The Amazing Spider-Man’s Subversive Empathy

The Amazing Spider-Man’s Subversive Empathy June 7, 2014

Anthony Bartlett claims in his book Virtually Christian that,

In movies, on the web, on TV and radio, there is always the possibility of an image of compassion arising from the seminal presence of the Crucified, on that will produce a response of compassion in an individual.

Tony calls this “subversive compassion.” Subversive is a good name for it, because while movies, the web, television and radio are often filled with violent imagery, there is compassionate presence that subverts that violence. One of the best examples of this subversion is the compassionate empathy shown in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Electro is one of the three villains in the movie. Max, played by Jamie Foxx, is a sweet man, too timid to harm anyone. He’s a loner and the scapegoat of OsCorp laboratory where he works. He is bullied by his coworkers. Like everyone, Max desperately wants to be acknowledged and loved. Some of the movie takes place on his birthday, a day that nobody, not even his mother, remembers. In fact, a co-worker forces him to work overtime. Alone in the lab, Max falls into a container of electric eels, causing him to turn into Electro.

As Electro, Max may not be loved, but he is acknowledged. He travels to Time Square where he and his destruction are televised on large screen televisions. Electro’s power, anger, and fear increases as he anticipates violence against him. Spider-Man, of course, enters the scene just in time. Instead of responding with violence, Spider-Man responds to Electro with text-book empathy. If just temporarily, Spider-Man is able to suspend his feelings enough so that he can step in Electro’s shoes. And it works. Here’s the clip and the dialogue below:

Spider-Man: How are ya?

Electro: I don’t know what’s going on with me.

Spider-Man: I can see that. I believe you.

Electro: Strange…Power. I’ve got so much of it. I’ve got so much anger.

Spider-Man: I can see that. I can see that you don’t want to be here. I can see you’re scared. You don’t know what’s happening to you. I can see that you don’t want to hurt anybody. It’s gonna be alright.

Electro: I don’t want them shooting at me anymore.

Spider-Man: They aren’t going to shoot you. (To the police) You guys! This is my buddy Max. I told you about Max. No one shoots at Max! (To Max) You and me. It’s just you and me talking…

Electro: I just…I just wanted them to see me.

Spider-Man: How about we go somewhere and we talk, away from all these people, okay?

Electro: Yeah, yeah.

Then police shoot Electro, who responds to that violence in predictable mimetic fashion by violently firing electricity. The point is that Spider-Man’s empathy worked to calm Electro, whereas violence only made the situation worse.

But Spider-Man has something else to teach us about empathy. Notice how Spider-Man keeps the focus on Electro’s feelings. Usually we try to be empathic by saying something like, “Oh, I know exactly how you feel.” So, Spider-Man might have said, “Electro! That happens to me all the time. I have this power that I don’t know what to do with. And then I try to help this city, and the people turn against me! Yup. I know exactly how you feel.”

That’s not empathy. That takes the focus away from the other and onto ourselves. Instead of being in another person’s shoes, you put the other person in your shoes.

But a truly empathic response is about what the other person is feeling. Notice that Spider-Man acknowledges Electro’s feeling and how often he says the word “you.” “I believe you. I can see that you don’t want to be here. I can see you’re scared. You don’t know what’s happening to you. I can see that you don’t want to hurt anybody. It’s gonna be alright.”

René Girard claims that humans are not so much individuals, but rather inter-dividual. This means that we are interconnected on the level of desire and emotions. We want what other want, including recognition, and we feel what others feel, including anger. But we can also feel a sense of peace from a peaceful person. For example, the more violence Electro feels from others, the more violence he becomes. The more empathic compassion and nonviolence Electro feels from Spider-Man, the more nonviolent and peaceful he becomes.

There’s not a lot that separates any of us from Electro. We all want to be acknowledged, loved, and admired. When we don’t receive the recognition we think we deserve, we get angry, not because we are monsters, but because we are human.

So, the next time someone is angry, don’t respond with anger. That’ll only make things worse. Subvert that violent anger with your Spidey-like powers of empathy. It might take some time, but it’s the only thing that will soothe electric anger.

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