And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. —Romans 8:28
When Stan Lee passed away last November I briefly considered writing this article. Yet in spite of the desire, I found myself without the words to approach the concept I wanted to touch upon. The death of one of the greatest pop artists of the 20th century put me in a place of cognitive dissonance and left me considering what I could contribute to the conversation. Now with two additional Spiderman films under our collective belts since then, I’m feeling more confident to speak on what I wanted to say then. Of all of the man’s great contributions to comic books and popular entertainment, his creation of Spiderman remains one of his most important and beloved.
The character is celebrated next to Superman and Batman as one of the foundational characters in all superhero comics and there’s a good reason for that. As much as his work is defined by its swashbuckling action and beautiful art the most important thing that’s made Spiderman as vital of a character as he is has been the character’s themes and vision of the world his stories suggest.
Put simply, life is difficult. This is especially true for Spiderman.
This sentiment was captured beautifully in one of the most famous quotes in the entire superhero genre. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Spiderman’s moralism and occasionally dour themes always reflect this reality. Peter Parker as a character is both incredibly intelligent and gifted with immense power yet none of that power gives him the ability to totally resolve every problem in his life. Being as strong as he is, the weight of the world still crushes him in painful, irreparable and frequently banal ways.
Sometimes it can be as little as merely not being able to keep up with all the lives he’s living at once. At other times the weight of his choices can result in the deaths of people he cares about like Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy. As hard as all of this is, Peter Parker is still a joyful and happy person who manages to survive in spite of the circumstances. As we come to see in all great Spiderman stories, life is difficult but we can bare it.
In this past year, we’ve gotten more premium Spiderman content than I’ve ever seen a major character receive in such a short period of time. The character was a major player in both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, his most famous villain Venom got his own movie spin-off, he was the lead of a major blockbuster video game Spiderman (PS4), he got one of the best-animated film adaptations of the year with Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, and finally he returned just this past week in Spiderman: Far from Home. I’ve also been told his recent comics are quite good too.
Five movie appearances and a huge critically acclaimed video game might’ve all felt tedious but the different interpretations, styles, and tones of each story tangentially related to Spiderman were so different and unique that it never felt tedious. Watching Spiderman fight Thanos was a totally different experience than playing him as he web slings through New York City.
Having so many interpretations of the character in close proximity offers a certain amount of reflection when you get to see so many versions of the character at once. Seeing him young and old in adaptations of varying loyalty to the comics, highlights different aspects of the nature of the character. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Peter Parker being a Tony Stark protege with a chip on his shoulder regarding his worthiness to join the Avengers is a totally different take than Mile Morales’ inheritance story-arc in Spiderverse.
Yet all of these stories carry the same sense of dread and responsibility in every version of the character. The one thing that every (good) interpretation of Spiderman carries with it is the immense weight of the challenge that Peter Parker constantly has to deal with. These stories are as much wish fulfillment as they are an expression of youthful pain and hardship. They’re stories about the crushing weight of life, it’s expectations, and the ability to take responsibility for your actions within difficult circumstances. Spiderman is the most relatable superhero of all time because his powers don’t make his life easier. His amazing powers only add one more layer to an already complicated life.
Maybe no story of his better dramatized this notion than what’s arguably the greatest Spiderman movie of all time, Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 2. I recognize those are fighting words to some on the internet who legitimately prefer The Amazing Spider-Man or Spiderman: Homecoming as their preferred adaptations. To me though nothing that has come out since Spiderman 2 has matched the perfection that this movie achieved.
I’ve loved Sam Raimi’s adaptation of the character since before I loved superheroes and they represented some of my favorite cinematic experiences as a child growing up in the early 2000s. As corny as they are, they’re textured, well-directed, dramatic, and meaningful stories that plant their plots directly in the tragedy of Peter Parker’s life while still staying light-hearted and family friendly. It even arguably edges out The Dark Knight for me as the best superhero movie of all time in so far as it’s a perfect adaptation that preserves the tone and style of the original Stan Lee/Ditko Spiderman comics whereas Nolan’s Batman is a radical reinterpretation.
Spiderman 2‘s greatest strength is the degree to which is pushes Peter Parker to the edge of his abilities. It’s literally a movie about burning out under the weight of life’s pressures as he grapples with paying the rent, keeping up a job, maintaining his college work, maintaining his relationship with Mary Jane, and keeping up his responsibly as Spiderman. The movie dramatizes that sometimes life throws too much at you and you have to make choices about what you can and cannot prioritize in your life. He can’t be Spiderman AND be a happy, healthy adult with a job and good grades.
At the same time maintaining a happy healthy relationship with Mary Jane is effectively impossible as well and Peter chooses twice in the first and second film to purposely distance himself from her for her own good. This is a painful thing to realize in life and the movie plays the theme out perfectly. It’s even reflected in the story arc of the movie’s villain Doc Oc, who also has to come to realize that he can’t control everything and fix the world singlehandedly without doing immense damage and destruction in the process.
With the recent onset of Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse and Spiderman: Far From Home we see very similar explorations of these same themes. In the latter, Peter is so utterly burdened by the loss of Tony Stark that he tries giving away the responsibility of taking the mantle of Tony’s legacy to the first superhero he trusts. As a result he nearly causes the destruction of a major city and has to learn to personally take up the mantle of responsibility for himself.
As a result of this story arc of self actualization, he finally becomes the Spiderman we’ve known and loved who trusts his senses and his abilities which we see literally played out as he swings across Manhattan in the MCU for the first time in the movie’s closing minutes. Spiderverse explores the same themes very similarly. Just by inheriting the powers of Spiderman, Peter Parker respects Miles Morales as his inheritor and the movie ultimately becomes a story of Miles learning to take a leap of faith and trust in his abilities.
As heavy and occasionally dark as all these themes are though they’re always played out in consistently fun and playful movies that almost everyone loves. People can be quite opinionated about who their favorite actor playing the character is but you’ll mean few people outside of those who just hate all superhero stories who dislike Spiderman and everything he’s been in. Whatever your favorite version is, you’ve probably loved the character for a long time like me. That love comes from a place of joy and laughter because these movies and comics are multifaceted enough to blend the difficult truths about life into stories about good triumphing over evil and being able to fly across the skyline with amazing powers. These aren’t depressing stories. They’re fun blockbuster adventure stories that aren’t afraid to occasionally be horrific and painful.
What is our takeaway as Christians from the playful tragedy of Peter Parker? The character and initial stories are largely secular in origin. Stan Lee was an agnostic formerly Jewish man in life who seemingly never chose to live his life by religious standards outwardly. These stories never really address religion all that frequently. More often than not, they’re stories that lionize science, technology, and individual ability over metaphysical notions of life.
Even when he’s fighting alongside more cosmic characters like Doctor Strange, Spiderman is a character whose entire identity and ethos is rooted in modern, materialistic life. What Stan Lee and every Spiderman writer since captures so perfectly is the difficulty of living in a fallen materialistic world. What’s presented is a secular morality play about how to move through life with strength, courage, and joy in spite of the harshness that life throws at us. It’s a reminder that actions have consequences that we have to live with but that this doesn’t make life unendurable.
As Christians, we know that embracing faith doesn’t make life easier. Much to the contrary, often it can mean making life more complicated by adding additional commitments and monetary requirements to our already strapped lives. That’s the nature of living in a broken world. Often the more we personally move towards the light the more we face direct challenges and stress. That’s the paradox of life.
Like Peter Parker, the more we take on the world the more it crushes us until we want to burn out and give up. Very few of us trust in our abilities to make the right decisions and as a result many people give up on faith before even trying. It’s all to easy to resign ourselves to our fate and simply live out our lives making easy decisions that don’t help us. At the end of the day, what defines us in life and faith is our choices. We won’t succeed because we’re incapable of total success in the manner that Christ was able to live out in his time on Earth. What we can do is plant ourselves in the right direction and walk forward. To quote Stan Lee, “That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero.”
Maybe a Christian is simply someone who decides to try to do the right thing in following Christ. We live in a world of sin as creatures permanently shy of attaining our full potential. We cannot save ourselves but the decision to move forward in the world with faith and love for Christ’s message offers us personal salvation from this world. We must personally live with courage and joy in a world that will attempt to bury us. That all starts with a leap of faith and a willingness to embrace the danger that follows.