Jul 17, 2007

Spider-Man and the Mortification of Sin

Okay, I know I've taken my time to get around to it, but I finally saw Spider-Man 3 today. I took my time mainly to save money and go to the discount theater. Also because some of my acquaintances told me it wasn't all that good. After having seen it, I must beg to differ. I really enjoyed it. I'm not yet sure which of the Spidey flicks is my favorite, but this one is a contender.

There are several reasons for this judgment. For one thing, the special effects and action sequences are top notch. I even liked (contrary to some of the aforementioned friends) the romance aspects of the movie (though the scene in the Jazz Club was silly--and Peter Parker be-boppin down the street in a zoot suit was downright goofy!). But, what I liked the most about the movie were the obvious spiritual metaphors in the plot.

For the observant Christian viewer, there are some clear connections (intended or unintended I'm not sure) with Christian theology. I haven't read many reviews of the movie, so perhaps others have already pointed this out--but the black-suit/red suit contrast echoes the biblical theme of taking off the old man and putting on the new man. Along with that theme is the idea of the Christian's struggle agains indwelling sin and the importance of mortifying it. In the film, Spider-Man's body (or is it his suit?) is infected with an alien substance that amplifies his negative characteristics (e.g., his selfishness, desire for revenge, etc.) and turns him into the black-suited Spider-Man. He is led to do some pretty dastardly things under the suit's influence. Eventually Spider-Man realizes that he is being dominated by an evil force and has to fight with all his might to remove the black suit. Interestingly (and this can't be an accident), the climax of his struggle takes place in a church. The symbolism is striking. With the implied help of divine grace, Spider-Man is able to tear off the black suit (the old man with its carnal lusts) and put on the red suit (the new man renewed in holiness and virtue).

Of course, the movie sounds the Christian "bell" with less than crystal clarity. At one point in the movie, Aunt May reminds Peter that he is a "good man" who will find his way. Christians know that there is no one good but God. But, perhaps this is just Aunt May's distorted sentimentalism. When she says this to Peter, he doesn't look entirely convinced. Maybe he knows better--knows, that is, that he really isn't all that good. At the end of the movie he is able to forgive Marko Flint for killing his uncle mainly because he realizes (and confesses) that he has done some bad things too--reminiscent of the Christian call to forgive others because we are forgiven sinners ourselves. In any case the movie does seem a bit ambiguous about whether evil is something outside us that seeks to dominate otherwise good people, or whether evil come from within us. But, as I see it anyway, the movie tends to lean in the latter (Christian) direction as suggested by the fact that the alien substance amplifies bad tendencies in people rather than creates them.

The first Spider-Man movie gave us the well-worn catch-phase "With great power comes great responsibility." This third installment ends with a new one: "We can always choose to do what is right." From a Christian point of view, this is only true with qualification. The Apostle Paul said that "the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able [to do so], and those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom 8:7-8). However, those who have been given the new birth, who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, can always choose to do what is right. We can indeed take off the old man and put on the new, and "be imitators of God" (Eph. 5:1). Not because we are intrinsically good, but because God is "at work in us to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13).


Toph Morris said...

Maybe I can help clarify a couple of things:

One reason you've heard a lot of people say they didn't like the movie was a certain disconnect from the comic book origins of the characters and events portrayed. For example, a lot of die-hard Spidey fans I know absolutely HATED the way that Venom was portrayed. In the comics, Venom is this large, muscular guy who had worked for a rival newspaper (the Daily Globe, in the comics), and had gone out on a limb to expose the real identity of this villian who called himself the Sin-Eater (kind of a modern-day Jack the Ripper who used a shotgun instead of a knife), during a 4-issue arc way back in "Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man", I BELIEVE #'s 107-110. Spider-Man unmasked the villian and proved Brock wrong, leading Brock to hate Spider-Man with a vengeance. In the movie, he's portrayed by Topher Grace as being kind of the dark-side of Spider-Man (something I figured when I first heard Grace had been cast in the film). Sam Raimi took a LOT of liberties with Venom, and it ticked some people off. Other people just hated "emo-Peter," who was being turned to the "dark side" by the black suit. It got a chuckle out of my friend Justin, though, so I didn't mind it so much the first time I saw it. ALL THREE movies had some truly hokey moments... that's just Sam Raimi and his sense of humor.

The church scenario is straight out of "Web of Spider-Man" #1. Before Venom was even introduced, the black suit managed to escape confinement in the Fantastic Four's HQ, and sought down Spidey, leading to an issue-long struggle to get the thing off his body. It had already been revealed that the suit was weak to sonics, so the struggle was concluded in a church's bell tower. The point in the issue was that being that close to a ringing church bell should've turned anyone's brains to mush, and Peter would rather have died than let the suit take over.

What Sam Raimi did was take some of the more compelling scenes from the comics (such as the church sequence), and gave his own spin on the events. Whether or not he intentionally had a spiritual metaphor in mind, I honestly can't say. I would suggest that at least some of it is deliberate, as Spider-Man 2 had some VERY distinct and obvious references to Christianity (I'm thinking of the end of the elevated train scenario). But I have no idea what Sam Raimi's beliefs are, so I can't verify or rebutt.

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