Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Spider-Man Theology

Last night we watched a DVD of Spider-Man 3 and I was struck by the film's exploration of some key theological themes. One was the destructive reality of sin in our lives. Peter Parker aka Spider-Man is shown to be so obsessed with his own fame and success that he is incapable of sympathising with his troubled sweetheart, Mary Jane. For Parker, it is all "me, me, me". He wants to propose to MJ and shares his plans with aunt May. She kindly offers him her own engagement ring, but warns him that a husband has to put his wife before himself. Parker realises that he cannot do this. Ultimately his insensitivity coupled with flirtation with other girls alienates MJ and their relationship founders.

Early in the film we see a black substance, which turns out to be an alien symbiote attach itself to Peter's scooter. The symbiote creates a new supercharged spidey-suit that gives Spider-Man extra powers. But it also makes Peter more aggressive and vengeful. It is explained that the symbiote amplifies the characteristics of its host. Parker is aware of the destructiveness of this amplified self-expression, but he enjoys the power boost he gets from wearing the black suit. The question is raised, "How long can any man fight the darkness... before he finds it in himself?" This is a reminder that the human heart is a heart of darkness. It is from within that that all manner of wickedness flows (Jeremiah 17:9, Mark 7:21-23). Parker vengefully hunts down Flint Marko, the "Sandman" who killed his uncle and tries to wipe him out. Then he gets into a fight with his best friend, Harry, tossing a grenade at him for good measure. When a work-rival Eddie Brock steals his job, Parker spitefully exposes his photographic fraud just to get his own back. Peter has forgotten the last words of his uncle that "with great power comes great responsibility."

Eventually Parker frees himself of the symbiote, which then attaches itself to Brock. He then takes the form of Venom, a kind of evil Spider-Man. Together with the Sandman, Brock takes MJ hostage to get at Spider-Man. Peter Parker asks Harry to help him defeat his foes and save MJ. Initially he refuses, but when his butler reveals that Spider-Man did not kill his father, he zooms to Spider-Man's assistance. Together they defeat Venom and the Sandman, but at a cost. Harry is fatally wounded saving his old friend Peter Parker. Harry and Peter are reconciled before Harry dies. There are echoes here of Jesus' words, "Greater love has no-one than this than to lay down one's life for his friends." (John 15:13). The Sandman reappears in the human form of Flint Marko and explains to Peter that he only stole money to help his sick daughter and that he did not mean to kill Parker's uncle. The cycle of violence and revenge is ended in a cathartic moment as Parker says, "I forgive you." Marko breaks down into dust and is blown away. MJ and Peter begin to mend their relationship in the wake of Harry's funeral.

The sinfulness of human nature, the futility of revenge, the grace of forgiveness and the reconciling power of self-sacrifice are all given powerful expression in this film. Towards the end of the movie, a repentant Peter Parker reflects, "Whatever battles rages inside us, we always have a choice… it’s the choices that make us who we are, and we can always choose to do right." God will certainly hold us accountable for our choices. But the Calvinist in me balks at the suggestion that, "we can always choose to do right". The human predicament is worse than Spider-Man suggests. As Jesus says, "whoever commits sin is a slave of sin" (John 8:34). By nature we "love darkness rather than light because our deeds are evil" (John 3:19). Our hope is not in unaided freedom of choice, because the very choices we make are skewed by slavery to sin. We need One who can liberate us from our thralldom to the dark power of sin. Who can do this? Such a liberation is beyond the power of the greatest Superhero. But Jesus said, "if the Son makes you free you shall be free indeed." (John 8:36). The Lord Jesus laid down his life to 'break the power of cancelled sin and set the prisoner free'. In him we can walk in light and liberty. Even for the believer there is still a struggle against sin as "the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh, so you do not do the things that you wish." (Galatians 5:17). But we know that "sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace." (Romans 6:14).

We saw Spider-Man 3 in the cinema when it first came out. But it is only on watching the DVD last night that the "theology" of the film really hit home. It goes to show that even a big Hollywood blockbuster can thrown some light on the human condition, even if that light needs to be further illuminated by the gospel of Christ.

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