Jul 17, 2012
This past decade has seen a plethora of movies dealing with superheroes: the “Batman” films, “The Green Lantern,” “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” etc. But the most popular—at least judging by box office receipts—has been the Spider-Man franchise. Since 2002, there have been four major movie adaptations of the Marvel Comics story of a kid who gets bitten by a spider, undergoes a stunning metamorphosis, and then “catches thieves just like flies.”
What is it about these stories—and the Spider Man tale in particular—that fascinate us? May I suggest that it has something to do with Christianity, more precisely, with the strange hybrid figure around which all of the Christian religion revolves. St. Athanasius’s most significant contribution to the Christological debates of the early centuries of the Church’s life was a soteriological argument for the dual nature of Jesus. In the saint’s pithy formula: only a human being could save us; and only God could save us. If Jesus were only divine—as the Monophysites argued—then his saving power wouldn't be truly applied to us. If he were only human—as the Arians and Nestorians argued—then he could not really lift us out of the morass of sin and guilt in which we find ourselves mired. In a word, salvation was possible only through a God-man, someone in the world but not of it, someone like us in all things but sin, and at the same time utterly unlike us.
I can't help but hear an echo of the ancient Christological doctrine in the latest crop of films featuring “Batman” and “Superman” and “Spider-man.” All three of these superheroes are hybrid combinations of the extraordinary and the ordinary. In all three cases we have someone who, in his lowliness, is able completely to identify and sympathize with our suffering and, in his transcendence, is able to do something about it. A particular charm of the recently released “The Amazing Spider-man” is the Andrew Garfield, the actor who plays Peter Parker is quite obviously an ordinary and, even geeky, kid who at decisive moments gracefully demonstrates godlike powers.
Another obliquely Christological feature of the new Spider Man film—and in some of the other superhero movies as well—is the motif of mission and vocation. Once aware that he is in full possession of stunning physical capabilities, Peter mercilessly taunts an obnoxious classmate who had some time before humiliated him. His Uncle Ben, skillfully underplayed by the always watchable Martin Sheen, quickly upbraids the young man for indulging a crude desire for revenge. Precisely how he should use the gifts he has discovered emerges as perhaps the central theme of the movie.