deciding which form to embody, but a choice between his own mind (what’s left of him, and what traps him to his original body) and a foreign body. On the surface, Stevens’s case is the closest these three protagonists get to achieving ‘normalcy,’ and he can, in another man’s body, live a life that is invisible in the civilian sense of the daily activities of the normal world rather than literally invisible in terms of occupying his minds eye in some highly controlled half-coma state. However, retaining one’s own mind in another person’s body is far from normal, so his attainment of an uneventful, standard life is manifestly skin-deep (after all, Stevens has to live fully aware of what he prevented, and in full knowledge of the fact that his object of affection admires a face that was not previously his).
However, the optimism of the film’s ending suggests something else entirely, but something that was also proved all along in reflecting back on where Stevens really “was” that whole time: the relationship between mind and body is arbitrary, and Stevens’s mind can be perfectly at rest occupying the body of another.
This storytelling convention is nothing new. Turning the potential desperation of disability into unique superhuman ability has been a trope since (at least) The Six Million-Dollar Man. What is interesting, however, is how similar these cases are in sharing the component of having one exceptional physical state morphed into another.
Neither state is what one would deem ‘normal,’ but one state is prided as being superior to the other. It is not exceptionality and lack of normalcy that is the problem these characters endure (even though many of them desire, at least initially, to be normal). Rather it is whether or not one embodies an exceptionality that is more personally beneficial, socially acceptable, or contains greater opportunities. For these technologically-enabled protagonists, one form of exceptionality perpetuates a desire for another.