Disability in Film: UPGRADE and Ableist Action Fantasies

UPGRADE tells us that the only good disabled hero is a massively enhanced disabled hero

I didn’t hate Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade. It’s a capable action film with some innovative shot design and it pulls off an almost not-laughable near-future setting with clearly limited means. It’s fine. Some of its action sequences are really wonderful. I love watching the camera follow every move, and the balletic synergy between fight moves and blocking. It has a killer car chase and all sorts of gruesome finishers that please the video-games player in me. It’s also a perfect exemplar of one of pop-fiction’s favorite ableist tropes: Rescuing an injured person from a life of disability with magical sci-fi tech, and creating an unstoppable heroic superhuman where once there was just a person who had to suffer the apparently unspeakable horror of living with limitations.

In the harshest terms (and this is an emotional topic for me, I’ll use harsh terms), Upgrade‘s implicit argument is that the only good disabled person is a massively enhanced disabled person. It’s not always played out so explicitly and carelessly, but this is an ever-present trope. Many of us think first of 6 Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman. These 1970s television icons gave us heroes whose near-fatal injuries are overcome with 70s technobabble (and the sound-effect that wouldn’t die); they awake from their traumas with superhuman strength and senses. Next, we of course summon Robocop. In the Robocop films (including the unfairly maligned remake), Murphy had to die (more or less) before he became Robocop, his core humanity still somehow beating within layers of hydraulics, nanobots, carbon-fiber, whatever. Like Upgrade‘s Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), the bionic people and Murphy get to skip right past anything approximating the everyday heroism of those who live with and adapt to physical challenges. However, unlike Robocop and many of the better sci-fi works about enhanced humans, Upgrade has nothing to say about reconciling physical limitations with heroism.

And here’s Grey without his magic tech

No, Grey is only a hero when his nervous system is hijacked by a second-rate KITT that sends him into battle as an automaton. The film tries to play up the horror of the scenario to an extent–but after an hour of badass hyper-stylized murder no amount of moralizing about the consumption of humanity by technology is going to overcome how singularly cool it looks to be a quadriplegic under command by a chip. As a disabled person for whom no bullets are magic, this annoys me. But, I also enjoy the dim-witted wish fulfillment. Who wouldn’t choose this over life sat behind a sippy-straw with no functional limbs? The action is exciting and well-staged, and forgetting the fairly offensive premise it’s a fun bit of pulp trash. But of course, that’s the problem: quadriplegics can’t forget. Pure ableist fantasy like this is harder to lose yourself in when it is so utterly removed from what real people experience. The fact that he is impaired doesn’t matter, not really; when an action sequence kicks in he’s just another superhero. Everyday disabled people are boring, and a bummer.

Disability sucks and I have to think that we’d mostly prefer to lose it. But those of us who can’t, well, we’d prefer not to have our value contingent on our ability to get “better.” I recall abandoning the generally harmless television show Arrow during the season in which the team’s tech wiz and erstwhile love interest Felicity is injured and struggles–realistically and compellingly–to adjust to her new normal, only to miraculously recover and put it immediately behind her. It’s not that I demand utmost realism from my teen superhero melodramas, but I do appreciate a character whose strength is in learning to live with change, rather than resetting to easier times. This is old sitcom logic and audiences are sophisticated enough now that we should be done with it.

Upgrade writes itself into a corner. Its portrayal of disability is nonsense, but it gives itself enough credit to deploy the occasional joke. A bad guy quips “my mom taught me to never mess with disabled people” and in any other film I’d appreciate it. Here it’s empty because Grey isn’t disabled. He has a magic super-body that overrides anything approaching a limited life. I want entertainment to throw out friendly jokes like this, but it plays derisively when disability is purely there to prop up the plot, before it’s dismissed so some asses can be beaten.

Upgrade is uniquely frustrating. Science fiction is absolutely lousy with characters who have lost mobility or dexterity of some sort and have flourished with science fictional gee-gaw or magic, but who remain whole characters even without their tech. Professor X, Furiosa, Luke Skywalker, and yes even Murphy are all great examples. What I like about these characters is that their upgrades are either futuristic assistive devices (Luke’s hand, Furiosa’s arm) that are meant to restore everyday use, or that capitalize on extraordinary talents that don’t somehow override the character’s disability. Professor X is forever wheelchair bound; this does not disrupt his heroism in any way, and his psychic powers have nothing to do with it.

Disability in Sci-Fi 101

Luke Skywalker has a neat cybernetic hand and come on, it’s cool. I’ve never lost a limb but the parts of me that don’t work well? I am absolutely on the waiting list. Technology hasn’t really enhanced Luke; it’s restored some fraction of his original function. Likewise for Furiosa, Charlize Theron’s already legendarily badass heroine from Mad Max: Fury Road. She lost an arm, and has a relatively crude hydraulic prosthetic in its place. She can drive with it. She can grab things with it. It’s not fully functional, it’s not an upgrade, but it’s enough that she can survive the wasteland. She knows what to do with it, and what not.

Murph is still in there

Although Robocop, like Verhoeven’s other sci-fi films, is largely a film about its own silliness, there is a very challenging emotional truth to it: how do we persist when we are trapped in bodies we don’t recognize? This isn’t Upgrade, Murphy isn’t a magical fighting machine who is otherwise intact, mentally; he is a fighting machine whose being was carried over, in corrupted form, from an entirely different body. This is about as existentially terrifying as it gets. I can’t imagine a purer anguish than a gunmetal prison where your own skin used to be, where you can’t quite remember who you once were, where you feel profound loss but are unable to connect it to memory. Robocop is an exaggeration of the experiences of the injured (and the sick and the old and the disabled), a sort of cybernetic Born on the Fourth of July but with ridiculously entertaining gun battles. (Surprisingly, unnecessary and middling as it is, the remake from 2014 put a stronger point on Murphy’s horror at waking up to a body that isn’t his own.)

Wolverine, as portrayed by Hugh Jackman in Fox’s X-Men franchise and especially in the character’s swan song (presumably) Logan, is perhaps my favorite example of a character reckoning with his enhancements – not in terms of how they’ve improved his life, but rather how his heroism has come at the cost of his physical and emotional well-being. Far from improving his life, his strength, healing ability, and skeletal transplant have forced him into a life he hates but grudgingly makes the best of, and that eventually kills him. The superhero genre, at its best, explores this transaction; when we gain what ostensibly makes us better / stronger / faster, what do we lose in the final calculation?

I have heard that ultimately what I’m asking for is silly when it comes to sci-fi actioners. These films aren’t about us. They aren’t about our world. They aren’t about our bodies. Why ask them to ground themselves in our limitations? The answer is pretty obvious, and it’s a point nobody should have to repeat: if entertainment ignores the lived experiences of the people it portrays—yes, even in goofy spectacles—then it fails its first mission, which is to hold our own natures up before us so that we may see ourselves more clearly. If a disabled character is just a puppet for choreographers to push across the floor, if any recognizable humanity is eliminated, how is this relevant to me or anyone else?