Tuesday, August 27, 2019

SPIDER-MAN and the Narcissist Narrative

Earlier this week I went out and saw Spider-Man: Far From Home in theaters. It took me a while to be ready to acknowledge the loss of my favorite Avenger (and judging by my reactions throughout the film, I still wasn't ready). But, with or without the wait, it was absolutely amazing on every level: technical, visual, story, positive representations of the fine people of The Netherlands...

What it did for me most, though, was finally nail the narcissist/victim narrative that I've seen other MCU films attempt to depict and fall short of. In all fairness, it's not an easy one to depict properly. Narcissists are difficult to show onscreen for what they are while still retaining the genuine fear they can cause. Interactions with them, if shown accurately, aren't exactly a major source of wish fulfillment or power fantasy. But it's an important thing for people to be able to see larger-than-life. At least, I think so. And Peter Parker's latest outing nailed it in a way that blew my mind.

As a heads-up, I will be spoiling basically all of Far From Home, because it's impossible to talk about narcissistic relationships without talking about how they end. So if you haven't seen it yet... honestly, go see it. It's a stunning movie and there are bits you will absolutely not get the full impact of if you come into them with forewarning. Otherwise, off you go.

What is a narcissist?

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In psychological terms, Narcissistic Personality Disorder refers to a very specific set of symptoms related to lack of empathy, self-image, and treatment of others. No one can diagnose a narcissist except a psychiatrist, but it is possible to note symptoms in tandem with each other. In short, a narcissist is someone who uses others as resources to build and maintain a false image of themselves, insisting on their own superiority. This can take many forms, small scale or large.

The term "narcissist" gets thrown around a lot, which is the first way to start making it impossible to ID them. Someone who's mean to you, who lies to you, who says something you don't like, etc. isn't necessarily a narcissist. They might just be a jerk, which is more than enough reason to avoid them.

Generally narcissists seek out good, talented, upstanding people with some weakness that can be exploited. That weakness is exploited through a mix of kindness and carefully executed cruelty, until the person in question is used up and gets jettisoned, or gets smart and runs away. 

Far From Home's Quentin Beck fits the description in every possible way. He's built up an illusion around himself (literally and metaphorically) that demands respect above and beyond, like, just about anyone. He knows how to target different people in different ways and get what he wants from them. He truly believes he is deserving of everything he's aiming for, and is unable to see the value in others... be it Peter Parker or Tony Stark. And the man behind the illusion can be taken down with one punch... almost.

Choosing the Victim

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Narcissists aren't dumb. That's part of why they're so hard to deal with. They know who to latch onto, who will fall for their treatment, who will most readily divulge their weaknesses for later abuse, who will internalize the blame in an effort to make the narcissist's abuse make sense. They also know how to compartmentalize. Some people (generally the strongest and most influential) are kept at arm's length and given the narc's best face forward, so as to ensure victims won't be believed if they go public. Others are kept at a middle ground, friends and lieutenants and confidants who don't fuel their ego directly, but keep the machine ticking over. At the center are the direct targets — what H.G. Tudor calls "primary" fuel sources — in other words, those extremely useful people who will give away their own weaknesses and take all the blame.

Beck has his three tiers of fuel. His tertiary suppliers are Fury and Maria (or "Fury" and "Maria"... their Kree nature makes their actions make a lot more sense, as I feel the real Fury would be able to sniff out Beck's MO). They're the ones who get only his best face, thus unwittingly becoming his last line of defense should someone catch on.

His secondary suppliers are his fellow former employees: people whose emotions he can whip up, whom he can make feel important and trick into believing they will share in whatever he gains. Despite his genuine skills, though, he would be nothing without them. His job is to make sure they never know that... or at least never feel a need to test it.

And right at the top? Peter Parker. The "fuel" Beck gets from him is quantified in the form of EDITH, whereas a narcissist in a world without superheroes will thrive on the emotions they can evoke from their target (both positive and negative, with negative apparently being more fulfilling). Still, it's a fitting metaphor, as an embodiment of the tie between Tony and Peter that is currently making Peter's grief even more painful.

Plus Peter is just a perfect target: young, insecure, and completely willing to spill his emotions to anyone who can earn his trust. This doesn't mean Peter is bad, weak, or deserves what he gets. It just means Beck can spot that source of emotional fuel from a mile away. And unfortunately, once you've spilled your guts to a narcissist, they have all the rope they need to keep you tied down.


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Speaking of misused terminologies. Let's talk about what "gaslighting" is. Because it is terrifying, and I hope you never have to go through it.

"Gaslighting" isn't just lying. There's a word for that: it's "lying." "Gaslighting" also isn't just having a differing viewpoint, disagreement, saying you're wrong about something... true, those are all things that can indeed be weaponized (because anything can be weaponized). But let me tell you about the reality of gaslighting.

Imagine someone telling you that something you are sure of didn't happen as you perceive it — a day, an event, a conversation. Not in an argument, not in a back-and-forth, but in a concerned, caring way. Imagine they latched back into things that are true about you — an illness, say, or a past trauma — to bolster their point. Imagine them doing that calmly several times, with the kind of confidence that usually only comes from someone who knows they're speaking the truth. Imagine your entire worldview. Your entire worldview, your ability to trust your own mind even slightly, your ability to credit extremely clear memories you have. Imagine that completely stripped down, to the point that you lie awake in bed in the middle of the night, crying and terrified because you literally don't know which version of the world is the real one.

That's gaslighting: purposely breaking down your perception of reality and your trust in your own sanity, to the point that you no longer know what is true. To the point that, eventually, they don't have to do a thing to keep you off their scent; you'll already assume nothing is as it is. It's a full-on psychological nuke, and when executed properly, it is debilitating.

A character like Mysterio is, of course, tailor-made to become a modern-day metaphor for the narcissist. He's an illusionist; you see what he wants you to see. As soon as Peter pours out his soul (both literally and metaphorically in the hand-off of EDITH), Beck has all he needs to destroy his perception of reality from the inside out. Besides being some of the most mind-bending cinematography I've seen in a film ever, Mysterio's illusory fight with Spider-Man doesn't have a single wasted beat. Each image conveys something that serves to break down Peter's grip on reality or reinforce an anxiety he currently struggles with.

And then he gets hit by a train.

Inside the Illusion

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How do you defeat someone who has you by the emotional gonads, who has perfectly sensible and trustworthy people convinced he's on the level, and who the entire rest of the world sees only as the false persona he's created for himself? You get inside the illusion.

What Peter learned is what a lot of victims of narcissists learn: there's no point trying to convince other people of what's going on. It's a waste of time and will likely only hurt you. The only real way to defuse a narcissist is to shut down the illusion. Or, if nothing else, to blind yourself to it.

Far From Home is a superhero movie, and that means the villain has to be defeated. When dealing with a narcissist, there is a very low likelihood that you will ever shut down all their machinations at once, rescue all your friends, and have a chance to show everyone that you were right after all. Spider-Man has to save the day, though; so with the superhero narrative in mind, the movie holds. Once you can realize that their warping of reality isn't reality, you can stabilize and see what's real. If nothing else, you'll save yourself.

There is, though, one last thing. One thing that I've never seen a narcissist metaphor do before that Far From Home did. It's one of the most necessary things to know in these encounters, while also being one of the most depressing and unfair aspects.

The Parting Shot

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Whether you've escaped a narcissist or they've discarded you, one thing is certain: they are not done with you. Escape is not escape. If you left and they aren't done with you, they'll find a way to get to you (and your job becomes to deflect). Even if they're the one who threw you away, they may come back around for another go.

Some people call it a "Hoover": it's an action that brings you back into their influence. It could be an attempt to make amends. It could be starting nasty rumors about you to get you to acknowledge them. If you're dealing with a real piece of work, it could be acts of violence or vandalism. The point, though, is always the same: they are demonstrating that they still have power over you, and you don't get to decide that they don't.

The mid-credit stinger in which J Jonah Jameson reveals Beck's heavily-edited video is the ultimate malignant hoover. Even in death, Beck still controls Peter's reality. The worst part? Widespread character assassination is actually a very common narcissist tactic when they want to regain the upper hand. Everything else struck true from a largely metaphorical standpoint, but this is just flat-out truth.

I've seen stories that attempt to show the narcissist as defeated, as finally succumbing when they see the victim's strength. God, I wish that were true. The sad truth is, save for the potential that the narcissist gets treatment and reforms, the only sure way their assumed bond between you will break is if one of you dies. The reality of this was heartbreaking; but it drove home for me that the writers knew exactly what story they were telling.

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When the movie is out on DVD, I'd love to take Mysterio's illusion shot by shot and really dig into what's happening. For now, though, I'm still amazed that the writers landed their message so perfectly, even going so far as to outline the ugly truth of escape. Not only that, but it stepped outside the usual realm of narcissist/abuser relationships as being romantic and made it about... coworkers. Literal coworkers. I don't often call things "important" because that sounds a bit high flown but that's important.

I'm grateful to hear this story brought out once again in yet another context.

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