I walked into the theater for ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2,’ which was released earlier this month, with the assumption that I’d be entertained by an action-packed storyline and young, attractive actors. What I did not expect was a distasteful portrayal of mental health facilities and mental health issues in such a popular film.
“Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane,” read the distinct lettering on a building that appears about half-way through the movie. This institute is a facility for individuals with mental illnesses, who also just so happened to be lawbreakers or villains. While this center exists in the Marvel Universe, and has thus been part of the comic series, there is still something distinctly wrong with naming an institution in this manner. This picture has been painted before, so it isn’t a novel idea unique to this film or Marvel Comics.
Over the course of history, society has found a way to equate men and women living with mental illnesses as “insane” and violent criminals. This understanding perpetuates the idea that such illnesses serve as explanations for why these individuals are felons. It feeds the mentality that criminals are mentally ill and are the “untouchables” in our society. Why else would our society support institutionalization and isolation of those living with mental illnesses, rather than put resources for these individuals into rehabilitation and reintegration into the community?
The film also introduces several characters living with mental illnesses, including the protagonist. Peter Parker/Spider-Man (played by Andrew Garfield) encounters hallucinations brought on by PTSD. Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) displays severe problems with abandonment. And Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx) lives with an attachment disorder, which is demonstrated in his ever-changing mood and behavior throughout the film. With the inclusion of these mental illnesses in the film, ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ creators had the ability to open up dialogue on mental health in a constructive way. Unfortunately, the opposite occurred. According to Melissa Brooks:
“… the film condemns the person with the illness, rather than exploring the systemic problems it initially introduces.”
There is something extremely wrong with the narratives presented in ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2.’ While these stereotypes associated with mental health have been around for some time, I found myself rather disappointed with the creators of this much-anticipated summer blockbuster.
Today’s media and pop culture ultimately feed public opinion. Regardless of whether or not our news sources are actually forms of yellow journalism, the general public tends to turn fiction into fact. With regards to superhero films, the target audience ranges from young children to adults. Images that are seen in these types of films become influential to those watching the films. These images are the most harmful to younger viewers, as these kids go on to live their lives, having being exposed to stories where a mental facility is the rightful place for a “crazy person.” Furthermore, in the news, mass shootings are attributed to mental illness rather than other factors, including our failed mental health care system and concern over gun laws. Thus, individuals committing crimes are repeatedly defined by their mental health issues. Those living with mental illnesses or health concerns become the population within our community that is ignored, criminalized and mistrusted. This is the understanding that our nation’s youth is growing up with. This is what our society subjects future generations to.
Whether or not it was the intention of the writers and filmmakers to misrepresent the mental health community in an irresponsible manner, they ultimately failed to conduct proper research before including such a sensitive matter in the film. Movies, especially those part of popular franchises, have the ability – intentional or unintentional – to influence the masses.
‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ creators could have presented a wiser and more educated understanding on mental health, especially since this health concern has a growing presence in the media. In fact, May is also ‘Mental Health Month,’ and this year’s theme is “Mind Your Health.” Instead, the film does not contribute to a positive dialogue, but perpetuates the stigmas and taboos associated with mental health.
This isn’t a matter of being PC. This is a matter of holding our society accountable in promoting appropriate portrayal of mental health facilities and mental illness. The more that negative stories and images of mental health are featured in the news, television, movies and other forms of media, the less of a chance we have at changing this narrative.
There are several misconceptions associated with mental illness and mental health. We may not be able to control what is being presented in the media, but we can start by educating ourselves. We should inform our families, friends and networks by starting a dialogue. And for those with families and children, we should be mindful of what we expose our children to, and be proactive in restructuring the narrative for future generations. We can speak up and join campaigns and initiatives that help continue the conversation. In time, we can shift our perspective and cultural understanding of those who have become subjected to social othering purely on the basis of mental health.