I recently saw Spider Man 2 at Williamsburg Theathers in 3D and couldn’t resist making comparisons between the character development of Max Dillon / Electro and the central character in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. There are notable scenes in which the artistic direction of Max’s apartment – prior to his transformation into pure energy – borrows and/or references the photographic representation of Ellison’s character as depicted by Jeff Wall. Bare light bulbs hang from the ceiling, mind maps are pinned up everywhere, and the interior seems not quite unkempt, but rather maniacally organized. Early on in the movie, we’re introduced to Max as an individual often overlooked or else oppressed by the clamor of the city. For example, although Max’s research and engineering projects have been instrumental in the implementation of a new super-sustainable power-grid for the NYC of Marvel’s universe, he is not invited by his colleagues and superiors to reap any of the financial compensation or personal recognition (side note: a notable cameo happens in this development by super villain Alistair Smythe). As we see Max develop, we notice a pattern of being repeated beaten down, disrespected, and turned into a generally disenfranchised individual that only finds pleasure in fantasy.
Although Max’s disenfranchisement occurs earlier in the film, it wasn’t until a later scene staged in Max’s apartment that I started to make the Invisible Man comparison. The visual reference to Wall’s photograph led me to start to think about the other kinds of similarities that Dillon and Ellison’s narrator might have. As a result, I felt as thought the disenfranchisement of black citizens in America and the political aggression that arises from this oppression to be strangely invoked in the artistic direction within the movie. Stranger still, in my opinion, is the ways in which racially driven oppression and power dynamics are applied to Max Dillon as a black character in this film.
In comic books, Electro is previously always depicted as white and his origin story does not typically involve the level of disenfranchisement that is represented in the film. Dillon had not only never been represented as a disenfranchised minority, but his super villain activities never revolved around gaining political leverage or more generally showcasing generic power. Thus the character plot line of Dillon’s development in this iteration is radically rewritten to rely on thinly veiled racially driven aggression/oppression. The racial undertones are further complicated – or exacerbated – when Dillon is captured and tortured in Ravencroft Institute, only to be released and freed by a white emancipator Harry Osborne. After his release, Dillon swears allegiance to Osborne almost too easily, ultimately trading his initial disenfranchisement for servitude.
Where Ellison’s narrator is eventually able to realize how social roles and authoritative partnerships (with The Brotherhood in particular) prevent him from fully self-actualizing and taking control of his own identity, Dillon’s representation in this film is never afforded this pleasure (or pursuit). As a result, the narrative and racial undertones that circulate around Dillon’s development as a character depict a portrait of a racial minority in NYC whose power is eventually dissipated or muted as a result of its own expression. (Although I could kind of explain further about that, I want to try to avoid spoilers as much as I can.)
I don’t really know how to further discuss the problematics presented by Dillon’s depiction, and the ways in which his character aesthetically borrows from the narrative of the Invisible Man, but I couldn’t resist drawing some equivalences. Whether the intention is deliberate or not on the part of filmmaker the similarities – and subsequent discrepancies – between the two compelled me to give it a bit of further thought.