The Amazing Spider-Man 2, while entertaining on the surface, is problematic. Naturally, it fails the Bechdel Test (to pass, a movie ONLY needs to have at least two women with names, who talk to each other, about something other than a man). Like the recent Superman movie and others, it hits too close to home with its New York/Time Square setting, buildings collapsing, and plane crashes or near crashes. Additionally, cars being flipped over, secret trains, and other special effects are used that have become very clichéd.
Very problematic is the film’s use of a character who is racialized as Black and genderized as Male: Max Dillon. (There are at least a few other Black characters–police officers–but these characters have no name and no significant role.) Max is very bright. He invents the power grid that runs the city but doesn’t receive any credit for it and is ridiculed by his colleagues. Max gets in a near-death experience but is saved by Spider-Man. Max says he doesn’t have any friends and is taken away with the promise that Spider-Man needs him. Max is also pained as a “clueless” person. So this very smart Black Man is presented as not being very bright –and not in a “no common sense” manner. As a result of further mistreatment and full abandonment by his colleagues and stubbornness, he is electrocuted, and consequently, Max transforms into Electro– an evil, scary, mysterious creature set on destroying Spider-Man and potentially everything else. Max/Electro is fairly quickly captured and kept to be studied by scientist until he escapes and is quickly defeated by Spider-Man.
This filmic representation confirms and perpetuates the all-too-deep stereotype in society that Black Men are dangerous and criminals. Max/Electro, in a recreation of enslavement and a direct parallel to what Michelle Alexander has named the “New Jim Crow,” is imprisoned and has his agency and autonomy taken away from him through no fault of his own.
The potentially interesting layer is that Max/Electro comments that no one else knows what it feels like to be abandoned, to be powerless, to be all alone, and to not have any friends. Regardless, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 cannot be read as positive or as giving legitimate critique to society’s mistreatment of Black Men en masse because it represents Black Men as being alien-like, animal-like, and unknown/unknowable–physically and psychologically, literally and figuratively. Max/Electro is too smart and too successful and thus looses his full identity and faces a painful death at the hands of White enslavers. Max/Electro’s comment that he wants “you” to know what it feels like to experience absolute powerlessness only brings him more suffering and powerlessness.
The film also has a very strong anti-intellectual layer. Science—like Black Men—is presented as evil, dangerous, and scary. Science is part of what enslaves Max/Electro. Science is what resulted in Max/Electro’s success, transformation, and confinement. The film suggests that science is best left alone – ignored even. This representation is very important in our time due to all of the hope and fear associated with medicine, space exploration, and global warming, for example. Science, which in reality holds so many answers and promises, is what causes all of the problems.
Racialized as White and genderized as Female, Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s on-again off-again girlfriend, is the high school valedictorian – but gives a very poor, clichéd speech. While like Max/Electro she is smart and very good at science, her intelligence is ultimately what brings about her death. Gwen is NOT evil, dangerous, or scary – but constantly needs a man and needs to listen to him to keep her focused and alive. After taking an oral exam, Gwen wins a scholarship to Oxford, but before she leaves, she insist on helping Spider-Man and dies as a result – dies because he could not save her in time and dies because she didn’t listen to him – dies because she is trying to go against female stereotypes. In a very matter-of-fact manner, Gwen tells Spider-Man that she is going to help, that the choice is fully hers, that only she knows how to help, and that she knows how to operate the master controls. The “help” directors assign Gwen consist of getting a key and pushing a button that says “start.” Shortly after this, Gwen dies when Spider-Man is unable to save her one last time because science almost defeated him, too.
So both the Black Man and the White Woman are smart, good at science, assert their autonomy and desire for more autonomy, and both die at Spider-Man’s hands. Likewise, society has perpetually sought to deliberately limit the autonomy and power of Black Men and White Women – despite our national ideals to give every one freedom, equality, and liberty. Black Men, White Women, and science are simply too dangerous to have around, according to this film and far, far too often, according to society, too.
The White Man (Spider-Man), on the other hand, is bad at science and lives.
These criticisms aside for a second, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will also certainly not be that remembered or celebrated in years to come the way Mildred Pierce (1945), Imitation of Life (1959), or Forrest Gump (1994), for example, are. Films—rather art—should, in my opinion, always strive to be the best it can be. Films should want to be artistically, historically, and culturally significant and be deemed for preservation by the Library of Congress.
[Added May 10, 14: And to those who say, “It’s just a movie!!”….And so too was The Birth of a Nation!…historical perspective is vital, seeing behind, beneath, above, and beyond the historical unconsciousness is absolutely essential.]
See also (on this blog):
- Katy Perry and Neo-Blackface
- 19 Simple Questions for Judging a Movie
- 12 Years a Slave – A landmark in United States Cultural History
- History as Fiction, Fiction as History, and Comments about “The Butler” (2013)
- Women, Societal Expectations of Beauty, and “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)
- Don’t Listen to the Today Show; Women Do Not Need Surgery for “Bitchy Resting Face”
- Brad Pitt, Not So Hidden Racism and Sexism, and “World War Z” (2013)
- Historical Perspectives, Cultural Readings, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)
For a similar analysis I found on May 8, 2014, of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 see: “Invisible Men and Women Who Take Risks: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Perpetuates the Narrative Status Quo“