Amazing Spider-Man 2's Mistreatment of Electro
Posted by James Hunt at 10:54 on 07 May 2014
I am a nerd on the Internet, and I had a problem with Amazing Spider-Man 2. It's fair to say I'm probably not the first. But unlike most, I'm not going to complain about the fact that they changed Felicia Hardy's hair colour, or that they made Harry into the Goblin before Norman, or that Gwen Stacy died in the wrong way. My problem is a less superficial one, and it's with the film's primary antagonist, Max "Electro" Dillon.
In the comics, Max Dillon is an electrical engineer who becomes a crook when he gets struck by lightning and is imbued with electrical powers. In the film, he's a nerdy genius who receives his powers when he falls into a vat of electric eels with some kind of genetic enhancement. The name and abilities are similar enough, but the two versions are wildly different on just about every other level. While the comicbook Dillon is little more than a powered-up thug, the movie Dillon is less obviously a villain. This is the root of my problem: the villain isn't a villain, even though he's treated like one.
From the moment Foxx's version of Dillon is introduced, it's clear that he has problems interacting with people. It's not fully explained what the reasons for this are, but he displays a variety of abnormal (though not pathological) interactions throughout the film's first act. He struggles to converse normally with people. He misunderstands social cues. He doesn't know how to behave in unfamiliar situations. He's also a little obsessive, such that when Spider-Man saves his life early in the film, he develops a very literal hero complex. When he starts collecting pictures of Spider-Man and telling people that they're friends, ot's unsettling, and it's hard not to draw stalker-like comparisons, but Spider-Man is never actively threatened by this behaviour, or even aware of it. The only person being harmed by it is Dillon.
To add to these difficulties, Dillon doesn't get much sympathy or kindness from those around him. From the moment of his introduction, he's frequently painted as a man on the bottom rung of society. His genius is exploited by his employers who take advantage of his poor social skills to rip off his invention. His co-workers belittle and mock him, both behind his back and directly to his face. When he gets his powers and they flare up in Times Square, he's fired upon by police officers who mistake his distress and confusion for aggression. And as a final humiliation, he's brought low by the superhero he thought was his friend. At every turn, we can feel only pity for Dillon and his circumstances.
As if that wasn't bad enough, once caught Dillon is sent to the Ravencroft Institute. In the comics and this film, Ravencroft is essentially Marvel's version of Arkham Asylum. It's depicted here as a twisted, brutal institution run by the cruel and the amoral. They test Dillon. They probe him. They torture him. He's trussed up and experimented on by the crazed Dr. Kafka, a cartoonish mad scientist with a thick German accent (make of that allusion what you will). When Dillon does finally escape, it's not because he's rescued by anyone with his interests at heart - it's because Harry Osborn wants to use him as a pawn in his revenge fantasy. "I need you," he tells Dillon. And Dillon, a man used to being left on the fringes of society, is so happy to be needed that he does exactly what Harry wants.
So it is that - confused, vulnerable and emotionally manipulated - Dillon comes into conflict with Spider-Man a second time. Goaded by Osborn, Dillon draws Spider-Man to the power facility he designed for Oscorp, shutting down power to the city. Until this point, Dillon has almost exclusively acted in self-defence. When he shuts down the power grid, it's not to harm anyone - it's to draw out Spider-Man. The sequence contains a clumsy insert where Dillon's actions shut down air traffic control and threaten to cause a plane crash, but it's so obviously added after the fact - none of the main characters in the film even acknowledge it - that it's hardly worth blaming Dillon for it.
In the comics, a typical fight with Electro would end with Spider-Man using his scientific know-how to neutralise, incapacitate or otherwise contain Electro. In the film, there's a version of this: Spidey's plan is to overload Electro with so much power that he explodes, like a battery pushed beyond his capacity. With Gwen's help, he manages exactly this. Electro is - with the usual caveat that surrounds a comicbook death - killed.
And that's where I have a problem.
As a hero, Spider-Man's job is to defend the defenceless and bring the guilty to justice. Even if you accept that Spider-Man might kill a villain under the right circumstances (and I don't, really), Electro was not the villain of this piece. He was the victim. Society rejected him, the system failed him, the people he thought were his friends betrayed him. And what does he get for his trouble? He gets exploded, is what. In this fight, it wasn't the city that needed saving, it was Max Dillon. As it is, the scriptwriters seem to have crafted their narrative on the basis that "Electro is evil and must be stopped", which is true of the comic version, but, somehow, not of the film version.
Now, I appreciate that not every story is a neat, self-resolving bunch of threads. I get that there can be shades of grey. I fully understand that there's a popular modern narrative where the ends justify the means, and torturing or murdering someone is fine as long as you're torturing or murdering the right person (which you invariably are). But as someone who takes Spider-Man and his ideals very seriously, it seems like a huge failure for the character that he overlooked Dillon's plight entirely. Rather than saving Electro, he punished him for being a troubled, manipulated individual who just needed the right person to reach out to him. Yes, Electro did bad things, but as depicted he lacks the emotional capacity and social intelligence to understand this. He needed help from someone capable of looking past the surface. He needed a hero. If only there had been one around.
The subtext of the story is yet more insidious: Beware the outsiders, the nonconformists and the mentally ill, because these people are dangerous and need to be stopped. Not a positive message by any assessment. It's worth noting that Raimi's trilogy dealt, far more successfully, with similar themes. Norman Osborn drove himself criminally insane through his own hubris, but Spider-Man didn't kill him for that, nor did he try to. Otto Octavius was driven to crime by his tentacles' unchecked AI, but sacrificed himself to undo his actions. Even in Spider-Man 3, Eddie Brock's death was a result of his own inability to let go of his obsessions. In all three films, only the Sandman - who received powers by accident and made poor choices with them - even vaguely resembles Electro. And Spider-Man let him go, seeing nothing heroic about putting a man in prison for trying to save his daughter.
Indeed, Electro's arc in ASM2 is the absolute opposite of what a Spider-Man story should be. Spider-Man doesn't attack the bullied, because he IS the bullied. As a character, he's supposed to be proof that the outcast, the ostracised and the victimised can be looked up to, and that it's never too late to become a hero. Throughout the film, I waited and waited for the moment when Spider-Man would save Electro. Would teach him the important lesson that he once learned. And it never came. When you consider that the character has a mantra about tempering power with responsibility, it's hard not to think that Webb should've spent his time showing us a little less of the former, and a lot more of the latter.