White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

A Hero’s Liturgy in Spider-Man (2002)

Published Thursday, September 10, 2020 By Anthony G. Cirilla

The concept of the hero’s journey posits that a successful story maps its events over key psychological experiences necessary to formation of identity. In formal worship, the structure of the liturgy maps different aspects of communal and personal spiritual identity around the teachings of Christ and the significance of His life. The liturgy is thus often segmented into the Liturgy of the Word, which emphasizes Christian teaching, and the Liturgy of the Sacrament, which uses the Lord’s Supper to teach the impartation of grace through faith in Christ. In the 2002 Spider-Man, we can see Peter Parker’s heroic journey as participating in a symbolic liturgical structure that brings him, and the audience, into awareness of the call of grace to responsibility.

Community and the Liturgical Hero

The word “liturgy” means the work of the people, and Spider-Man is, among superheroes, a man of the people. When Aunt May cautions a visibly exhausted Peter, “You’re not Superman you know,” there is more than one level of irony at work. She doesn’t know that he is in fact a superhero, but Spider-Man is very much not Superman, who could accidentally kill the Green Goblin in a friendly game of thumb war. Spider-Man keeps the streets safe from thugs, but the posh super-villainy of his first nemesis is palpably above Parker’s paygrade (literally and figuratively). Aunt May’s ironic yet salient reminder of Peter’s limitations comes in the wake of the Green Goblin terrifying her sufficiently, in the midst of her prayers, that she had to be hospitalized. Aside from underscoring his status as a more vulnerable superhero than Superman, the exchange also causes Spider-Man to realize that his deadly foe not only knows his identity but has the beloved MJ in his grasp.

As the Green Goblin orchestrates a sadistic version of the trolley car experiment with MJ in one hand and a group of kids in the other, in trying to save both parties Spider-Man discovers an unlikely ally: the people of New York. As Spider-Man labors to save the children and his beloved at once, New Yorkers lob projectiles at the Green Goblin, one of them shouting, “If you mess with one of us you mess with all of us.” Similar to how some celebrants face liturgical East to signify their peership with fellow worshippers before God, the heroic work of Spider-Man becomes for that moment a communal effort, a shared effort to ward off the division the Green Goblin had hoped to foster between Spider-Man and his neighbors.

But before any of these events unfold, focusing our attention like the Collect for Purity, Peter Parker’s voice-over prepares the audience for the pain necessary to heroic liturgy: “Who am I? You sure you want to know? The story of my life is not for the faint of heart. If somebody said it was a happy little tale… if somebody told you I was just an average ordinary guy, not a care in the world… somebody lied.” We have to “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts” (BCP 67) about the naïve optimism of superhero narrative expectations if we are to glean the message the film is trying to send. After all, as the Green Goblin himself recognizes when he beckons to Spider-Man, “Imagine what we could create together,” without the right words guiding his actions, Peter could just as easily become a villain as a hero.

The Liturgy of the Word

The mirroring of Peter Parker and Norman Osborn begins early in the film, with Harry quipping that his father would like to adopt Peter for being such a genius. But the radical difference between the ideologies informing their superhuman identities are made apparent by the scenes of their transformations. After Peter is bitten and the tension at Oscorp mounts, Uncle Ben performs the modest ritual of changing a light bulb, upon which success he says, “Let there be light – forty glowing watts of it.” “Good boy,” responds Aunt May, “God will be thrilled,” and then rather less ceremoniously advises him not to fall on his hindquarters.

Meanwhile at Oscorp a hastily (and also financially desperate) Norman Osborn prepares to take an experimental drug that is decidedly unready for human use. “Forty thousand years of evolution and we’ve barely tapped the vastness of human potential,” he growls in a frustrated bid to egg himself on to quaff the liquid. Peter and Norman are both lovers of science, but the Darwinian Osborn loves the power it can give him, while Peter lives in a household where it is ostensibly believed that the individual is made in the image of God. The verbal collision of survival of the fittest versus man as bearer of divine illumination, forty thousand years versus forty watts, begins the narrative liturgy that will ultimately lead to the fatal conflict between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin.

As he heads out after awakening with his new powers, Peter is stopped by his uncle who reminds him of their plans to paint the kitchen. Uncle Ben playfully calls him Michelangelo, again gesturing at the idea of their house as a familial church, the humble maintenance of it an act of basic stewardship that participates in the same principle of order in creation mirrored by the Sistine Chapel. The asymmetrical nature of these comparisons would be entirely absurd if it weren’t for the value of the implication for the story: duty in small matters points to duty in larger ones. Changing your lightbulb and painting your kitchen, ordinary as they are, are both activities that keep out the chaos that emerges in places like the final battleground of the film, a structure dilapidated to the point where its function can no longer be discerned.

But, similar to how James explains that mere belief doesn’t make us any holier than the believing demons, Peter Parker isn’t Spider-Man just because he has powers. Peter needs to undergo the liturgical process of the hero’s journey: recognizing his sin, repenting of it, and resolving to commit himself to a new life. When he fails to come home in time to paint the kitchen as promised, Peter is frustrated by Uncle Ben’s attempts to impart wisdom to him. “With great power comes great responsibility,” he says in easily the most famous proverb to come out of the comic book world. Peter avers that he doesn’t need a lecture, and Uncle Ben says, “I don’t mean to lecture and I don’t mean to preach” – adding a reluctant spiritual dimension to his paternal concerns for his nephew even as he denies its presence. But what he means by “I don’t mean to preach” is “I don’t mean to talk down to you,” which is exactly what a true preacher never does – because he always includes himself as someone who needs to learn from what he’s saying. Uncle Ben’s heroic sacrifice in trying to stop the robber makes clear that he too was trying to bear his power with responsibility.

Unaware of this impending outcome, Peter Parker descends into the abyss of the wrestling ring, the administrator telling him “May God be with you” as he goes to confront the massive and sadistic wrestler Bonesaw with what appears to be woefully insufficient muscle mass. Peter seemingly comes out victorious, but his immature wisecracks during the match prefigure his next immature decision – to let a man be robbed because he felt shortchanged himself. When that same robber kills his uncle, a devastated Peter numbly goes through the motions of his high school graduation. After a discussion with his Aunt May, who assures him that Uncle Ben is still with them, Peter hears in his memory “With great power comes great responsibility.” One might say he realized that he had to act “with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven,” which now includes his Uncle Ben, “By whose good example” he decides to live.[1] He has become Spider-Man.

The Liturgy of the Sacrament

In his first confrontation with the Green Goblin, Peter rescues MJ, landing with her atop a garden outside the St Patrick’s Cathedral, its two spires and Gothic architecture nearly stealing the scene for a moment. This is of course the second time they had spoken outside of a cathedral after Peter had confronted a bully – though previously the “cathedral” had been Uncle Ben’s house and Peter was still, as MJ had put it, “hunching,” or, rather, hiding his powers entirely. This interaction begins MJ’s infatuation with Spider-Man, but also plays out the archetypal image of man and wife as Christ and Church: saving her from the demonic Goblin,[2] he places her in a visually Edenic setting outside a majestic place of worship. “Who are you?” she asks. “You know who I am… Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man!” He could accord praise to himself at that moment and win her over, but instead he leaves her standing before a visible testament to grace.

Grace, you might say, is the difference between how Peter got his powers and Norman got his. Where Norman rashly underwent the experiment that turned him into a monster, Peter was bitten by the spider in the wake of politely, if flirtatiously in a shy sort of way, asking Mary Jane if he could take her picture for the school paper. Love for MJ connotated grace to Peter’s mind from the first: “Aunt May, Aunt May, is that an angel?” she recollects Peter bursting out when he first saw her. But Aunt May, too, was a figure of grace in Peter’s life, teaching him her values and still loving him even though Uncle Ben died when trying to pick him up from the library. A Eucharistic moment occurs at Thanksgiving, where after their abyssal confrontation in the burning building Peter’s bleeding cut raises Norman’s suspicions. The smell of his blood attracts the attention of the demonic foe, and the feast of Thanksgiving falls apart and is the catalyst for the Green Goblin fully targeting the whole man – Peter Parker and Spider-Man. A single man with two natures, the significantly named Peter has become the rock against which the Goblin will strive to prevail. Furious with Spider-Man for not joining him in his Satanic bid to join him at his side, Norman targets those Peter loves – starting with Aunt May.

Aunt May’s petitionary recitation of the Lord’s Prayer becomes what could be easily interpreted as a manifestation of grace. Before when the Green Goblin attacked publicly, people had died or suffered loss in a fire. But the human Norman Osborn makes a mistake with Aunt May’s prayer that no demon would. As she says “Deliver us,’ he sadistically cackles “Finish it,” where a real demon would have said, “Don’t bother finishing it – it’s no use.” She manages to conclude, “Deliver Us! – From Evil!” And despite the fearful suspense of that moment and many to follow, from that prayer forward that is exactly what happens – all innocent parties are delivered from evil. Aunt May is rattled but unharmed, the children and MJ are terrified but unscathed, and even the fairly battered Peter Parker has no lasting damage from his final battle with the Green Goblin, while the figure of evil is himself literally destroyed by his own devices.

It’s worth noting, actually, that when Christ gave His disciples the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer, he set it against the wrong kind of prayer that aggrandized the individual. Instead, as in the recommendation that the right hand not let the left know what it is doing, Spider-Man’s disguise becomes a heroic manifestation of Christ’s doctrine of secret devotion.[3] Reminiscent of Christ’s temptation in the Wilderness, the Green Goblin attempts to recruit Spider-Man to his side, but Peter Parker, devoted to the light of Uncle Ben’s belief in responsibility and the grace of Aunt May’s influence, rebukes Norman’s plea – “I’ve been like a father to you.” “I have a father. His name is Ben Parker.”

Go Forth to Love and Serve Your Neighbor

This turn of events might appear to sanction a naïve understanding of petitionary prayer if it weren’t for the events that followed concerning Peter’s closest friends. Harry believes Spider-Man responsible for his father’s death, unaware of Norman Osborn’s evil path, while MJ realizes that it is not Spider-Man but Peter she loves. But Peter realizes he cannot have any close relationships knowing the enemies his calling as a superhero can potentially elicit, as made clear in the painful irony of Harry telling Peter “thank God for you,” as he swears to kill Spider-Man, the same phrase used by Norman trying to covertly kill Spider-Man as he plaintively appeals to his paternal role with Peter. Realizing he must sacrifice his own desires to his calling, Peter goes forth to love and serve his neighborhood, believing he must subscribe not only to a romantic but to a total “gift of singleness” if he is to be effective as a hero. He claims his father’s sermonic proverb, “with great power comes great responsibility,” but in so doing makes himself a willing agent of his maternal aunt’s prayer. At the expense of his own happiness, he commits himself to delivering others from evil.

Connecting the hero’s journey to the liturgy invites comparison of Peter Parker to Christ, as I’ve already gestured at, but he is even better understood in terms of his namesake – the Apostle Peter. In the next post, I will discuss the significance of these typological parallels as they emerge in Spider-Man 2.

Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.

[1] See the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, pages 74-75 and 77.

[2] Goblin comes from the Latin gobelin, literally a lesser devil or imp.

[3] The Green Goblin diabolically parodies this injunction of keeping prayer modest by often literally not knowing what he is doing.

  • Anthony G. Cirilla