In the previous post, we considered Spider-Man as a type of liturgical hero, who learns the meaning of the proverbial words which guide him into his heroic actions. Because it is an origin story, the original Spider-Man is a relatively complete hero’s journey, which is part of what made it appealing to consider in terms of liturgical structure. Sequels of such narratives tend to examine more closely specific facets or stages of the hero’s journey where elements of the heroic figure can be refined or perfected. Although less explicit in its Christian imagery than the first film, Spider-Man 2 offers a chance to more deeply understand Peter Parker in reference to his heroic identity’s theological subtext as it relates to the Apostle Peter. The opening credits relay photo-realistic paintings of scenes from the first film, refreshing its narrative structure in the viewer’s mind. This montage ends with Peter Parker somberly walking away from Mary Jane Watson as she looks on from his uncle’s grave, highlighting the bitter isolation of his heroic identity.
With Great Power Comes Great Temptation to Refuse Responsibility
Drawing on the pain of that isolation, Spider-Man 2 explores what Joseph Campbell terms the refusal of the call, where the hero discovers internal resistance to his desire to be a hero: “So it is that sometimes the predicament following an obstinate refusal of the call proves to be the occasion of a providential revelation of some unsuspected release” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 53). For Peter, it’s not clear why his powers have disappeared, but for the audience, it’s all too clear: because of his responsibilities as Spider-Man, the girl of his dreams no longer trusts him, his best friend Harry Osborn sees him as a turncoat for being friends with his father’s killer, his academic aspirations are crumbling as professors begin to see him as a flake, and even a side-job as a pizza delivery guy has become untenable. The motivation for rejecting his superhero calling is painfully obvious.
Peter’s reluctance (at first subconscious) to obey the wisdom of Uncle Ben to take up responsibility in proportion to his power serves to distance Peter from being seen as a Christ figure. Of course, there is some Christological imagery latent in any superhero, where power beyond what is normal to tame chaos back into order manifests in the hero’s deeds. Peter’s capacity for sin, exhibited in the first movie when he let a violent robber get away for reasons of petty revenge, make him less a type of Christ and more a type of Christian. And the type of Christian involved specifically is in his name: Peter. Literary critics often point out Christological imagery, but of course it can never be forgotten that in some sense the Christian paradigm asks all Christians to manifest, through submission to the teachings of Jesus, a Christlike figure. Prominent among these figures in Scripture is the Apostle Peter. Seeing Peter Parker in a “petrological” light brings new meaning, I think, to the Christian imagery of the entire Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy but to Spider-Man 2 in particular.
Exhibiting the “refusal of the call” in real life, the Apostle Peter falls asleep at the Garden of Gethsemane when he should be keeping vigil while his Master prays and then denies Christ three times in spite of his eager promises and the warning that the denial would come. Merging the moral acedia of the disciples at Gethsemane with the Apostle Peter’s betrayal, Peter Parker will deny Uncle Ben’s plea to remain steadfast in what appears to be a dream vision of sorts. Peter Parker’s opening voice over make clear his motivation for denying his calling: “Mary Jane Watson. Oh boy. If she only knew how I felt about her. But she can never know. I made a choice once to live a life of responsibility, a life she can never be a part of.” Peter’s belief in responsibility tugs him two ways – to save people as a hero and to deliver pizzas as a delivery guy. And his love for Mary Jane pits his personal longing against this fractured responsibility.
Worse, the weight of negative appraisal of Spider-Man from the Daily Bugle burdening Parker parallels with the negative response to living out Christian duty Saint Peter warns about in his first epistle:, “If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified” (1 Peter 4:14). One might say to Peter Parker, “If ye be reproached for the responsibility of being Spider-Man, happy are ye.” But this may seem like easier advice to give than to follow, especially when the reproach comes from one’s employer, as it does for Peter who is reviled by the very news organization to whom he delivers photographs of his alter-ego to keep his finances afloat.
Fired by his boss and reprimanded by his professor for, unbeknownst to them, privileging saving others at the expense of his own benefit, he begins to waver in his vision like the Apostle Peter in Matthew 14:28-30: “And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.” Subconsciously, Peter has begun to dissociate from his identity as Spider-Man, to look at the turbulence caused in his personal life by his heroic calling instead of the value of that identity itself.
From Suppressed Doubt to Selfish Denial
Peter Parker had looked to Uncle Ben as his standard of personal responsibility, the sacrificial father figure whom he is painfully reminded of when Aunt May tearfully pushes twenty dollars into her destitute nephew’s hand despite her own financial struggles. She says, “It’s just that I miss your Uncle Ben so much. Can you believe that it’s two years next month since he was taken? I think to myself sometimes were I to face the one responsible for what happened… Oh I don’t know what I would do.” Of course, some of that responsibility falls to Peter, and to the choices he had made when he first gained his enhanced abilities. The very figure calling him to be Spider-Man becomes a source of guilt that challenges his willingness to answer that call.
In the wake of Peter feeling crushed by the stunning revelation that Mary Jane has accepted the proposal of J. Jonah Jameson’s son, he experiences that second, dangerous experience of losing his powers mid-swing, leading him to seek professional help. In a confused, dishonest bid to get help from a primary care physician likely untrained in resuscitating superhuman powers bequeathed by genetically modified spiders, Peter explains that his friend has a disturbing dream where Spider-Man keeps losing his powers. “Oh, somebody else’s dream,” says the doctor, signaling his shift from physician to confidant as he removes his glasses and sits next to Peter. The doctor’s remark shows veiled awareness that it is not someone else’s dream, but unknowingly gets at something true: in a real sense, Peter Parker has envisioned his role as Spider-Man as someone else’s dream – Uncle Ben’s.
Like a Christian realizing his faith is not his own but rather his parents’, Peter tellingly attributes even the symbolic notion of being Spider-Man to someone else. When Parker says he doesn’t know why his friend feels he ought to be Spider-Man in this dream, the doctor says, “It’s gotta make you mad not to know who you are. Your soul disappears. Nothing’s as bad as uncertainty. Listen. Maybe you’re not supposed to be Spider-Man climbing those walls. That’s why you keep falling. You always have a choice, Peter.” There’s some real psychoanalytical wisdom here, but what the doctor doesn’t know, in addition to the fact that his powers aren’t a dream, is that much of Peter’s uncertainty about his lack of heroic identity comes from his hyper-individualistic, almost hermetic understanding of his responsibilities. By formulating his self-image as one so deeply isolated, Peter introduced an alienation with himself that only wanted external confirmation to go from doubt to denial.
Great Responsibility Comes from Submission, Not Surrender
It’s no accident that the catalyst for Peter Parker to return to the heroic life is his Aunt May, who thanks the statue of an angel when Spider-Man hung her from its outstretched hand after rescuing the rattled woman from Doctor Octopus. But Aunt May rescues the internal alliance between Peter Parker and Spider-Man when she forgives him for deceiving her about the circumstances of Uncle Ben’s death. “I’m responsible,” he tells her, finally submitting to his duty to confess – and in so doing finding a very different sense of the word in Uncle Ben’s proverb. Aunt May tells him, “Too few characters out there, flying around like that saving old girls like me. And Lord knows, kids… need a hero. Courageous, self-sacrificing people setting examples for all of us… I believe there’s 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.” An angel rescued the Apostle Peter from prison, and Aunt May rescues Peter from a life of guilt where he walks away from innocents mugged in alleyways.
But heroism requires sacrifice, and that gets him to try to be Spider-Man again. However, when Peter attempts to resume the mantle, his powers fail to manifest through sheer exertion of will: “Strong focus on what I want,” he says, leaping off a building and rocketing to the parking lot below gracelessly. Only when Mary Jane is taken from him as she tries to confess her love does Peter recover his superhuman strength. It is submission to the love for Mary Jane, not surrender of it, which wins Parker’s heart back to the responsibilities of Spider-Man.
The ensuing battle, still one of the finest in the much-expanded oeuvre of superhero fight scenes in cinema since 2004, contains the most explicitly Christian imagery of the film. Chasing Doc Oc to a train, their battle leads to Otto destroying the control panel and sending the train towards a deadly plunge. In the struggle to stop Otto Octavius’s runaway train, Peter Parker discovers that he is definitely not Superman when he tries to stop it through sheer force. Instead, he leverages himself against the surrounding building with numerous strands of webbing, his back faced against the hurtling locomotive as his suit begins to rip and his face reddens with the strain. Peter’s arms splayed out are unmistakably reminiscent of the crucifixion – he even bears a noticeable gash in his right side reminiscent of the “true right” traditional depiction of Christ’s passion on the cross.
This imagery of the crucifix does not simply collapse Peter Parker back into a Christ figure. In the wake of reprimanding the Apostle Peter for denying Christ’s teaching about his eventual death, Christ says to all of his disciples, “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Fear of self-denial was precisely what had stopped Parker from embracing his Spider-Man identity, but in this moment, saving the passengers of the train in his quest to rescue Mary Jane, he recovers his sacrificial heroism. Passing out from the agony, Peter is taken gently into the cabin by the passengers in a moment reminiscent of the pieta, traditional depictions of Christ being taken down from the cross with devotional adoration. Saved by the crowd he has just saved, Peter’s identity is protected out of their gratitude. Harkening to a similar scene from the first film, Spider-Man’s communal heroics edify his admirers to be heroes too, just as biblical saints like Peter give us an example in striving for Christlike sainthood.
Peter had to align his implicit motivations with his explicit intentions, which could not just come from an act of will but from the needs of the moment – from the grace that originally gave him his powers. Octavius mirrors Peter Parker in this regard, despite his rebuke to Parker early on: “Intelligence is not a privilege; it’s a gift, and you use it for the good of mankind.” But Otto’s explicitly benevolent intention hides another, more sinister motivation which emerges when his artificial limbs first hold the results of his fusion experiment: “The power of the sun in the palm of my hand.” Good will can all the more effectively hide prideful motivations, the spiritual flaw adjacent to the scientific error that leads to a benevolent scientist becoming a supervillain. The sun, of course, has been a symbol for God in ancient Christian writers, so in resisting Otto’s desire to create a fake sun, Spider-Man resists a Tower of Babel impulse. But he had to quell his own rebellion to responsibility before that could be possible. That Spider-Man is restored to power by embracing, not surrendering, his love for MJ when she rejects his self-imposed asceticism makes the narrative more Christian rather than less. We must be on guard as Christians against latent resentment to the duties of our faith, and the primary way to do this is to avoid arbitrary and hyperbolic expectations of what our faith actually demands that are not rooted in Scripture. Peter, rightly wanting to protect his identity, did so at the expense of honesty with his most important relationships. Uncle Ben’s comment that with great power comes great responsibility applies not only to his superpowers (Ben didn’t even mean to comment on them) but to the power he has in his relationships – with MJ and Harry especially. Likewise, we need to be aware that doing the right thing may sometimes incur judgmental speech against us, and this may weaken our resolve. Peter Parker’s monastic commitment to his duties as Spider-Man became unnecessarily harmful to his communal responsibilities as Peter Parker. By remembering to center his core identity around his immediate duties to his loved ones, Peter was able to reforge his identity as a humble hero standing against the proud.