Spiderman III: Christian Themes in Superhero Mythology

The Spiderman movie franchise is mythology at its best. Here, I am speaking of myth in the old sense as “A story of great but unknown age which originally embodied a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience, and in which often the forces of nature and of the soul are personified.” 1 The Spiderman story on its surface is classic comic-book silliness, with super-villains and super-heroes popping up like weeds in response to spider bites and experiments gone haywire, plus extended action sequences featuring physics from an alternate reality 2 But each movie also has the additional threads of the drama of personal relationships, especially romance, and serious moral themes visualized. In Christian terms, I would summarize the principal moral theme of Spiderman I as “To whom much is given, much will be required.”3 (“With great power comes great responsibility.”) In Spiderman II, Parker must persevere in the face of pressure and discouragement, and when Dr. Octavius puts his work above even the lives of his friends and coworkers, this choice is visualized dramatically with the failure of the chip that prevents his primary tool, artificially intelligent arms, from taking over his mind.

Spiderman III takes moral visualization to a new level, and it does this without losing popular appeal.4 This is what the comic book genre does best. The first two movies had Christian symbols: Aunt May invokes the Lord's prayer when terrorized by the Green Goblin, and is saved from a fatal fall by a statue of the Virgin Mary. But the moral themes visualized in the third movie are much more explicitly Christian.

Near the beginning, we see an alien black something evoking Genesis 4:9, “If you do well, won't you be accepted? But if you don't do well, sin is lying outside your door ready to attack. It wants to control you, but you must master it." When, like Cain, Parker is filled with resentment, sin in visible form attacks. “It feels good,” says the new, dark Parker/Spiderman, and there is pleasure in sin for a season. But the end thereof is the way of death as it destroys relationships. Finally driven to repentance, Spiderman is drawn to a church, and seeks refuge beneath the cross. Drawn inside, he struggles desperately, but is unable to free himself – until the church bell tolls, weakening its grip. At the finale, the black thing is dealt with in the only way sin can be dealt with: utter destruction.

When Peter Parker tells Aunt May his intentions concerning Mary Anne, Aunt May solemnly tells him the seriousness of marriage, and how he must lay down his life for his wife – in the everyday as well as literally. He confidently concurs, but finding out how difficult that can be in the course of the movie, returns the ring at the end, saying, “I'm not ready yet.”

There are three superhuman villains, each with a different fate. The Sandman is a sympathetic character that finds forgiveness at the end. Harry finally accepts the truth about his father, and lays down his life for his friend. Peter's rival is saved from the black thing, but ultimately perishes, evoking Hebrews 10:26-27, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.”

My wife ordinarily hates fantasy and science fiction. But Spiderman is an exception. It succeeds in the marketplace because it weaves superhero action, drama and romance, while remaining morally serious.

11913 Webster

2The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios

3Luke 12:48

4$281,858,000 gross, 16 days after opening – boxofficemojo.com