My almost-recovered 15-year-old daughter dragged me to the movie The Amazing Spider-Man, and I was indeed amazed. Spider-Man, it seems, may be conveying our vaccine safety message without ever mentioning the V-word.
Early in the story, a spider bites Peter, the son of deceased scientist Dr. Richard Parker. The closest colleague of the elder Parker, Dr. Curt Connors, continued their work by transferring the DNA of one animal to another animal in hopes of combating physical weaknesses. Connors develops a machine that spreads medical treatments in the form of a cloud over wide areas. “We could prevent polio in an entire metropolitan area in 10 minutes,” Connors proclaims proudly. “Of course,” he snidely remarks, “some people may not want to be protected from polio.” Where have we heard that before, Dr. Offit?
Connors successfully treats a mouse to regenerate a limb by injecting DNA from a lizard. His company, Oscorp, wants to start human trials immediately, but when Connors insists that he is not ready to apply his invention to humans, the company shuts down his lab. And what did they do to Andy Wakefield when he warned that the MMR might not be ready for humans?
In the meantime, Peter realizes he has special Spider powers. The spider that bit him was not an ordinary arachnid, but rather a test animal from Connors’ lab that was capable of transferring its DNA to humans. Peter fights crime by spewing out webs and tangling up the bad guys.
But whereas Superman and Batman are establishment figures, who enjoy cozy working relationships with the mainstream media (The Daily Planet) and law enforcement (Gotham City’s police commissioner), Spider-Man is an outsider. Though he doesn’t want to be a rebel, he is ostracized by the power elite. The press brands him a traitor. (How has the New York Times treated us?) Those who are supposed to provide public safety, led by the hapless police chief, resent Spider-Man’s vigilantism. (Sort of like doctors who resent moms who know more about autism than they do.) And the casting of Denis Leary (“Your kid is not autistic, he's just stupid, or lazy, or both”) as the incompetent police chief may have been a wicked inside joke.
Now this is a film I’m beginning to relate to, in part because this Spider-Man is clearly a high-functioning autistic. That’s never made explicit, but the point has not been lost on film critics. As Andy Klein observes, “His inability to connect with his peers — it's a big deal when he manages to make eye contact with [his girlfriend] Gwen — is so severe that his he seems to have a degree of autism or Asperger's. “ This is not the Spider-man we know from Marvel Comics or the earlier movies, so why was the part written that way?
Perhaps because The Amazing Spider-Man is an allegory about vaccines and the autism crisis. The film never mentions vaccines or autism -- but if it had, it would have been ignored or denounced by the media, as The Greater Good was. Allegory is a kind of code, a means of disguising subversive messages to slip them past the censors. Throughout history authors have used allegories to raise issues that can’t be discussed openly. When Puritans were persecuted in Restoration England, John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. During World War II, when it wasn’t politically correct to criticize the Soviet Union (after all, they were our allies), George Orwell wrote Animal Farm. And those cheesy monster flicks of the 1950s, like The Amazing Colossal Man, were vehicles for expressing anxieties about atomic radiation, back when the government was assuring us that there was nothing to worry about.
Meanwhile, back at the soon-to-be-closed lab, Connors decides to regenerate his own missing limb by injecting himself with DNA from a lizard. Unfortunately, the treatment has unintended consequences and Connors is transformed into a giant, cold-blooded reptile.
So, could mixing DNA from different individuals could have unintended consequences? Is The Amazing Spider-Man endorsing the work of Dr. Theresa Deischer and Dr. Helen Ratajczak, who recognize that the DNA from vaccines grown on human tissue could disrupt the natural order of life? Dr. Deischer suggests that residual DNA from the vaccines grown on human tissue could embed itself in the recipient’s genes. Dr. Ratajczak points out that should this insertion occur, the body would seek to fight off the intruding DNA and inflammation would result, especially in the brain.
Fear not! The movie has a happy ending. Spider-Man captures Connors just as he is about to spread lizard DNA around the entire city using the cloud machine. With Connors behind bars, the city can live in peace. Even Denis Leary comes to realize that mixing DNAs is not a good idea.
So far The Amazing Spider-Man has grossed $521 million, compared with just $135 million for Contagion. It may well be the Animal Farm of the autism epidemic. It certainly shows that when we mess around with DNA, oh, what tangled web we weave!
Gayle DeLong is an associate professor in the Economics and Finance Department of Baruch College. She is married to Jonathan Rose, who is William R. Kenan Professor of History at Drew University. They have two children on the autism spectrum.