Let’s put discussions about spider venom, curative DNA, and other plot implausibilities aside. The credibility surrounding the film The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is found in the psychology of the film.
1. Everyday Heroism is Celebrated
Unlike many superhero movies that primarily focus and celebrate the title hero’s ability–his compassion (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), his perseverance (The Dark Knight Rises), his physical magnificence (Man of Steel)–The Amazing Spider-Man 2 modestly draws attention to everyday heroes. The way that the film highlights bravery and mental strength is effortless; Peter Parker/Spider-Man is our conduit to witnessing wonderful examples of heroism in people whom we can relate to. We see believable efficacy and action from a New York Police Officer. We cheer on Aunt May who, in her new role as a nursing trainee, deals with medical crises at the general hospital. We hold our breath as a young child selflessly stands headstrong in the face of a villain. And this is realistic. According to the American Psychological Association, research shows that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. The film lives up to its self-proclaimed philosophy: Peter Parker believes that his role as Spider-Man is to instill hope in everyone, and we see multiple ways that this is exemplified in these brave, purposeful characters.
2. Marginalization has Profound Psychological Effects
When Jamie Foxx’s character, Max Dillon, transforms from a mistreated Oscorp employee to an outraged, unpredictable villain Electro, I was initially doubtful. Why? Well, I’ll be honest–I saw an exhausted caricature, the angry minority who lashes out, dangerous, irrational, uncontrolled. Fortunately, though, Electro is a bit more complex than that and offers something to reflect on when it comes to social marginalization. In the beginning of the film, we see Max struggle socially. He feels invisible, unseen, overlooked. When he tries to reach out and connect with others, he is rejected. He is dismissed over and over again and we get the sense that his life is a series of interactions with a world in which he feels invalidated. But Max isn’t violent as a result–he is anxious, distressed, and depressed. Sure, when he experiences targeted harassment or injustice, he fantasizes about retaliating physically, but he does not actually engage in aggressive acts. This isn’t an unrealistic portrayal: Sociocultural invisibility is a painful condition. When we experience repeated social marginalization and exclusion, there are profound psychological effects. Max is experiencing something called “psychic disequilibrium,” which, according to essayist Adrienne Rich, is what happens when “those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you.” It’s the all-too-real existential strain of living with relentless effacement. It’s society telling you that you do not exist. As Rich described, it’s as if “you looked in the mirror and saw nothing.” When Max becomes Electro and is told by Harry Osborn that he is, in fact, needed, he experiences something he’s never felt before: value. As portrayed in the Times Square scene where we see multiple, giant-sized screens displaying Max’s face, he is finally “seen.” He certainly is misguided (naturally; he’s a villain after all), but his susceptibility to evil-doing as Electro actually makes psychological sense.
3. Parental Rejection has Long Term Consequences
Absent parents (usually due to tragedy) is not a new theme to superhero movies. What makes The Amazing Spider-Man 2 interesting is how it introduced the idea and the realistic impact of a rejecting parent. It’s important to note that what created the distance or separation between a caregiver and a child has a meaningful impact on that child’s development. By juxtaposing Peter’s father with Harry’s father, the film shows us that paternal acceptance is important. Harry Osborn reunites with his father only to be reminded of a cold, callous relationship and lack of some basic human needs while growing up. Where his father excelled in wealth and power, he failed in providing trust, warmth, and acceptance. Richard Parker, Peter’s father, was focused on his scientific endeavors, but before disappearing from his son’s life, he managed to nurture Peter with affection and positive attention. According to research in social psychology, adults who perceived their fathers as providing rejection in their childhood showed poorer psychological adjustment than those who were given acceptance. We see Harry struggle with building positive and trusting relationships as an adult and ultimately makes poor (OK, terrible) decisions. Vehemence and hatred are not emotions that come so naturally–they are often taught. In fact, parental hostility is significantly related to certain personality dispositions in offspring including hostility, negative self esteem and self adequacy, emotional instability, and a negative worldview. This is precisely why Peter followed a very different path than Harry. While we do see him struggle with feeling rejected by his father, Peter uncovers some information that makes him realize the true nature of his father’s disappearance. It’s a discovery that completely changes Peter’s psychology and sets him apart from Harry despite their similar beginnings.
**Be Warned! The final point is considered a major spoiler!**
**STOP READING IF YOU ARE AVOIDING SPOILERS**
4. Overcoming Traumatic Loss Requires Cognitive and Emotional Re-Processing
At the end of the film, an important conversation between Peter and Aunt May take place. With Gwen gone, Peter feels what anyone would experience after the unexpected loss of someone: confusion, devastation, stuck in grief. Being “stuck” in grief, in fact, is a dangerous place to be. We wonder how he’ll go on, not only as Spider-Man, but as Peter Parker. In this pivotal scene, when Peter asks why Aunt May is holding a box of Uncle Ben’s belongings, she acknowledges that she has held on to her deceased husband’s belongings for so long that they have “become a part of her.” She explains that it is time to let go of them. Peter protests, saying that she should not throw Uncle Ben’s stuff away. Aunt May assures him that she does not plan to throw them out, and says something very important about the box of Ben’s things. “I’ll look at it one more time,” she says. “Then, I”ll put it where it belongs.” The tangible belongings represent her “story” of Uncle Ben’s tragic death, and inevitably, for Peter, the story of Gwen’s death. In fact, this process is a crucial step in recovering from grief and loss. One of the most debilitating “symptoms” are the memories or remnants of a tragic event that people get “stuck” in. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) and other cognitive behavioral treatments for trauma actually involve directly dealing with memories and meaning of the trauma. These treatments are effective because of the essential principle of re-processing the memory of a hurtful, horrible event by attempting to make sense of what happened and to remove feelings of guilt, blame, and anger. It really is like going through a box of stuff and then putting the box away somewhere safe. Aunt May’s recovery-oriented advice to Peter, though simple and symbolic, resonates well with the suggested mental health approach. Well done, Amazing Spider-Man 2.
For more information about therapies for trauma, grief, and loss, visit the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies website. An informative pamphlet of why trauma therapies work can be found here.