While that may be a bit hyperbolic, the latest in the Spiderman franchise provided it’s record breaking audience with themes and concepts that have been more familiar in a Sunday School lesson than on the screen in a Hollywood blockbuster.
In the official press kit for the movie, Director Sam Raimi delivers lines like a tent-revival preacher: “Peter has to put aside his prideful self. He must put aside his desire for vengeance. He has to learn that we are all sinners. He has to learn forgiveness.”
The spiritual, biblical themes of pride, vengeance, sin, forgiveness run through out the latest Spiderman and continue the saga’s reverential treatment of religious iconography and ideas.
In detailing the franchise’s history, Mark Moring writes for Christianity Today:
Spidey 2 (2004) might well have been subtitled The Passion of Peter Parker, as the hero wrestled with whether or not he wanted to be a “savior” of sorts. And when he saves the runaway train near the movie’s end—in a crucifixion pose, with a wound in his side and holes in his wrists, no less—and then goes through a symbolic death, burial and resurrection … well, let’s just say it’s quite a spiritual moment.
The latest installment is partly about humbling an increasingly prideful Peter Parker, according to Raimi. “Peter considers himself a sinless person compared to these villains,” he said. “We felt it would be great for him to learn a less black-and-white view of life—that’s he’s not above these people, that he’s not just the hero, that they’re not just the villains, but we’re all human beings. He had to learn that he himself might have some sin within him, and that other human beings—the ones he calls the criminals—have humanity within them. And that the best we can do in this world is to not strive for vengeance, but for forgiveness.”
While Spidey spends much of the movie battling Sandman and various other villains, the movie’s tagline is “The Battle Within.” The film centers around Peter’s personal struggle with his own sins and guilt. He tries to assuage that by defeating criminals, but is never able to truly be free from it until he recognizes his own sinfulness. As he is searching for personal redemption and salvation apart from his own work as a crime-fighter, he sees a cross on a steeple. Under that cross, Peter confronts his own evil nature and the very real “battle within” comes to forefront in a dramatic scene.
Spiderman breaks all the molds of a traditional action movie, especially in how it treats vengeance. Writing at BeliefNet.com, Frederica Mathewes-Green writes:
Raimi’s latest movie also uses the action-film genre to drive home subtle but powerful moral truths. Its central theme is the futility of vengeance. If you think about it, that’s an unusual theme for an action movie, because in those films vengeance is very often the whole point of the story. Vengeance sells. A plot that shows a good guy treated unfairly and a smug and heartless bad guy whips up quick and easy emotion. The worse the good guy’s treatment, the more extreme the bad guy’s payback can be. Thus, an action film can be a sort of emotional pornography, nurturing self-righteousness and anger. The message seems to be: Might makes right, and if you don’t have might, get it, and get even.
What strikes me is how well these very spiritual themes are playing to audiences around the world. It’s not simply because Spiderman is a beloved comic hero. Scores of comic movies have been made, Spiderman, along with X-Men, stand far above the recent crop in terms of quality and dollars. Both Spiderman and X-Men delve into spiritual issues, while treating religious themes not just with respect but reverence – as integral to the story arch.
The appeal of these stories point to JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis’ “true myth.” People flock to see films that present something they know is inherently true. They understand that their are right and wrong actions. They see that that evil does indeed exist and it should be confronted both externally and internally. Films that refuse to acknowledge these truths tend to languish in terms of popular acceptance.
As has been said before, popularity does not and should not determine truth or even the quality of a film. After all, we can all point to dreadful movies that have made a ton of money, while excellent films have struggled to break even. But one can and should examine why something is popular. Why do millions of people connect with the story of a guy bit by a radioactive spider, battling alien sludge and a criminal made of sand, with the occasional friend/enemy flying by on a hovercraft skateboard?
They, I feel a kinship to the choices “our friendly neighborhood” superhero has to make. I relate to Peter’s decision on whether to accept power, even though it comes with great responsibility. Is he ready? Am I ready for the consequences of those choices. Can I handle the responsibility?
I know what it’s like when Spiderman struggles with self-sacrifice. Sometimes I don’t feel like doing things for others. Sometimes I want to be selfish, but I also understand that to make that decision would not only be robbing others of joy, but also myself.
I can also connect, maybe too well, with battling pride and the need for forgiveness. I know why Peter wants to be vengeful and why he ultimately decides not to follow that desire.
These issues are at the core of my faith – the True Myth, the great story that flows through all other good stories. Others recognize the truth that is contained in these films and they are able to connect with them as well. In order to accept fantasy, audiences need to have truth to hold on to during the ride. For the Spiderman series, the truths are moral and they are unflinching.
While one character declares, “I like being bad,” Spiderman concludes the movie by telling the audience what they already know: “Whatever comes our way, whatever battle is raging inside us, we always have a choice. It’s the choices that make us what we are, and we can always choose to do the right thing.”