Spider-Man is my savior. There, I said it. And that comes from more than two decades’ worth of neon-highlighted scripture skimming, from a man whose blood runs deep with parables passed down from his preacher father and preacher grandfather. From them, I came to know God early on in church, school, Bible study, choir rehearsal and Christmas plays on Sundays. But as a kid, I found religion on Saturdays off a busy street near my house in a one-room shop called Stand-Up Comics. That is where I met Peter Parker, the man of the blue and red cloth.
My first impression of Spider-Man was that—unlike Superman—he was the most self-conscious superhero I had ever seen. The comic’s cover read, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” but he was a regular Joe, a socially stagnant science whiz with ambitions to be bigger, faster and flashier. After a radioactive spider bit him, he gained spider-like powers (sticky hands, super-strength, a sixth sense) and had to learn to use them responsibly. But somewhere between thought comic book word bubbles about chemistry labs and secret crushes and run-ins with flaming pumpkins, I saw a story of a teenager on a path to understand and harness the power within. In much the same way, the Bible refers to Jesus growing in stature and maturity and understanding His mission was a process.
I did not see it like that in the beginning. I used to believe that if Jesus existed in a comic realm, it would be in DC Comics, Marvel’s rival for decades. In DC’s universe, larger-than-life heroes like Superman and Batman wore billowing capes and fought to defeat arch villains and stood for sound morals and positive messages. Yet, they seemed out of reach, untouchable, iconic figments of fantastic imaginations. Growing up, this is how I saw God, as a divine entity who swooped down when we called out for help. But with that idea, I was constantly only looking outward and upward hoping the “bird or plane” in the sky was a blessing in disguise.
Watching Superman Returns on opening day last summer, I realized how much they tried to make Superman a Christ figure—but the movie overflowed with forced religious symbolism: prayers to his existential father, a scene where bad guys beat him down similar to a scene with Jesus in Passion of the Christ and a moment after he saves the world where a suffering Superman hangs in mid-air with his arms outstretched in true crucifixion form. He looked more like some far-flung sun god than the Son of Man.
The comic universe which created him has always stood firm on the foundation of fantasy worlds and epic figures from places afar. Superman came from the distant planet Krypton, so despite awkward attempts as his alter ego, Clark Kent, he can never be human. And this difference is critical. Jesus did come from another world and was fully God, but he was also fully human, more like Parker, who was bred in a real-life city (New York) with relatable, angst-ridden problems.
Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Spider-Man in the late 1950s and early 1960s as an ordinary teenager who was given special abilities. The stories showed Parker as more man than a messiah figure. He struggled with insecurity, instability and uncertainty. But this is what made Spider-Man such a superhero. He was vulnerable.
In The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture, a collection of essays edited by B.J. Oropeza, the essayist says this:
Mortals like us can identify with what is human about a savior. Jesus worked as a carpenter, grew hungry, tired, cried at the loss of loved ones, and of course, suffered and sacrificed Himself for others. It is definitely in the humanity rather than the deity of Christ that we see reflections of Spider-Man most clearly.
The opposite would be true for Superman, who personifies Christ only as godhead. Upon reading the Gnostic Gospels, I realized the flaw in my view of God as merely an external presence somewhere in the heavens. The Gnostics (named after the term “Gnosis,” which is Greek for knowledge) were outsiders to mainstream Christians, who dismissed their ideals as heresy and excluded the writings from the standard versions of the Bible (they are included in the New Testament apocrypha). The Gnostic Gospels—which included documents such as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas—made Spider-Man’s struggle more significant to me.
Verse 112 of the Gospel of Thomas poetically paints the picture: “Damn the flesh that depends on the soul. Damn the soul that depends on the flesh.”
I see now that Spider-Man illustrates the constant struggle between spirit and flesh, the tug-of-war between light and dark forces.
That idea resonates in Spider-Man 3, which swings into theaters on May 4. Just as Parker is settling down and finding balance between his job as a superhero and his relationship with longtime love interest Mary Jane Watson, he discovers a mysterious black substance that covers his suit and conjures a never-before-seen dark side. He loses sight of the ones he loves as he gives into the aggression that the new goo brings forth. Parker must fight formidable villains such as Sandman and the New Goblin, but his ultimate battle lies within, where he must choose to overcome the temptation of his darker self and use his power for good.
In the wide world of comics, Superman will forever reign supreme as the absolute icon, the modern, mythic Man of Steel who always saves the world and never sweats out his curl. But Spider-Man inspires me more because he is one of us. He is ordinary, a human with a divine purpose: to follow the path within to a higher power.