Monthly Archives: July 2014

Silent Themes

King Lear begins with two fathers choosing to trust the wrong child. Lear asks his daughters to proclaim their love for him. He falls for his two older daughters’ obvious flattery and is offended by Cordelia’s honest response, which is essentially, “I love you about as much as daughters are supposed to love fathers.” He disinherits Cordelia and banishes her, which is the first sign that he is going insane. Then, in the subplot, Edmund, bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, tricks his father into turning on his legitimate son. Edgar, the good son, escapes only by disguising himself as a mad beggar. We have two families, two deceptions, two cases of someone loyal being cast out, and two examples of insanity. As the two plots collide and complications pile up, the story keeps returning to those elements; loyalty, lies, family, misplaced trust, and madness. Nobody states in unambiguous terms what lesson we are supposed to glean from the tragedy, yet the story feels like it has a point.

Watership Down has the same feel. It tells the story of several rabbits running away from their happy home, because one of them has had a vision of its’ imminent destruction. Rabbits as a species are in perpetual danger; from their perspective, nearly everything that moves is a potential predator. As the runaway rabbits seek their own haven, they encounter two other warrens who have found security through some kind of dark deal. One consents to be hunted selectively by a human, because that human keeps all other predators out. The other is ruled by what we would call a sadistic dictator. The protagonists reject both options, instead using their myths of El-ahrairah, the clever rabbit chief, as a model. With cooperation, innovation and a little trickery, they create their own warren, which is both safe and free. Is the book about how to be a great leader, or the relationship between our art, our culture and our quality of life, or an illustration of the idea that to trade freedom for security is to lose both? It’s all of the above, and none of the above. The book is clearly telling you something about fear, society, security and mythology, as the structure of the story hinges on all of those things, but how you put that into a lesson relevant to your own life is entirely up to you.

As I’ve written before, discussed themes make their themes obvious by having the characters debate them, while obscured themes make elements of the story ambiguous, which forces the reader to think about what the story might mean and choose their own theme. Neither type, however, can be well written unless they are built on a foundation of silent themes, while a silent theme can be effective without the window dressing of discussed or obscured themes. Silent themes are simply a well-written story’s habit of returning to a collection of emotions and ideas, particularly when a major character is introduced or an important development in the plot takes place.

The point of a story, after all, is not to sell you on an idea. If this was the point of stories, they would not be an art form, but a clever way of lecturing people. There would be no point in calling a story propaganda, because all stories would be propaganda. The primary role a theme plays is not to convince the audience but to connect them to the story. We don’t enjoy the story that goes, “I was hungry but I had no food, so I went to the story to buy bread, ham and lettuce, and then I made myself a sandwich.” It is technically a story. It has a beginning, middle and end, it has a conflict and a resolution and a character, but it is boring, because it is so insignificant. We care about stories that are about love or revenge or justice or exploration or one of those other deep, powerful ideas. Ideas, though immaterial, are fundamental to the experience of being human, and so they have the power to connect a story about Ancient Egyptian royalty to the mind of a sysadmin in Atlanta.

Not only do stories without well-constructed silent themes fail to interest us, they also confuse us, because their absence makes stories feel disorderly. The characters cease to feel like they belong in the same story with the rest of the cast, or with the setting, or the even the events. We can struggle to remember a sequence of events that are perfectly logical, but thematically unconnected, but when a series of events are thematically poignant, we can accept plot holes, or even fail to notice them.

The Amazing Spider-Man is an example of a film that lost a lot of its audience because it lacked a strong theme. I don’t mean to pick on that movie, because there are far worse stories out there, but in fact part of why I want to dissect it is because unlike many stories I could discuss, this one really almost had it. It had many good scenes and some great acting, but it still failed to grab widespread interest. Also, director Mark Webb made my job easier by stating his intended theme in an interview. Referring to Dr. Connor, he said, “He’s the literal embodiment of the theme of the movie, which is we all have a missing piece. He has no arm. Peter has no parents, and he fills that void with Spider-Man.”

Peter Parker loses family, Dr. Connors lost his arm, so Webb’s theme is “loss.” Now, that is a fundamental experience, but it’s also so general it lacks a certain poignancy. He might as well say the theme of his movie is that “something bad happened to a couple of my characters.” To make a thematically interesting film he needed more ideas, and if you squint at the movie very hard, you can see the outlines of the story they might have written. You could say that both characters try to go to absurd lengths to recover what they have lost, both claim initially that what they are doing is for the good of society in general but really they are only being self-serving, and that Dr. Connors fails because he doesn’t break out of being self-serving, while Peter transforms his grief into real heroism. That combines loss, resilience, grief and responsibility into a thematically powerful story, but it’s not the story they wrote.

First, Dr. Connors, for all his problems, doesn’t come across as self-serving. He does seem genuinely interested in saving the world, and while I have problems with his attitude, the tone of his early scenes suggests I wasn’t supposed to interpret him as a self-hating ableist, but as a real philanthropist. Next, he isn’t transformed by his pain into a monster; he’s transformed by magical comic book science juice. If he had been motivated to try it on himself for selfish reasons, that theme might have worked, but context makes his motivations seem entirely altruistic, and the emergence of the Lizard feels like dumb bad luck. Also, being a scientist who is paid to come up with cool scientific ways to cure diseases is not an “extreme length” in the same way that “dresses up like a spider and hunts criminals” is. One of those is something that normal people do, if we define normal to include people who are intelligent and well-educated and successful in getting a job in their field, and the other is pretty definitely not. The biggest problem with all of these differences is that they aren’t even opposite. If they contrasted each other, it would be almost as good as if they mirrored each other, but they way they’re portrayed Dr. Connors and Peter aren’t night and day.  They’re like carrot seeds and applesauce; just similar enough and just different enough that they truly have nothing to do with each other. On top of that, no other character experiences profound loss, with the exception of Aunt May, who loses Uncle Ben but is such a minor character she almost counts as part of the setting, so the whole idea of “everyone has a missing piece” never went from the director’s mind to the actual film.

So that’s one way to fail to have a good silent theme; pick up one idea once or twice and then drop it for the rest of the story. Stories can also have the opposite problem. They can lean so heavily on the same expression of the same idea that the story feels internally repetitive, as if the author is ripping off their own work while they are still writing it. The last several seasons of Supernatural have had this problem. Sam and Dean have had the same conversation about how the other is dealing with the stress and trauma of being a hunter so often that when the conversation starts you can finish it for them. Just because you need to constantly revisit a theme throughout a story, that doesn’t mean you should repeat yourself. Each return should look at a new facet of it, or represent the next step in a progression of thoughts, or combine it with another of the story’s themes, or somehow express it in a new way. As in most things, craftsmanship is in the balancing of these two extremes, and finding the spot that is right for your personal work of art.

One of the things that is both fun and frustrating about this exploration is that the more I think about this subject, the more thoughts I have. I don’t feel like I’m finishing this post so much as giving up on it, on the grounds that if I wrote down everything I am thinking I would have a post so massive absolutely nobody would read it. To anyone who has read this far, thank you, very much. Next month I’m going to get back to my Screwtape Letters series and try to, if not wrap it up, at least put a serious dent in what is left over.

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Discussed Themes vs Obscured Themes

Authors who are actively interested in raising questions and engaging their audience intellectually tend to go for discussed themes or obscured themes, because these are the ones that draw the reader’s eyes to the message and ideas. When they are poorly done, both can be incredibly pretentious and self-indulgent. Discussed themes can lecture while obscured themes can sneer down their noses and say, “none of you can understand me? Well, I guess you’re just not smart enough.” Both of these make me angry, because the aim of good art is not to elevate the artist, but elevate the audience, to entertain and enlighten. When done well, both discussed themes and obscured things are enlightening and often entertaining. It’s only their strengths that differ.

As I noted in the post on obscured themes, those work best when they hint at common issues; experiences that are universal or near to it, questions that have been asked since the beginning of thought, primal fears and deeply embedded archetypes. This works for two reasons. First, the more broad and applicable the hints are, the easier it will be for the audience to project a specific idea onto the story. Second, when a question has puzzled humanity for eons, it must not have an easy answer, and a story that is able to admit there aren’t easy answers might be the most satisfying of all. Discussed themes do a better job with more specific questions. They can still talk about universal ideas, but while obscured themes must sacrifice depth for breadth to be applicable, discussed themes can take a microscope to an issue without losing their audience.

Rashomon and 12 Angry Men both start with characters trying to determine whether a particular character is guilty of a crime or not. Rashomon then works outwards. What if we can’t always know the truth? Does that make us wonder whether we can ever know the truth? Can we even trust our own perspective? How do we cope when we realize life withholds the answers we seek? 12 Angry Men goes deep. It dissects a specific instance of potential injustice, and how it is handled by the laws of a particular time and place, shows us the faults and strengths, and ends on a pragmatic but reassuring note; we can’t be certain justice was carried out, but there is a sense that it was given it’s best shot. The fact that they take your thoughts opposite directions doesn’t change the fact that both make you think.

Which brings me to a misconception I’ve seen stated about discussed themes. I’ve heard it said that stories with answers (discussed themes, telling the audience the writer’s point of view) dictate your thoughts, and while stories with questions (obscured themes, letting dilemmas and ambiguities loose on the audience) let you think for yourself. I understand where that idea comes from, but from what I’m observed what happens is actually nearly the opposite.

As I noted in the example of Jurassic Park, I actually tend to disagree with the theme presented in that movie. I think it raises some good points to consider, but if they figure out a real way to start cloning dinosaurs, I’m probably going to be first in line for that petting zoo. I love science, I love progress, and while I think we should be realistic about our fallibility we shouldn’t let fear of screwing up prevent us from testing our limits. This isn’t just because I came to the movie disagreeing. In fact, when I first watched the movie I was a hardcore Christian and steeped in anti-scientific dogma. Jurassic Park showed me the wonders of science and the disadvantages of it at the same time, which as I said is what well written discussed themes do. The points the characters were making challenged me to examine my own thoughts more deeply. I was making up my own mind, taking the evidence presented by the movie into account. Now I disagree with their ultimate conclusion, but that doesn’t reduce my enjoyment of the film a bit.

Obscured themes, on the other hand, make use of what the individual audience member already believes. They are built of what the reader has heard or experienced or internalized before. A discussed theme can present the audience with a perspective or argument or bit of evidence they have not experienced before. Obscured themes don’t have that luxury. Their strengths are in bringing unconscious thoughts to the attention of the conscious mind, and helping you put together ideas you already had but hadn’t realized were connected. Their weakness is that, far more than discussed themes, they can reinforce confirmation bias.

It is invaluable to both explore your thoughts more deeply, and have your thoughts challenged by outside evidence. A person who does not understand their own thoughts is a person who cannot examine their own thoughts. I’d question whether a person who does not understand their thoughts is even truly thinking. On the other hand, thoughts are honed and perfected by being exposed by conflict and contradiction. Again, because a good discussed theme will expose the audience to both the writer’s point of view, and the points of view they disagree with, whether any individual audience member already agrees with the writer or not, they should still find their ideas challenged by a story with a discussed theme. They might come down on the same side, or the opposite side, but they should still be better thinkers for it.

Obscured Themes

In an earlier post, I started a series. In fact, most of my recent posts have started a series. I really need to stop doing that. Anyway, this series was on three different approaches to writing themes in stories. I explained the discussed theme, where characters explain the ideas the writer is trying to explore, and the events of the story either support or refute those ideas. I was originally going to go in the order of discussed theme, silent theme and obscured theme, but I realized that it will work much better to save silent themes for last, for reasons I’ll explain in that post.

While discussed themes turn subtextual theme into text, obscured themes bury them a layer deeper.  These are the weird stories where something odd is going on and not all the rules are explained. Key elements of the story are left to up to interpretation, which invites the reader or watcher or listener to go hunting for the point.

From Edward Lear's Nonsense Botany
From Edward Lear’s Nonsense Botany

There are two big disadvantages to the obscured theme. From a reader’s perspective, many people simply dislike obscured themes. At the end of a story, they want to know what happened. Then, from a writer’s perspective, making the events of a story unclear jeopardizes their ability to create a satisfying ending, even for those who enjoy ambiguity. How can you feel ecstatic over the hero’s survival if it’s left ambiguous whether they lived or died, or were ever alive? If the villain might have been a mere human or might have been an avatar of an immortal god, and they die at the end, we can’t be sure whether they will return or not, and our relief is uneasy. However, they also have two advantages over any other kind of story. First, they actively engage the reader, and present them with a puzzle that many find entertaining to solve. Second, they acknowledge the fact that in real life, answers are not always clear and events themselves are often up to interpretation. One of the most satisfying things a story can do is take an element of reality that we dislike, and turn it into something so artistically engaging we can’t help but look at it.

It is impossible to do anything about the first disadvantage. It’s a subjective judgment. Most writers of obscured themes have a strong creative urge to deal in ambiguities, and that is fine, but they should probably accept that for them success will look like a devoted  cult following, rather than a bestseller or blockbuster. One way around the second is to let the story’s theme itself focus on uncertainty. Rashomon has three people tell mutually incompatible stories about the death of a lord, and denies the audience an easy way to tell who is telling the truth. It raises the question of how to find peace and justice when the truth is impossible to uncover. Donnie Darko tells the story of a teenager at the center of an otherworldly mystery, but denies him the easy answers so many other stories do. He can’t eavesdrop on anyone who knows the whole story, he doesn’t have any wise mentor who always and only gives him good advice, just a lot of paradoxes, clues and a giant talking rabbit. The  works of Lovecraft used the primal fear of the large and unknown to create a whole new genre of horror. Welcome to Night Vale makes that level of cosmic horror everyday reality for a small town, and plays with questions of complacency, selective ignorance vs acceptance and how to feel safe in a world beyond your control. All of these stories are incredibly satisfying, because ambiguity is a part of everyday life that all of us have to deal with. We like answers, but we can’t always get them. Most of the time stories offer us an escape from that, but it’s nice that sometimes they give us a way to deal with that as well.

The other route is to tell a story that can be interpreted in one of several ways, and make sure that whichever one the readers pick, the story is satisfying. This is difficult, because it essentially doubles the workload of the author, but when it can be pulled off it is very interesting.

The Winter by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. It's either a nature god or a really, really weird tree
The Winter by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. It’s either a nature god or a really, really weird tree

Pan’s Labyrinth uses the simplest version. It has two storylines, one a very realistic story of Captain Vidal pursuing rebels in the mountains, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, the other a beautiful fairy tale surrounding his stepdaughter Ofelia, who discovers she is a long lost fairy princess. People who watch it seem to be split neatly in half between those who see a dark fantasy and those who see a non-magical drama. It all depends on whether they interpreted Ofelia’s story as literal or whether they decided we are only being shown the game of let’s pretend she is playing. Despite seeing two different stories, with different messages and in different genres, people on opposite sides can still agree that we hate Captain Vidal and empathize with Ofelia, and agree that the story is satisfying. At the same time, because they can adjust the story to fit the genre they find most effective, the story can be more personally moving than it would be if it was made absolutely clear that it is either a fairy tale or a work of realism.

A more complex example is MirrorMask (yes, all one word, with a capital in the middle), a small budget film scripted by Neil Gaiman. It’s a story of a girl, Helena whose mother becomes sick after an argument between the two of them. The night of her mother’s surgery she has a dream about a magical kingdom that has been falling into ruin after a princess, who looks just like Helena, stole their mirror mask and put their queen into a deep sleep. It could be seen almost entirely as a psychological film about Helena confronting her dark side and overcoming her bratty, teenage self, but there are also some elements that indicate the dream is more tied to the real world than that. It has the old “meet someone from the dream in real life” moment, and also a scene where Helena meets her real mother, who claims she is the one dreaming. So is it a shared dream where they are working out their issues together? Is it a magical dream, or are they suggesting that all dreams are, to some degree, shared? If Helena finds the mask, will that affect the success of the surgery?

One more example is The Fountain, which has three stories, all of which revolve around a man seeking immortality and a tree which can grant it. At the outset the stories are each fairly coherent, but how they fit together is not entirely clear. As the movie goes on the three intertwine in more and more convoluted ways. One story might be a fiction written by a character in another, but then again the story leaves open the possibility that reincarnation is real, so they both might be true, and the author is unconsciously remembering her past life. This one is interesting because it actually blends obscured and discussed themes. Characters talk about different views of death, with a particular contrast being placed between the view of death as the end and a tragedy, and the view of death as a key part of a death/rebirth cycle, and a painful but necessary part of a full life. The final scenes are hard to understand, but however you interpret them, they end with a sense of acceptance and renewal.

As indicated by The Fountain and Welcome to Night Vale, it is possible to blend obscured and discussed themes, but it’s not necessary. The point of an obscured theme is that our decision about what is going on is unconsciously shaped by our values, and we craft a theme for ourselves. In reviewing Pan’s Labyrinth, Confused Matthew, my favorite critic, decided the fairy tale is Ofelia’s game and the story was about how the stories we tell ourselves determine the lives we live and the people we become. I see it as a fantasy, and to me it’s about holding onto your values when the costs of doing so seem too high. The story is like an inkblot, or a tarot deck. We read into it what is personally meaningful to us.

I think they're really pretty seahorses.
I think they’re really pretty seahorses.

However, our ideas are still shaped by the elements of the story that are there. MirrorMask is clearly about a parent/child relationship. Pan’s Labyrinth has parents and children, but it doesn’t feel like it’s about them. Ofelia’s relationship with her mother does not have enough conflict and her relationship with her stepfather is clearly not familial. Elements like stories and tests of character are far more important to the narrative. The trick is to hit a balance between elements that are specific enough to be evocative, but general enough that nearly everyone can relate to them in one way or another. The Fountain, the example with the most confusing plot, is also the one that deals with the most universal issue; death. Sooner or later, everyone will be able to relate to a story about dying.

In other words, you can’t just string events together and call them thematically relevant but up for viewer interpretation. Everyone can find pictures in clouds, but some clouds are the blobby ones that everyone agrees are mashed potatoes and then forgets about. The fun ones are clearly a boat, until someone else points out they could be a crane or maybe even a giraffe. Stories with elements that are clearly defined are easier to project themes onto than stories where everything is up for grabs; the mind thrives on limitations.

Why None of the New Spider-Man Villains are Working

I’ve written twice so far about the problematic villains of the new Spider-Man franchise. I wrote about the disturbing side of Dr. Connors’ motivations and viewpoint, and my own alternate interpretation of Max Dillon’s whole character. So I suppose this is the conclusion to an impromptu trilogy on why these villains aren’t working.

There’s a pattern to the way the villains of this new series have been written. First, the character is given a medical condition. Dr. Connors was missing an arm, Max had some sort of mental problem, and Harry has retroviral hyperplasia. The disability provides the one and only motivation the character will have for the entire movie. Dr. Connors sought physical perfection, Max is lonely and obsessed with Spider-Man and Harry was looking for a cure. None of them come across as bad people when you first meet them, but the disabilities have laid the groundwork for their villainy. Then they get hit with Applied Phlebotinum and are transformed into monsters, both mentally and physically. Their initial, disability inspired motivation will still inform what they do, but they will never again be anything but scenery chewing villains.

I want to talk more about the writerly issues with this than the political issues, but please understand that’s not because I’m not bothered by the implications. One disabled villain might or might not have bothered me, depending on how well that character was written and whether there were any other disabled characters. Three in a row is a problem, especially when all of them are, one way or another, motivated towards evil by their disability. The reason I’m not talking about that is because many others have talked about the need to be cautious when portraying minorities, particularly when that minority is stigmatized and the character can potentially reinforce the stigma. I think it’s a worthwhile issue to talk about, and the only reason I’m not saying anything about that right now is because I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said before. But don’t mistake that for my thinking that the biggest problem here is that they weren’t artistically satisfying. It’s only that this is the problem that I have something at least somewhat new to say about.

From a writer’s perspective, giving a villain a disability is not in and of itself bad writing. Erik from Phantom of the Opera is a villain with a medical condition. He’s disfigured. Because he lives in the era of superstition and circus sideshows, and not the era of plastic surgery, he has been caged, beaten, put on display like an object, and finally hidden away from all society by the one person who took a moment to see the world from his point of view.  Everybody who likes the play loves Erik. He’s the one who brings the audience to their feet at curtain call, because he’s interesting. He terrifies the audience, but also evokes their sympathy. He’s a tragic, poetic figure. And frankly, I don’t think many people come away from Phantom of the Opera thinking, “damn, better stay away from those disabled people, because they are creepy.” They come away thinking about how horribly and unfairly Erik the person has been treated.

Compare Erik to any of the Spider-Man villains. The story takes to the time to let us get to know Erik. We see where he lives, we see flashbacks to his childhood, and we hear how people talk about him. We also know things about him that have nothing to do with his disability, like the fact that he loves theater and has excellent taste, and is highly intelligent, all of which play into his role in the story. He shows us anger, jealousy, sorrow, depression, hope, love, lust and even tenderness. I don’t know much about Dr. Connors as a person. I just know he is missing an arm and feels rather bummed about that. I’ve imagined a lot about who Max Dillon might be, but really as he’s portrayed in the movie he’s just a nutcase with a Spidey fetish and some skill with electronics. Harry Osborn gets more characterization, but ultimately it doesn’t come to much. His early bantering with Peter tells us a bit about his life, but nothing established there is really used later on. His vengeful attitude towards Spider-Man is not foreshadowed; he is not shown to be a vengeful character until he is suddenly required by the plot to be so. Furthermore, he becomes determined to discover a cure immediately for a disease that apparently took decades to kill his father, and I don’t recall seeing any indication that it’s likely to kill him any faster. It’s illogical and broke my suspension of disbelief.

Which brings me to a rather strange problem. Not only do we not learn much about any of these characters besides that they are disabled, but we don’t even know much about that. We see specific examples of how Erik’s disfigurement affects his life, and the mask he wears is a nice, iconic detail that fits in with the rest of his character. He’s inventive and artistic, so he found a way to make a mask that covers exactly what he wanted to hide. It always bothered me that someone as troubled by his lack of an arm as Dr. Connors, and with as much access to state of the art technology, he never bothered to get a prosthetic. Add it to the fact that we never see him use any other sort of assistive device, we never see him harassed for his condition, we never see the handy technique he developed for opening doors when he’s got an armful of paperwork, it looks like the writers didn’t think it was important to research or develop the one trait that defined their character.

This pattern continues for the other two villains. My personal headcanon aside, I have no idea what Max Dillon has. I don’t think you could make schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or any other diagnosis fit him without at least as much imagination and reinterpretation as my autism diagnosis did. It seems they just gave him stereotypical “crazy person” traits and called it a day. Instead of being put into his head, so we can understand what he is doing and why, we are pushed out it with a hand wave of “yeah, sure, whatever. He’s insane. What more could you possibly want to know?” With Harry, we finally get a name for his condition, and it’s real. I looked it up. His lethal condition only occurs in walleye pike. Also it’s not lethal. I suspect they strung together a bunch of medical sounding syllables and then nobody bothered to do a Google search.

The point is, these villains have barely even been written. Villains are not bit parts. The second most important character, after the protagonist, is not the love interest or best friend or wise old mentor, it’s the villain. Without the villain, there would be no obstacle and thus no story. A villain can even get away with being more engaging than the protagonist, and not infrequently they are. When the villains are poorly constructed, they drag the whole story along with them. The hero’s struggle won’t be as engaging if it’s against somebody the audience cares little about. The conflict becomes at worst unconvincing and at best unoriginal and boring.

The writers of the new Spider-Man series are not bad writers. Peter and Gwen are both excellent characters. Many of the scenes, subplots and side characters in both films were great. So why, why why why, did these writers say, “our villain has a disability; our work here is done”? Why did they not research what they were getting into, think about life from a disabled person’s point of view, or give some thought as to who these characters were as people, aside from any medical condition?

Why did they not write characters?

Why Max Dillon Worked… For Me

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had the textbook example of a mixed response. The music was unpopular, as was the way they blended the dark, realistic tone of Nolan’s Batman with the more cartoonish style of the Avengers franchise. There were numerous subplots that some people felt were too convoluted, and just like in the first movie, a lot of people disliked the villain. I personally liked the movie, though. The music didn’t bother me, I liked all the subplots and I felt the tone was just right; bittersweet with some funny moments. I even liked the villain, but then I’m partial to autistic characters.

Granted, they never said he was autistic, but he fits both of the diagnostic criteria, according to the current DSM, for autism. First, he exhibits the classic narrow focus of interests, with a passion for systemizing. His walls are covered with Spidey paraphernalia, while his knowledge of electronic systems is so deep that when his apartment has a blackout he can immediately identify which circuit has the problem. Second, his social skills are seriously impaired, in a way that is consistent with autism. Despite clearly desiring companionship, he shows a mind-blindness that stops him from interacting with people in a natural way. This is what really says autism to me. Autism is essentially a dyslexia for social skills. Autistic people need to work much harder than the rest of us to pick up on the rules of social behavior, not because they are shy or mean or narcissistic or careless, but simply because they’re wired a little differently.

There’s a scene early on that demonstrates this mind-blindness. He’s in an elevator at Oscorp and holds the door open for Gwen. They start chatting, and while he is nothing but friendly, as the scene goes on his oddness comes out. He starts out talking appropriately about his birthday, but ends up giving her an uncomfortable amount of information about his make-believe party, and ends up explaining that he would invite her, but the guest list is closed. He might be making up the excuse because he’s afraid she’ll discover he’s lying, but I like to think he’s also a little concerned that Gwen will feel left out. He’s cognizant of those issues, but missing the big, obvious fact that as someone who met him three seconds ago in an elevator won’t expect to be invited to his party, and would actually feel quite awkward if he did invite her. That sort of reasoning is autism in a nutshell. It was so familiar to me, so reminiscent of my kids, it made me smile.

I think many viewers misread him as being in some way psychotic. He’s certainly overestimating the extent of his relationship with Spidey, in a way that seems delusional. Before he becomes Electro, he calls in to a radio station and says, “he saved my life once and we sorta became best friends.” While he’s in his apartment on his birthday, he rambles on about how Spider-Man is totally coming to his birthday party and baked a cake for him. I wouldn’t be surprised if many people assumed he was hallucinating in that scene.

I interpret those scenes very differently. Max is at least in his mid forties, meaning he grew up in the seventies, when the identification of autism was far less common, particularly for verbal children. Odds are he was never diagnosed. To teachers and peers, coworkers and maybe even family, he has been seen as a creepy, weird guy, not a well-meaning guy with a disability that made it hard for him to pick up social skills. If someone had intervened and tried to teach him the skills he was missing, he might have friends today, but instead he has grown up completely isolated because he doesn’t know how to turn off that creepy vibe. As a result, Max doesn’t know how to correctly categorize different kinds of niceness. We see this in the elevator with Gwen; he doesn’t know the difference between “I like you enough to chat” and “I like you enough that my feelings will be hurt if you don’t invite me to my parties.” His social skills are low enough that he doesn’t know the difference between “friend” and “acquaintance.” So when a guy in red spandex saves his life, he assumes they are good friends, partly because he doesn’t have the experience to read a relationship accurately, and partly because he is so desperate for it to be true.

As for the one-sided dialog he has in his apartment, he’s not actually delusional there. He knows Spider-Man isn’t here and didn’t make a cake. He’s doing this thing that every lonely person does. It’s called “fantasizing.” To support this, I’d like to point out that there is no other scene where he talks or otherwise reacts to things that aren’t there. He misinterprets situations, yes, but again those misinterpretations tend to come down to misunderstanding another person’s intentions or state of mind, consistent with autism.

Once he gains his powers, he is frightening and legitimately dangerous, but up until the end, there’s a noteworthy lack of bad intentions to his actions. His first fight scene is caused by a massive misunderstanding. He never says a word about world domination or wealth and power or any of the other classic supervillain motivations. He’s just lonely and confused. When he is talking to Dr. Kafka at Ravencroft, he says he wants to turn out all the lights in the city, so people will know what it’s like to be him. Then, when Harry comes to him, the thing that convinces Max to help Harry is that Harry says “I need him.” I love the look on his face when he hears those words. He is so bright, so hopeful, still a little afraid and hesitant to trust but so beguiled by the idea that somebody values him that he can’t resist. Max feels discarded and unloved because he has been discarded and unloved, and he is hurting. Like everybody else, he has a breaking point, and when he hits it he lashes out.

Now, I’m being a little deliberately obtuse here. I’m pretending to argue that he’s a great, complex, understandable character, but what I really mean is that if you make the same assumptions I do, he’s at the very least interesting. I don’t believe for a moment that the writers intended for me to watch him and think “autism.” Even if they did, I’m not understanding his autism based on how he was portrayed, but based on the experiences and training I’ve had for my job. Oh, and then there’s this whole other can of worms, which is the point that for the second time their villain has been disabled, and if you count Harry’s medical condition we have three disabled villains and zero non-villainous disabled characters in two movies, which is troubling. Just because I watched the movie with a subjective interpretation that worked for me doesn’t mean they actually wrote this well. I’m actually writing this because I think in order to understand how massively they fumbled this character, you need to see Max the way I see him.

On other words, fair readers, this is the calm before the ranty, ranty storm. Stay tuned…