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Unmasking the Spirituality of Spider-Man

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(The following resources are designed for use with viewing the films in the tradition of "cinema divina," using films as an audio-visual lectio divina (divine reading) for spiritual growth. These resources can be used for private edification or as part of a weekend film retreat.)

Spider-Man PosterIntroduction

Spider-Man has been a popular comic book character since first appearing in 1962. Part of his popularity is because, in contrast to the nearly invulnerable superheroes like Superman, Peter Parker is basically an ordinary guy with many troubles. Everyone can relate to this vulnerable, conflicted hero.

In 2002, Sam Raimi directed the first record-breaking Spider-Man feature film, and the block-buster sequel, Spider-Man 2, followed in 2004.[1] Taken together, these immensely popular movies offer surprisingly profound spiritual lessons when unmasked from their comic-book disguise.

Unmasking the Meaning—Exposition and Reflections

No other films have so evocatively explored the downside of being a superhero. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the reluctant everyman messiah, must constantly choose between self-interest and self-sacrifice, choose between his own needs and those of others, choose between his own social life and social obligation, and make all these choices while being misunderstood and unappreciated.[2] Being a superhero never seemed so difficult.

On a field trip to a science lab, Peter, a shy and geeky high-school student, is bitten by an escaped genetically designed “super spider” (that combines the most exceptional characteristics of three species of spiders). The spider’s bite adds the spider’s DNA to Peter’s human DNA. He gradually discovers and masters his enhanced strength and agility, his ability to stick to and climb walls, and his ability to shoot webs from his wrists.[3] He also develops perfect vision and a precognitive “spider sense” that alerts him to danger.

In school, the day after the spider bite, Peter accidentally uses his new powers, and another student exclaims to him, “Jesus, Parker, you are a freak.” Although “Jesus” is often heard in movies as an expletive, here its usage correlates to Peter’s new distinctive identity.

Peter decides to use his new powers to earn some much-needed money. His Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) tells Peter, “Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.” Peter does not listen to this wisdom, however, until after his uncle is killed. Peter hunts down and discovers the identity of the killer. He is the robber Peter could easily have stopped earlier, before his uncle had been killed, but Peter had refused to take responsibility. Peter blames himself for his uncle’s death, and he vows to use his powers for the good of others. He then develops his dual identity[4] as both Peter Parker and the masked Spider-Man in a red-and-blue suit.

Spider-Man’s initial nemesis also has dual identities. Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) is a scientist, head of a corporation, and father of Peter’s best friend Harry (James Franco). To avoid losing a lucrative military contract, Osborn prematurely tests an experimental performance enhancer on himself. The process indeed makes him stronger and faster, but it also drives him into madness and a split personality.

Osborn puts on an armored suit and a hideous helmet to become the Green Goblin. The Goblin uses a glider with high-tech weapons to get revenge on those he feels wronged him.

The Green Goblin is Spider-Man’s polar opposite, a green-suited demon contrasting with the red-and-blue-suited (same primary colors as Superman and the American flag) hero. The good-versus-evil dichotomy is religiously established after the Goblin discovers Spider-Man’s true identity and goes after Peter’s aunt, May Parker (Rosemary Harris), as she is saying the Lord’s Prayer at bedtime. As she kneels beside her bed and says, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from . . . ,” an explosion rips open the wall behind her. The Goblin on his glider commands her, “Finish it. Finish it!” Aunt May, terrified, finally finishes the line, “deliver us from evil.” [5] The Goblin relishes the role of becoming evil incarnate.

In contrast to his own role, the Goblin subtly acknowledges Spider-Man’s Christ-like role. The Goblin ironically quotes Jesus’ words “suffer the little children”[6] in describing Spider-Man’s task in rescuing a cable car full of children that the Goblin has just sabotaged.

In one of the encounters with the Goblin, Spider-Man enters a burning apartment building to save the person calling for help. But the voice is only the Goblin’s ruse. The flames and ensuing fight render a visual descent into hell[7] and battle with Satan.

The Goblin ultimately dies accidentally by his own hand as he uses trickery to try to kill Spider-Man. Harry, who doesn’t yet know his father was the Green Goblin, believes Spider-Man is responsible for the death of his father.

At the end (of each movie), Spider-Man ascends[8] into the sky—or at least the space between skyscrapers on his webbing.

In the sequel, two years later, the mundane life of dual identities has been taking its toll on Peter. Balancing his patrols as Spider-Man with two jobs, college classes, and a meager personal life ends up unsatisfactorily in all those areas. He gets fired from one job for always being late, he’s in danger of failing his classes, he’s behind in his rent, he fails to show up at Mary Jane’s play as he had promised, and even his red-and-blue suit leaks color onto his white clothes in the laundry. Fickle public opinion is swayed by the newspaper headlines of crass The Daily Bugle editor, J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons).[9] To add insult to injury, Peter’s only dependable job is selling photographs of himself as Spider-Man to Jameson for use with the twisted headlines, and his best friend obsessively and unfairly wants revenge on Spider-Man. In acting nobly and protecting those he loves, Peter ends up disappointing everyone.

Conflicted and disillusioned by his continual Gethsemane, he psychosomatically begins losing his powers. He can’t shoot webs or climb buildings anymore. He needs his glasses again. At first he feels confused over this change, but later he becomes relieved that he is Spider-Man no more and that he no longer must lead two lives.

Tempted[10] by normality, however, Peter still must make difficult choices. One day he sees a man being robbed in an alley and calling for help, but he chooses not to be a hero and walks away. Later, however, when a little girl is trapped in a burning apartment building, he can stand it no longer and rushes in. As Peter Parker, he tries to save the girl, but he fails to successfully leap across a gaping hole in the floor—a hole that Spider-Man could easily have crossed. Peter dangles on the brink, and the girl helps to rescue him.[11] They escape the building, but another person in the building dies—someone Spider-Man could have been able to rescue.

Remorseful, he tries to get back his powers by an intense focus on what he wants and a literal leap of faith off a building—but he is injured in the resulting fall and is lucky to stagger away alive.

Meanwhile, a new villain, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), starts out as a well-intentioned scientist. He awes Peter, and Otto, in turn, becomes impressed with Peter. But the good turns evil when an accident with Otto’s four artificially intelligent robotic arms transforms him into “Doctor Octopus” or “Doc Ock.”

Peter seems to have lost his powers forever and is also on the brink of losing his one true love, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), forever. But then one day, while sitting in a coffee shop with Mary Jane, his spider sense reawakens and alerts him to danger. He narrowly pulls Mary Jane out of the way of a car that hurtles through a window.

Doc Ock follows the car through the broken window and plucks Mary Jane up in one of his arms. He sends Peter crashing into the wall with the instructions that he better find Spider-Man or Mary Jane will have her flesh stripped from her bones.

Peter is “buried” under rubble, but after a minute, his “grave” bursts open. He is no longer just Peter Parker for his Spider-Man powers have also resurrected.

Soon after this symbolic resurrection, Spider-Man’s Christ-figure status is cemented in the battle with Doc Ock on the commuter train. Doc Ock’s whip-like tentacles scourge Spider-Man’s body.

Doc Ock sabotages the train’s controls so that the train can’t be stopped . . . before it runs off the end of its track. Spider-Man stands at the very front of the train. His mask is damaged by an electrical fire, and he pulls it off so that he can see more clearly. He attempts to stop the train first by using his feet against the wooden ties, but the ties merely shatter and wound his feet.

Then he shoots webbing at the skyscrapers hurtling by. In a cruciform position, his hands hold the webbing to slow down the train. Instead of nails, his own webbing crucifies him. The enormous strain creates rips in his suit, bends metal, and breaks glass behind his arms. When at last he brings the train to a stop at the brink of a precipice, he faints from exhaustion and begins to fall. Passengers he has saved, however, gently grab him and pull him into the train. Above their raised arms they pass him—still in cruciform position—toward the center of the car and gently lay him down. The scene is a clear rearticulation of Christ being taken down from the cross.

Spider-Man revives as the crowd is gathered around him in thankful awe. “And since he lost his mask in the battle, everyone is astonished to see that the miraculous superhero is an otherwise ordinary, human, mortal youth.”[12] He groggily realizes that they are all seeing him without his mask. A man tells him, “It’s all right.” A boy hands him his mask and says, “We won’t tell nobody.” Others nod in agreement with this faith statement and promise to keep his messianic secret.[13]

When Doc Ock bursts through the train’s door to get Spider-Man, the crowd of Spider-Man’s new disciples step between them to shield Spider-Man from harm.

Although his train disciples vow to keep his secret, unmasking occurs repeatedly throughout the film, revealing the “hero inside.”[14] Spider-Man’s true identity is also revealed inadvertently to Mary Jane and Harry.

But the only intentional revelatory unmasking comes near the end and is to, of all people, his enemy. Doc Ock has finished work on his rebuilt fusion reactor, but once started, it becomes a self-sustaining, incandescent “black hole” that starts magnetically pulling in everything around it. After Doc Ock is temporarily stunned by an electric shock, Peter purposefully reveals his identity to his enemy—to the Dr. Otto Octavius he had once looked up to—in order to reach the good that is still buried deep within and find a way to shut down the reaction. It is Peter’s revelation and reason that ultimately gets through. Doc Ock comes to his senses and self-sacrificially sinks his out-of-control fusion reactor into the river before it can destroy the city and perhaps the world.

What finally saves the day is not flying bullets or fists. Peter’s unmasked revelation and appeal to the good in another person ultimately save the world. In Christian theology, Christ, in the two natures of fully human and fully divine, is the fullest revelation of God. Christ is the “unmasked face of God”[15] who brings salvation to the world.

Being a Christ figure ultimately isn’t about special powers. Rather, it’s about choices. Although Peter wavers at times during seemingly unending adversity, he ultimately chooses to be a hero. The Green Goblin and Doc Ock, with their own set of special powers, each make the opposite choice.[16]

Ordinary people wonder how they can live a spiritual and heroic life when they are surrounded by a world filled with so many troubles and with so many contrary values too tempting to ignore, as well as bills to pay, unreasonable bosses to please, too many tasks to do, and dreams impossible to fulfill.

In the first film, Aunt May tells Peter as he sits with her at the hospital, “You do too much—college, a job, all this time with me . . . You’re not Superman, you know.” He is not superhuman, he is human like the rest of us. He is human with a few extraordinary gifts.

Although he is human, he can still be heroic. In the sequel, Aunt May extends grace to him. She offers forgiveness to him for the role he played in the death of her husband. She also says with a knowing smile (as if she knows the truth about his secret identity): “I believe there is a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”

The true hero of these movies isn’t “Spider-Man” for that identity is just a protective cover. The true “hero inside” is Peter Parker, who has to make many very difficult choices.

Peter’s powers are accidental. Perhaps everyone bitten by a mutant spider could receive his powers—but would everyone become a hero? Would everyone choose to follow the hero (Christ figure) inside all of us? Our choices make the difference.

Spider-Man inspires others into heroism. In the first movie, as he attempts to save a cable car full of children from dropping into the river, a boat comes to provide a safe landing. As the Goblin homes in to finish off the vulnerable hero dangling from the bridge, the Goblin is knocked off course at the last second by an object thrown from the bridge. People lined up along the railing start throwing things at the Goblin and calling, “Leave Spider-Man alone! You gonna pick on a guy saving a bunch of kids?” “You mess with Spidey, you mess with New York.” “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” In the sequel, as Doc Ock enters the wrecked train to seize the spent Spider-Man who can hardly stand, the people Spider-Man has just saved step into harm’s way to try to save him. Later, even Doc Ock turns from evil to a self-sacrificial act of salvation because of Spider-Man.

Spider-Man is a profound spiritual lesson in comic-book disguise. In Spider-Man, we have met the Christ figure, and he is us.[17]

 

OTHER CINEMA DIVINA RESOURCES

Readings (Lectio)

Synopsis of the Movies

On a field trip to a science lab, shy high-school student Peter Parker is bitten by an escaped genetically designed spider. The spider’s bite adds the spider’s DNA to Peter’s human DNA. He gradually discovers and masters his new spider-like abilities. He must choose what he will do with his new powers. Later he must make nearly constant choices between self-interest and self-sacrifice as he discovers that being a hero is a difficult task.

The villains of the two movies also make choices with the powers they obtain in their own ways. Their choices, however, are for self-interest and personal gain at the expense of everything and everyone else.

Questions to Ponder While Watching

Key Scenes

(Spider-Man)

(Spider-Man 2)

Closing Prayer

Lord,

You are the ultimate hero who chose to save the world at the cost of your Son. We now choose to trust you and follow you. We now choose to make the right choices—even when those choices are costly. Help us to be heroes to those around us.

Amen.



Notes

[1]Spider-Man. Dir. Sam Raimi. Columbia Pictures, 2002. Spider-Man 2. Dir. Sam Raimi. Columbia Pictures, 2004.

[2]Jo Ann Skousen (“It’s Not Easy Being Spidey,” Liberty Sept. 2004, Vol. 18, Number 9, 6 May 2005 <http://www.libertyunbound.com/archive/2004_09/skousen-spidey.html) describes Peter’s situation: “It’s an unpaid volunteer position that dominates your time, making it impossible to hold down a real job. Money is short. Personal relationships are limited. You have to drop what you’re doing whenever you hear someone cry out for help. In short, being a superhero is a little bit like being a mother.”

[3]In the movie, web shooting is biological. In the various incarnations before this, it had been a result Parker’s scientific ability to create a wrist gun that shot adhesives he had invented.

[4]As Christ had a dual identity of being fully human and fully God.

[5]Some traditions do end the Lord’s Prayer there, but others add, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever. Amen.” This last phrase does not appear in all the earlier manuscripts of Matthew 6:9-13.

[6]Mark 10:14 (King James version).

[7]The phrase “he descended into hell” found in the Apostles’ Creed (although not in the earliest versions) has been dropped by some denominations from liturgical use because of its problematic scriptural support. See 1 Pet. 3:19, 4:6; Eph. 4:9; Acts 2:23-32; Matt. 12:39-40. Interpretation of this phrase is also troublesome, but commonly held to mean Jesus, during the interim between his death and resurrection, preached to the souls of people who had already died, proclaimed freedom to them, and/or liberated them from their infernal bondage. If the supporting biblical texts were sparse and cryptic, various apocryphal stories elaborated the alleged details. See for example, Alice K. Turner, The History of Hell (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993) 66-70.

[8]As Jesus ascended into the sky after his earthly work was done (Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:1-11).

[9]You can’t trust the media to tell the truth seems to be the subversive message of this media messiah.

[10]Jeremy C. Fox (“Spider-Man 2,” Pajiba 2004, 6 May 2005 <http://www.pajiba.com/spiderman-2.htm>) suggests that Spider-Man 2 should be subtitled The Last Temptation of Spidey.

[11]This is somewhat of an inversion of the myth of Persephone and Demeter.

[12]Jon Zuck, “Spider-Man 2: A Lesson on the Secret Battles of the Spiritual Warrior,” The Wild Things of God 5 August 2004, 6 May 2005 <http://www.frimmin.com/movies/spiderman2.html>. Compare also with the messianic suffering servant of Isaiah 53.

[13]On several occasions, apparently to avoid untimely trouble with crowds and Jewish leaders, Jesus told people not to tell others about his miracles or about his Messiahship. See Mark 5:39-43; 8:30; Phil. 2:6-8; Isa. 52:14.

[14]Steven D. Greydanus states, “I say Peter’s heroism and self-sacrifice, rather than Spider-Man’s. . . . He doesn’t become someone else when he pulls on that full-face mask; in fact, the mask comes off quite a bit in this film, in part to allow Maguire to display emotions, but also to emphasize the hero’s humanity.” (“Spider-Man 2,” Decent Films 2004, 7 May 2005 <http://www.decentfilms.com/reviews/spiderman2.html>.)

[15]Melinda Ledman, “Spider-Man 2,” Hollywood Jesus 30 June 2004, 7 May 2005 <http://www.hollywoodjesus.com/comments/melinda/2004/06/spider-man-2.html>.

[16]Doc Ock, however, repents in the end and saves the world from the destruction he had started. Making choices is a dominant theme in both movies.

[17]To paraphrase “we have me the enemy, and he is us” from Walt Kelly’s 1971 “Pogo” comic strip Earth Day poster.

Copyright 2005, 2007, Mark D. Stucky.
This is a modified version of a 2005 paper done for graduate credit in the Cinema Divina class at the University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio.

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