[Note: this article contains spoilers for those who have not seen Spider-Man 2. Which only pertains to about ten of you.]
It isn’t often that one goes to a big-budget action blockbuster and finds, among the stunts, gags and explosions, a wealth of spiritual truth. And I’m talking about pure spiritual truth, unobscured by theological ambiguities (The Matrix), gratuitous sex scenes (The Matrix Reloaded) or simply terrible acting (The Matrix Revolutions). Sorry Wachowskis, but you’ve just been bested by a dorky science student with a bad case of arachnid. I walked into Spider-Man 2 jonesing to see Spidey go web-to-tentacle with Doc Ock; I walked out with a deeper understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
See, when it comes to this particular superhero, it isn’t Spiderman who commands the audience’s attention. It’s Peter Parker, the average schmoe who just can’t catch a break. In Spider-Man 2, Peter not only has to combat multi-limbed scientists, but also has to figure out what it means to live with the consequences of his true self. His problems: his teacher thinks he’s lazy, his crush thinks he’s a jerk and his best friend thinks he’s a traitor. All this stems from the fact that he is called to a position that most of the world does not see or understand: using the superhuman qualities he acquired in the first film (courtesy of a genetically altered spider) for the protection of the innocent. The scene where Peter winds up missing Mary Jane’s theater performance (and incurring her wrath) because he had to take a detour foiling a carload of armed hoodlums perfectly encapsulates his dilemma. I connected so absolutely with Peter’s tragicomic miseries that, by the time the poor kid decides that Spiderman is better off in the trash, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. By that point, I was Peter Parker and Peter Parker was me.
The reason I felt such a kinship with Peter Parker is because I see in the problems Peter faces a profound metaphor of the Christian’s duty to offer his body as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). Our tribulations don’t stem from a calling to fight crime in tights, but they do stem from a calling to follow a man who fought (and triumphed over) the greatest evil the universe has ever known. As a result of his secret identity, Peter is slapped and cursed by his high school chum Harry; as a result of a man’s identity in Christ, his “enemies will be members of his own household” (Matthew 11:35). Peter rebels against his mission, looks out his window and demands, “Why can’t I have what I want?” At times, we do exactly the same thing to the Lord, to our own detriment. This isn’t about self-pity, or claiming that being a child of God is a state to be bemoaned. Rather it’s simply acknowledging the fact that, as followers of Jesus, we will have trouble in this world. John 16:33 doesn’t lie.
Despite the pain, though, the Christian still possesses an unquenchable hope, illustrated by the point where the parallels between Spidey and the Christian break down. In the film’s final minutes, Mary Jane shows up at his door and offers him her heart. But just as this particular issue is resolved, police sirens in the distance signal to Peter that his higher cause is still (and always will be) out there. Just as justice will perpetually be under attack in this fantasy world, so will Spiderman be perpetually called to defend it, without hope of any final resolution to the conflict. When the theater lights went up, I found myself in the opposite situation: I can’t even decide which girl I have a crush on, much less snag my dream girl. But whatever the immediate issue may be in my life, I draw strength from the fact that the battle to which I am called has a definite end: my God has overcome the world, and there will come a day when I know my Love fully, even as I am fully known (1 Cor. 13:12).
Spiderman 2 has its share of blistering action set pieces, but I don’t believe either the speeding train or the huge expanding fireball is the principal reason it raked in $40.5 million dollars on its first day. The public is flocking to see Spider-Man 2 because its themes challenge us all, whether we are merely aware that there is more to life than meets the eye, or are reminded of the difficult joys of Christ. And make no mistake – following Christ is a joy. At the film’s end, Peter Parker has rescued his costume from the trash and careens through the concrete jungle with unabashed bliss: in spite of turmoil and danger, he knows that his calling is worth it. So is our calling.