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Spider-Man, Iron Man, Superman, and the God-Man

July 25, 2012


This past decade has seen a plethora of movies dealing with superheroes: the “Batman” films, “The Green Lantern,” “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” etc. But the most popular—at least judging by box office receipts—has been the Spider-Man franchise. Since 2002, there have been four major movie adaptations of the Marvel Comics story of a kid who gets bitten by a spider, undergoes a stunning metamorphosis, and then “catches thieves just like flies.” 

What is it about these stories—and the Spider-Man tale in particular—that fascinate us? May I suggest that it has something to do with Christianity, more precisely, with the strange hybrid figure around which all of the Christian religion revolves. St. Athanasius’s most significant contribution to the Christological debates of the early centuries of the Church’s life was a soteriological argument for the dual nature of Jesus. In the saint’s pithy formula: only a human being could save us; and only God could save us. If Jesus were only divine—as the Monophysites argued—then his saving power wouldn’t be truly applied to us. If he were only human—as the Arians and Nestorians argued—then he could not really lift us out of the morass of sin and guilt in which we find ourselves mired. In a word, salvation was possible only through a God-man, someone in the world but not of it, someone like us in all things but sin, and at the same time utterly unlike us. 

I can’t help but hear an echo of the ancient Christological doctrine in the latest crop of films featuring Batman, Superman and Spider-Man. All three of these superheroes are hybrids—combinations of the extraordinary and the ordinary. In all three cases we have someone who, in his lowliness, is able completely to identify and sympathize with our suffering and, in his transcendence, is able to do something about it. A particular charm of the recently released “The Amazing Spider-Man” is that Andrew Garfield, the actor who plays Peter Parker, is quite obviously an ordinary and even geeky kid who at decisive moments gracefully demonstrates godlike powers.

Another obliquely Christological feature of the new Spider-Man film—and in some of the other superhero movies as well—is the motif of mission and vocation. Once aware that he is in full possession of stunning physical capabilities, Peter mercilessly taunts an obnoxious classmate, who had, some time before, humiliated him. His Uncle Ben, skillfully underplayed by the always-watchable Martin Sheen, quickly upbraids the young man for indulging a crude desire for revenge. Precisely how he should use the gifts he has discovered emerges as perhaps the central theme of the movie. Should he use them as the means to aggrandize his ego and settle old scores? Or should he make them ingredient in a program of protection and service—a program of love? Both Matthew and Luke portray Jesus, at the beginning of his public career, wrestling with the meaning and implication of his Messiahship. He indeed knew himself to be the beloved son of his heavenly Father, but what did this identity entail? The classical interpretation of these accounts of Jesus’ time in the desert is that the Lord confronted and finally resisted the temptation to use his Messianic authority for the acquisition of sensual pleasure, for the puffing up of his ego, and for power. It is the conviction of the Church that every baptized and confirmed person has been equipped with gifts from the Holy Spirit, which are participations in the identity of Christ Jesus. The whole drama of an individual’s life hinges on the decision concerning the use of those gifts. As Peter Parker’s literature professor puts it toward the end of the film, “There is finally only one plot line to every story ever written, namely, who am I?” 

A third theological theme in “The Amazing Spider-Man”—and in the Batman movies, “Iron Man,” and “The Avengers” as well—is that of knowledge and the abuse of knowledge. When the Spider-Man comics were written in the 1950’s, during the Cold War, there was a great deal of concern in the general culture about the way science was being used for less than constructive purposes. In the current film, Peter Parker’s father and his colleague, Dr. Connors, are endeavoring through biological research to perfect the technique of mixing species in order to address a variety of human ailments and deformities. Their motives might have been laudable but their hubris was unconstrained, and the results of their overreaching proved a disaster. The Biblical story of original sin centers on an act of grasping at knowledge. This is not tantamount to a disavowal of knowledge as such, but it is indeed a warning that the use of knowledge as a means of achieving godlike control over nature is nefarious. The conceit that we can eliminate all suffering—physical, political, psychological—through the exercise of reason has invariably resulted in an increase in suffering, as the secularist ideologies of the last century amply prove. Though Jesus certainly cured some, the heart of his salvific work was not the total eradication of human pain but precisely his own embrace of it. This indispensible Christ move, I would argue, is present in almost all of the superhero movies to which I alluded above.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” and its cinematic cousins might appear to be just summer popcorn movies, but upon closer examination it appears that they carry a considerable amount of theological weight.