The Gospel According to Spider-Man

Okay y’all: Spider-Man is my favorite super hero. He has terrible luck, his powers seem to get him into more trouble than they get him out of, he’s a big nerd, and he rather seldom “gets the girl.” In spite of all this, he chooses to get up every day and try to save the people who need saving, even if they don’t want his help or he is burdened by failure. Furthermore, he does not kill even the worst of people, and he tries hard to live up to the standards of moral courage and integrity set for him by his late Uncle Ben. Determined not to repeat the moral negligence (sin of omission) which led to his uncle’s death, Peter Parker (Spider-Man) is willing to sacrifice even the promise of love and his very identity to save those he feels have been placed in his care. It was Uncle Ben who taught him that “with great power comes great responsibility,” and this moral slogan has resonated with generations of readers (and moviegoers) who recognize within themselves a “great power” for good or evil and a responsibility to choose what is right even at the cost of one’s own suffering.

In 2002, Tobey Maguire (under director Sam Raimi) portrayed Spider-Man in the first of three major films which I would rate “awesome,” “awesome,” and “meh,” respectively. What is great about these films (even the third one) is that they capture the essence of what I consider the true Spider-Man – the one I have been discussing; the one who appears in the original comics. They present a hero story that is also a vocation story, in which gifts are meant to be used for the good of mankind, and in which the hero’s strength is tested by his ability to make difficult choices for others’ sake. As Aunt May puts it in the following clip, sometimes we have to “give up the thing we want the most: even our dreams.”

In short, the films present Peter Parker as a man struggling to fulfill (or in weaker moments to escape) key tenets of the Gospel: the laying down of one’s life for a friend, the value of each human life, the battle for justice on behalf of others, the merciful treatment of one’s enemies, and – most importantly – love.

The same will perhaps be true for the new series starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, although the first installment (The Amazing Spider-Man, released last year) ended on a note of moral ambiguity. In it we meet a different incarnation of Peter Parker: an angsty high-schooler who is a “good kid” but by no means a morally mature hero. He has a lot of  room to grow in the sequel (2014), which I look forward to seeing for that very reason. Let’s assume that he will.

And now for a lesson in Scripture scholarship! (Sort of.)

Assuming that the “real” Peter Parker is portrayed equally well in both film series, then the relationship between the two becomes somewhat analogous to the relationship between, say, the synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John. They were written at two different times and for different audiences, yet they both tell aspects of the same story. (It’s true that being the Son of God is way cooler than being bitten by a radioactive spider, but just go with it.)  Like the more recent Amazing Spider-Man, the Gospel of John was written after the other three Gospels and with the understanding that its readers (or listeners) would already have a pretty good idea what happened in the story.

Consider this example:  the very important words “this is my body” do not actually turn up in John’s account of the Last Supper. I propose, however, (without meaning to trivialize the source and summit of the Christian faith) that St. John made this omission for much the same reason that the very important character Mary Jane Watson does not turn up in The Amazing Spider-Man. Basically, we already know about her from the last three movies (Gospels). Therefore, the screenwriters decided to bring in Gwen Stacey (an earlier love interest) to flesh out the story for viewers who have already seen the other films. In a similar way, St. John provides us with an even deeper understanding of the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood by shifting its narration to the Bread of Life Discourse (Chapter 6). What seems at first to be a serious omission on St. John’s part thus allows him to present a much fuller and richer story to his early Christian audience. For them, nothing is left out.

[Spidey spoilers ahead:]



And yes, if you are wondering: “MJ” does turn up again in 2014.

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