Tag Archives: autism

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?

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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…

Just a Little Water

I’m currently working on two posts that are proving harder to write than I anticipated. It’s one of those cases where the process of writing down my thoughts is causing me to dig deeper into them, which is good, but it’s also delaying their posting quite a bit. In the meantime, there’s a story from work that I’m feeling the urge to share.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I work in a special ed preschool. We are currently in the “do assessments then play because who cares about work its summer bitches!” stage of the year, and in that spirit last Friday was water day. We set up a sprinkler on the playground and filled several plastic tubs with water and bath toys. The next hour was all happy screams and soaking wet chaos.

After a few minutes, we noticed one kid was missing. Tommie (not his real name) was hiding behind the slides. In the past he has had trouble distinguishing between the screams that mean “This is funny and exciting” and the ones that mean “we are scared,” so perhaps he had concluded this water day thing was some unholy torture. Or perhaps he simply thought water belonged in bathtubs and water bottles and getting splashed with it on the playground was incorrect.

Our first attempt to convince him that water was a friend was to invite him onto the swings, which were partially in the path of the sprinkler. During regular playground time it’s one of his favorite activities, and we thought the association might make it fun. The same trick had worked with another kid last year. This time, however, he sat on it for a minute before saying, “Tommie get off? Tommie get off?”

We let him off, and he returned to the refuge of the slides. After giving him a break, one teacher took his hand and gently lead him to the other side of the sprinkler. It was not the sort that went all the way back and forth, but went about halfway up and then down again. She had him on the side where the spray wouldn’t come down on him. She held his hand out so he could feel the water on his fingertips, and see that it wasn’t going to hurt him. At first it seemed to be working, but then he started shaking and she let him go.

I was feeling pretty bad for him at this point, and I thought the least I could do was make him feel good about having tried the water twice. It’s a little hard to know how much language he understands, but I went up to him and did my best. I told him he did a good job trying the water, and I was proud of him. I gave him a big grin and a thumbs up, which he copied. I had that sense of practically seeing the wheels turn in his head, as he tried to piece everything that was going on into a coherent picture. After I felt I had either made my point, or come as close to it as I could, I gave him some space.

A few minutes later, he was slowly creeping up on the sprinkler. He studied the spray, and stuck his fingers back in the jets with the air of a little scientist. I wandered up to him and casually stuck my own fingers in. He watched me, obviously seeing that the water wasn’t hurting me but still on the fence about the whole endeavor. I remembered how much he likes having his feet painted for footprint art, so I stuck my feet over the jets and said, “tickle tickle,” which is what we always say when we are painting.

He immediately copied me, and started grinning.

From then on, he was practically glued to the sprinkler, first sticking his fingers and toes in, and eventually running through it like the rest of his friends were. By the time we had to pack up, he was sitting in one of the tubs and very sad about having to come out. As I was pouring the water out of the tub, I decided he should be rewarded for his bravery. I called him over, and poured it out in front of him; a miniature waterfall for him to play with. Tommie stuck his hands in and splashed the last of the water all over his face, laughing hysterically.

My job is awesome.

 

Nurses and Teachers; a Purely Frivolous Post

I work as a special education teachers aide. Right now I am working with a preschool autism class, and I love it, although it has its tough moments. One of the disadvantages is that, when a substitute is needed, there is a short supply of people who both like working in that environment and who we like having around, so often we are stuck with whoever happens to volunteer for the job.

Today we were in that situation, and for the most part, we got lucky. The substitute was friendly, good with young kids and pretty good at jumping in or staying out of the way as needed. She had only one issue; her previous experience had been as a nurse.

I am pretty familiar with the quirks of both fields. I work in one. My mother works in the other. They are both entirely admirable occupations, but being in one or the other tends to breed very different habits, particularly when it comes to cleanliness and germs. A nurse, for example, when going to eat in a restaurant, will go wash their hands. They will then dry their hands with a paper towel, take the towel over to the restroom door, use the handle to open the door, wedge their butt in between the door and the frame, and then toss the towel in the trash can at the last minute. A teacher will say, “fuck it, I’ve already been sneezed on six times today. What more can they do to me?”

As a result, we got a little extra entertainment today, watching her jump up and run for a baby wipe every time somebody did a little thing like eat their boogers. I don’t think she will need to go to the gym today.