What is The Dark Heart Therapy?

by Oliver Williams
The Dark Heart Therapy

The Dark Heart Therapy is a short movie written, produced and directed by Oliver Williams, a professional therapist who hopes to help men and boys feel easier about accessing counselling by challenging gender stereotypes in superhero movies. The Dark Heart Therapy is executive produced and distributed nationwide via schools by XenZone, the UK’s largest provider of digital counselling for young people (Kooth)

The answer starts with men, mental health and superheroes… but the story begins back in 2016. In an interview for entry to a counsellor training course I was asked:

’Why do you want to be a therapist?’

My reply surprised the so-called tutors, who I later judged to be charlatans threatened by my honesty:

‘Because civilisation is a pantomime and therapy starts with truth.’

From before I became a therapist I wanted my practice to have a social dimension; articles, books and most important of all, films. Because when almost 5000 men a year die by suicide one-to-one therapy is not enough; there has to be a cultural response.

I wrote The Dark Heart Therapy that same year. There would be two failed attempts to produce it before I finally pulled it off in 2018; at least 10,000 British men will have ended their lives in that time.

The wider context…

As of 2019, The Dark Heart Therapy is now complete and freely available; one independently produced short film after ten years of Tory austerity and the NHS’ so-called Improved Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) has improved nothing for men and boys.

Our suicide rate should silence any argument to the contrary but if it doesn’t, stop talking with that person immediately and walk away; their denial and distortion needn’t be your trauma.

And throughout the same decade of neoliberal assault, the underlying economic values of profit over people have seeped into our culture like corrosive gas…

The bottom line of billionaires drives our news feeds… it comes wrapped in single-use plastic in our supermarkets and as merchandise on the bottom shelves to attract even the eyes of toddlers; toys of ultra-violent superhero cartoons… and in our mass-market entertainment; once called cinema now little more than content to drive wider profit margins via said merchandise… the expansion of the Marvel universe throws one of many veils across our real-world leaving me to marvel only at its open cultural bankruptcy and rapacious, disgusting greed.

Concerning emotional wellbeing (and yes storytelling once played a part in that) Marvel’s principal offender is its reliance on gender stereotyping. The largest marketing budget for the man-up message in civilisation’s history has been directed primarily at little boys…

The Dark Heart Therapy

Actors Elliot Barnes-Worrell (left) and Peter Bankole (right) take direction from The Dark Heart Therapy’s creator, Oliver Williams (centre).

It is 2019 and we are allowing faceless corporations to influence our boys on might-makes-right philosophy; movies, video games, cartoons, toys, bedspreads, school lunch boxes, pencils…

If this were not enough, the crescendo of the so-called ‘Infinity Saga’ sinks so low as to serve up mental health problems and emotional distress as comedy.

In an Endgame which took forever to end, we find that Thor has turned recluse after suffering defeat to Thanos, a villain who kills half of all life in the universe. “We lost…” sulkily state numerous Marvel characters upon acknowledging that half of all human children have been wiped out.

No wonder then, that even the son of a Nordic God has developed an alcohol problem. The mighty Thor now drinks to soothe his depression and has consequently gained weight, as well as hygiene issues… apparently this comedy…

Would it pass without comment if Wonder Woman were being fat-shamed on cinema screens?

Of course not, but not because DC take equality seriously. Don’t be mislead into thinking that their ‘creative’ universe is any better… because it is far, far worse.

In Suicide Squad (yup, it’s actually called that) serious mental health disorders and extreme emotional distress are routinely fetishised; via the Harley Quinn even Stockholm syndrome is sexy and as for Joker… Please see Ryan Gilbey’s stinging review in The New Statesman.

Enough has been said about this trite by serious people already and I could only add that you please just for crying out loud watch Taxi Driver (as well as other real cinema) before you allow anyone, anywhere to tell you there is any serious comparison.

It’s no wonder Martin Scorsese, the legendary director of Taxi Driver and most recently The Irishman, finally broke the polite silence:

‘Honestly, the closest I can think of them [superhero movies], as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.’

Enter The Dark Heart Therapy. I wrote, produced and directed this short to address the gender stereotyping in superhero franchises and thus, help men and boys feel easier about accessing therapy… by way of an exchange between two male characters, we learn that real courage is found in vulnerability.

In therapy, we call it relational depth and I’d be happy to teach the writers of Batman about it. Perhaps I’m already trying to.

The Dark Heart Therapy

Actor Elliot Barnes-Worrell (left) reviews an impressive performance with The Dark Heart Therapy’s writer-director Oliver Williams (right).

In The Dark Heart Therapy, a billionaire superhero finds himself detained in a graphic-novel style lunatic asylum, or is it the cave of his innermost fears?

Why did you become a superhero?

The question asked by the patient’s therapist demands an answer deeper than backstory.

Not what happened to you to make you a superhero… but why did you make the choice to become one… why be invulnerable and super? Why so serious?

The question pertains to an introspective depth surely absent from all superhero movies, but surely not the minds of young viewers, who are to my mind patronised by a genre that fails utterly to reach its potential.

Because how can we see ourselves as fully human when we’re consistently pummelled with the implicit and explicit lesson that the ultimate man is a man of steel, a billionaire vigilante or even the son of a God?

Gender stereotyping is a kind of madness; a toxic and manic pantomime where compassion, kindness and love are threatening to those who see themselves as ones who shouldn’t need it.

The way out and incidentally to true and productive strength is through honesty; a very human story which can only be found in listening, empathy and acceptance… not superhero escapism…

Why do we watch superhero movies? Really…

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