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…