Joss Whedon, accomplished writer of television, films, comics, and online musicals, has a lot to say about issues of identity. The good news is that he offers a genuinely unique perspective, and openly addresses identity politics ( particularly gender and sexuality ) in pop cultural spaces where others blissfully ignore them. The bad news is that his messages, as expressed by his ensemble casts of sci-fi anti-heroes, don't always succeed. Then again, this is another product of Whedon's constant experimenting; he'll follow Buffy Season Five with Buffy Season Six.
When Joss Whedon took on writing the X-Men with his artistic collaborator John Cassaday, it seemed as though he would be exploring identity issues thoroughly-- given how Marvel mutants have been used as a metaphor for any group to ever experience systemic oppression, this would give him ready-made tools to tell those sorts of stories. As it turned out, he and Cassaday preferred to tell their own version of the " classic " X-Men formula, which tends to put them on various sci-fi " vacation " adventures instead of dealing with their race's problems. But there was one disability-themed issue that was brought up by the text-- and then tossed aside in the final act, not to be picked up by his successors.
The question Whedon raised was; why can't Cyclops control his eye beams? Was it because of head trauma, or was it really because of a psychological block from childhood?
As anyone who has read/watched an X-Men story for a five minute interval knows, Scott " Cyclops " Summers' life has been one big conga line of tragedy and despair. Not only did he grow up in an orphanage, after his parents " died "* in a plane crash and his brother was adopted instead of him, but Scott's mutant powers manifested as force blasts that poured out of his eyes, unable to be contained except by his eyelids or his " ruby quartz "** eyewear. At times it has been suggested that Scott's mutant power would naturally have been something he could control, were it not for the head injury he sustained in that fateful plane crash. So, aside from the occasional plot deus ex machina temporarily healing his skull, Scott remains unable to control his optic blasts, and lives in a state of constant self-control and emotional repression.
What Whedon did was have his morally ambiguous new girlfriend/former enemy Emma Frost give Scott a psychic " therapy session ", where Scott was taken on a tour through his many insecurities and traumas, and was confronted with the truth about his lack of power control-- at some point in his childhood, Scott subconsciously decided to make his optic blasts uncontrollable, so he would be forced to stay constantly vigilant. At that point, Cyclops decides to make another choice, and switches his power to " Off "-- for most of the second half of Whedon's story, he's basically a regular human in an X-Men jacket, his eyes even returning to their natural brown instead of a red glow.
There are two ways to view this story; one, that Whedon had Scott really deconstruct why his abilities are such a convenient curse, and another, that Whedon is equating real physical brain damage with a psychological problem you can just " snap out of ". The latter would be a problem if it were a real person's medical history being misrepresented, instead of a fictional superhero with a science-defying power*** who's been around in 47 years of stories that often contradict each other and keep him from aging past 29. As it stands, I can accept that Scott's lack of control is due to deep-seated PTSD instead of brain injury, not only because I don't want to bother with the rigors of making it fit or not within continuity, but because it's " all in your head " doesn't make it any less real or painful. However, the deconstruction would only work if it was part of an ongoing story where Cyclops further learns about how to master his powers and his emotions alike.
Since Whedon was only writing the X-Men for two years' worth of stories****, he did not take Scott much further on the journey. No, what Whedon did-- which is the really troubling part-- is show that ultimately Scott could control his optic blasts without completely shutting them off, but all this amounts to is a surprise attack against an unsuspecting bad guy. As he explains to Emma later, it is possible for him to control his power, but it takes a tremendous amount of willpower, and too taxing despite the " clarity " he feels.
So what we have is not that Scott is unable to control his blasts because of physical disability or mental illness; the problem is that he can control his power, but it's just very hard and not worth the strain. Are we supposed to infer that Scott is now content having force beams that can smash a tank constantly pouring out of his eyes, held back only by gaudy red eyewear? Is it that he's too weak and/or lazy to want total control, despite his entire life being one desperate attempt to hold onto what little order he can find? Or is the message that Scott has accepted that there's an aspect to him that he can't control, and has found piece with it?
Whatever Whedon was trying to say with this story, it doesn't matter-- it's never come up again, and Scott's still forced to wear his mask 24/7. And since Whedon didn't really go deep enough into the issue to allow for any well-founded interpretation, it's just another interesting failure for the man's catalog*****, the exploration of trauma and recovery reduced to another ill-conceived sci-fi sub-plot.
* ( As any X-Fan knows, they didn't really die, but I try to keep the backstory minimal in these essays. With the X-Men, this is a Herculean endeavor. )
** ( Why ruby quartz? Co-creator Stan Lee thought it sounded cool. Things like this make the literary reader of pop culture increasingly self-conscious about their analysis. )
*** ( According to one of the Marvel handbooks, he doesn't have eyes so much as portals to another dimension that unleash energy, with a psychic field allowing him the experience of sight, or some such. I don't think he'd have a normal human brain structure to begin with if this is the case. )
**** ( Due to delays, it took twice that long. I'm pointing it out here before it's inevitably derided by someone else. )
***** ( Which also includes Willow going from curious about sexuality to a stereotypical self-proclaimed Wicca Lesbian, Spike struggling to prove that he can be good without a soul only to get one himself and void the discussion, and pretty much every episode of Dollhouse on a conceptual level. )