Disclaimer; I do not have a physical disability. What I wrote below was based on experience working with various disabled communities (ASL interpretation and special education), relationships with people who have disabilities (such as my father and ex-boyfriend) and reading the writings of people about their experiences with disability. Take with appropriate quantities of salt.
After my second viewing of The Amazing Spider-man, I decided its main problem was the weakness of its villain. This is not an uncommon opinion. Even those who liked it thought he needed work. However, there is no consensus on what is wrong with him. Theories range from superficial special effects problems to deep rooted character problems. He’s struck a wrong note with almost everyone who watched, but most people can’t explain exactly what that wrong note was. For my part, what stood out was the moment where Dr. Connors went from a disabled scientist who just wanted a cure to a lizard monster intent on turning everyone else into lizard monsters. It was, shall we say, less than coherent. It felt less like a tragic fall of a good man, and more like two characters from different stories superglued together, possibly by a four year old.
The most simple explanation is that the serum he took altered his mind and turned him evil. I believe some events in the sequel support this, although I’d have to watch it again to be sure. In any case, this disturbs me, because from a storytelling perspective it strips the character of all autonomy and reduces him to a diabolus ex machina, while from an activist’s perspective it seems to be equating mental illness with evil. The serum makes you crazy, therefore the serum makes you evil. I think the story also leaves room for a secondary interpretation; the serum doesn’t make you crazy or evil. It makes you impulsive, obsessive and potentially aggressive, but how that manifests depends on who you are as a person. I think it is more than fair to judge the story on that assumption; it’s plausible, it paints the story in a better light than either of the other options I’ve considered, and frankly if there’s a third conclusion I’m missing I think the writers should exposited it more clearly.
My assumption takes us back to the original problem. First Dr. Connors is nice and humanitarian, and then he is suddenly bent on inflicting every human in New York City with a terrifying transformation, just because he has arbitrarily decided we are better off with the body he likes. What on earth was there in his character to foreshadow this shift?
Well, quite a lot actually. The first words he speaks are “I am not a cripple, I’m a scientist.” To many people, that probably sounded like a powerful, confident statement, but if you look under the surface, it’s actually self-devaluing and fairly creepy, because it’s inaccurate. He is both. He is missing one arm, and he’s also a brilliant, successful scientist; clearly the two are not incompatible. I’ve never heard a famous, successful person with a disability talk about themselves that way. Can you imagine Marlee Matlin saying, “I’m not deaf, I’m an actress,” or Peter Dinklage or David Beckham talking like that about their conditions? You could argue that Dr. Connors doesn’t mean he’s not disabled, he’s only rejecting a label that stigmatizes his medical condition. I don’t buy it. Everything else he says suggests he has a mentality where a disability is not a medical condition that makes one or more aspects of life difficult, but a stain on a person’s value as a person. One of his catchphrases is “everyone is equal,” but he never says it in a way that implies he thinks that is already the case. It’s always in conjunction with dreaming about a world where every ailment is cured, “a world without weakness,” and the outcome of that better world is that “everyone is equal.” As if they aren’t already. As if Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman’s relative value to the world can be judged based on which of them uses a wheelchair. He never actually says disability, which is a frank but clinical and neutral word, and instead favors actively stigmatizing language like “crippled,” “weakness,” and “deformity.” By rejecting his disability so adamantly he is actually suggesting that his real feelings are the reverse. He feels that his disability takes something away from who he is as a scientist, and that he has to push away the one in order to get full credit for the other.
This is not an abstract problem, but a real life, dangerous perception that people with disabilities have to deal with all the time. They are constantly judged, not for what they can do but for what they can’t, not as a gestalt of their goals and fears and strengths and flaws and actions and thoughts and personality, but simply for the sum of their parts. People in wheelchairs are talked to like they are children, even if they are mentally average or above average. Family members try to avoid diagnosing or even discussing a condition because they let fear of the stigma of disability outweigh the need to cope with and overcome it. It is called ableism, and it compounds the difficulties of the lives of people with disabilities every day.
So Dr. Connors, as he is portrayed, comes across as a self-hating ableist. This stretches plausibility a bit, but it’s a potentially interesting characterization, and it lends some coherence to his actions. All along, he was someone who judges human beings and their worth based on their physical ability. Naturally, when exposed to a serum that made him feel physically superior to humanity, he decides the whole human race must partake of it, with no acknowledgement of the rights they have to make decisions about their own bodies. A dehumanizing view of people with disabilities lead to a dehumanizing view of all non-lizard people. However, I don’t think that’s the point we are supposed to get. I think this for two reasons. One is that this movie is not subtle about good guy/bad guy lighting or cuing the villains with scary chords. Dr. Connors is always given good guy music and good guy lighting, until he becomes the Lizard. The second is that nobody ever dissects or challenges his view of disability. They just nod sagely and compassionately. We aren’t supposed to think there’s something wrong with his attitude towards disability.
So we are back to the same old problem. He’s portrayed as a nice guy who suddenly turns evil for no reason, and there’s an added problem of his holding deeply prejudiced views that are never challenged in-story. This leads into another strange thing I noticed about his portrayal. Pre-transformation, two things are missing; scenes where he doesn’t talk about his disability, and scenes where his disability is shown to impact his life in any negative way. The first is a problem because we never learn about anything beyond “disabled scientist”, the second is a problem because we never learn anything about what his disability is like for him. We can safely assume that it impacts his life, but we never understand how his life with his disability is uniquely his. I assure you, we can’t pretend to begin to know what his life is like just from knowing what his condition is. My Dad’s experience with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis was not like that of the teacher I worked with or my classmate in ASL class. My ex-boyfriend’s deafness was not like my favorite teacher’s Deafness. Tommie’s autism is fairly classic autism, and it’s still not like the autism of any other kid I have worked with. So how am I supposed to understand why Dr. Connors is so preoccupied with his disability if I never see who accepts him and who rejects him, how he copes and in which areas of his life he fails to cope?
In short, Dr. Connors can’t escape being judged as clumsily written, no matter how close you look for inner depth and motivations, and close examination not only fails to turn him into a coherent character, but reveals some indications that his writers probably are more than a little ableist themselves. If they can write him with such a dehumanizing mentality without ever suggesting he’s wrong, maybe it’s because they actually think he’s right. If they make him behave as if the disability is the only important aspect of his life, and then tell us nothing else about that life, it suggests that they tend to assume the only important thing about a disabled person’s life is that they are disabled. What’s interesting to me is that this characterization didn’t just strike a wrong note with me, the person who has received a pretty good education of what disability is and what ableism looks like. In the many reviews I’ve read, nobody liked him. Some hated him, some just thought he was bland, but to everyone he felt off. Ableist mentalities bred a terrible character, and anybody could recognize it.
There are many people trying to pressure Hollywood to do a better job representing women and minorities, to counter stereotypes and increase public understanding and empathy and all that. The main tool used to convince them is the stick. The activists say, “if you write in an ableist, sexist, racist, classist or otherwise prejudiced way, we won’t like you very much. We will think angry thoughts and write stern letters and maybe not even go see your movie.” The whole issue is treated as a tug of war between the pressure to remain politically correct and the desire to write without that pressure. What I think a lot of people on both sides of the tug of war don’t realize is that there’s a carrot here, as well as a stick. Well written characters are entertaining. They do a great job selling a movie. Who is better written, Dr. Connors or Professor X.? Who brings people to the theaters? Who do you think activists like more? There’s a reason the answer to all three is Professor X, and that is that he is a human being, with hopes and flaws and strengths and struggles and a personality. Social justice, at its best, is ultimately about seeing people as people; not as members of homogenous groups or stereotypes or as if one trait can define their whole life, but as people. Good writing is no different.