"Things are going pretty well for Peter."
So says Tobey Maguire in an interview, describing the character he plays—Peter Parker and his wall-crawling alter ego Spider-Man—on the big screen. Maguire's third swing as the comic book hero hits theaters this week in Spider-Man 3.
Maguire continues: "He's got his girl, he's got his job and school. He's kind of just managing his whole life. Generally, Peter's in a good state. Of course, it doesn't stay that way."
It doesn't stay that way.
When describing the appeal of Marvel Comics' flagship character, I can't think of five words more aptly webbed together. Creator Stan Lee once billed Spider-Man as "The hero that could be you!" As we consider the ups and downs of our own lives—the balloons popped and dreams quashed, our fears, worries, and battles—we find in the oft-wounded web slinger a kindred spirit. His life never seems to work out right either.
Surely, it's this superhero's relative frailty, his being less super and more human that explains his ongoing popularity. And for believers, this mixture of power and weakness also illustrates some important biblical truths. We'll get to those later. First, let's take a brief look at Spidey's origins and history.
Teen hero, personal problems
As with many comic book characters, Spider-Man's creation was more the effort of collaboration. Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee all lay claim to portions of the early mythology, but Lee seems to have come up with the basics: a teen-aged superhero with arachnid-like powers and personal problems to boot.
In Origins of Marvel Comics, Lee tells how Martin Goodman, publisher of then-Timely Comics (and Lee's brother-in-law) balked at the concept: "He patiently informed me that people didn't like spiders, that it was an unlikely name for a hero, and that Spider-Man would merit somewhat less than the reading public's wholehearted, enthusiastic approval."
When Stan suggested that his unlikely hero appear in the last issue of a failed anthology comic, Goodman agreed they had nothing to lose. The rest, as they say, is history. Amazing Fantasy No. 15 (August 1962) featured Spider-Man on the cover and sold like hotcakes. A year later, the character received his own series, The Amazing Spider-Man, which remained Marvel's number one seller for many years.
For those unfamiliar with the original Lee-written, Ditko-drawn version of Spidey's origin, here's a recap (all covered to some degree in 2002's Spider-Man movie): High school bookworm/science geek Peter Parker is smarting from his peers' put-downs. When bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter gains the proportionate strength, agility, and wall-crawling ability of the creature. Rather than use these abilities for the good of mankind, however, the teen-ager decides they're his ticket to fame and fortune.
Hiding his plans from his beloved foster parents, Uncle Ben and Aunt May, Peter develops wrist-worn web shooters. Turns out, he's not only a science whiz but a pretty good tailor too. Clad in a form-fitting red-and-blue costume with a web motif, the youngster makes good on his ambition.
Pride and bitterness keep him from interfering with a thief's getaway—a failure Peter lives to regret. When Uncle Ben is murdered, Spider-Man tracks down the killer—and finds the same crook he'd allowed to escape.
In Stan Lee's concluding prose, "And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility!"
With those deathless words, not only was a legend born, but a maverick feature that broke several super-hero shibboleths: e.g., teenagers are always sidekicks, super-heroes always act altruistically, and, if such heroes have personal problems, they keep them to themselves.
Ensuing adventures added and intensified the innovations. There was, for example, the time when Peter needed money so he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. He was paid by check, only to discover he couldn't cash it because he didn't have an account in the name of Spider-Man! Once, he tore his costume and had to sew it himself (he could hardly take it to a local tailor without revealing his secret). Another sequence, which Lee reports he greatly enjoyed writing, showed our hero applying for a job with the Fantastic Four, thinking it would pay him more than he was making on his own. When he discovered the super-group was a non-profit organization, he left in a huff.
Stephen King once credited Stan Lee as being probably the one man most responsible for keeping the comic book from going the way of the dime novel. King's statement may be hyperbole, but there's no doubt Lee's troubled high schooler (who eventually graduated to troubled university student, troubled grad student, and is now a troubled teacher) greatly influenced the superhero genre.
For example, note the influence of the irascible editor of The Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson. Before Jameson appeared, superheroes enjoyed a free ride in the press. Masks or no masks, they were the Good Guys, pure and simple. Not to this cigar-chomping amalgam of greed and paranoia. Jameson's stinging editorials, and the suspicion they caused, drove Peter Parker to despair.
On one memorable occasion, it got so bad that Peter quit his double life. What fan can forget that full-page illustration, in Amazing Spider-Man No. 50 (July, 1967) of Parker trudging out a dark alley in the rain? Behind him lies his costume in a garbage can. (The scene was portrayed to good effect in Spider-Man 2.)
The fears of JJJ bore bitter fruit. No longer does the comic book public trust its self-appointed protectors. Echoes of an enemy editor can be heard in the pages of deconstructionist superhero series like Watchmen and Powers, as well as in the animated film The Incredibles. Marvel's recent mini-series, Civil War, introduces a government-sponsored Superhuman Registration Act requiring the heroes to register with the federal government, revealing their true identities in the process. Spider-Man himself publicly unmasks in CW No. 2.
An unchanged life
Through the decades, Peter Parker's life has changed relatively little. He lost the love of his life, Gwen Stacy (set to reappear in Spider-Man 3 ), but found solace in the arms of Mary Jane Watson. He and "MJ" married in 1987.
Though most fans cheered the nuptials, they refused to accept other changes.
A black costume of alien origin (a version of it appears in the new movie) came and went quickly. The ill-starred "Clone Saga," which revealed that Peter Parker wasn't the genuine article, met with a massive outcry. Fans dislike major alterations to series characters with whom they've bonded.
So Spider-Man, like Superman before him, has pretty much become a symbol of the status quo. He's there to love and appreciate for what he is—with brings us back to the trait we most love about him: He doesn't always win. Peter Parker may get his life together for a while, but it doesn't stay that way.
Spider-Man 2 perfectly captured that quality. Peter can't keep a job. He's always short of cash. He's a hero to some, a villain to others. He doesn't get the girl—until the end of the movie … and even then, the final shot reveals MJ's anxiety over their relationship.
Clark Kent is merely the disguise of a god who walks among us. Yet, costumed or not, with or without powers, Peter Parker remains Peter Parker—a regular joe like the rest of us.
This is why—in my view—the messianic imagery didn't work in Spider-Man 2. Spidey saves a runaway train in cruciform pose, receiving a wound in his side, and symbolically dying and rising again. Though the metaphor seems to fit Superman—a being from beyond come to save us—on Peter Parker it fits like Saul's armor on young David. It distracts us from his flawed humanity. He's on a mission, true, born of the death of one who loved and guided him.But he's not here to save the world. He's in New York City, where he was born and raised, to do what he can with what he has.
Power in weakness
Like the Christian, Spidey has certain charismata, but often they seem more a burden than a joy. Of course, it's Stan Lee's legendary line, "With great power comes great responsibility" that defines the character.
But in Parker's case, with great power came greater tribulation.Thus, I find in him a crude but effective illustration of the apostle Paul's idea of power in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:10).Parker, generally regarded as a Protestant (though his religion is barely touched on in the comics), seems to "get" this idea to some degree—especially as he occasionally turns to God in prayer when things are going badly. (For more on Peter Parker's spirituality, click here and here.)
Spidey's a "dark horse" winner if ever there was one. But, then, so were Peter and Paul. Of course, their master's humiliating death ultimately demonstrated a power unlike anything the world has to offer.
What's so special, then, about Spider-Man? It's that his character isn't about the mere wielding of power. He's about faithfulness, about fighting the good fight. Like the believer's, his triumphs don't come without cost. True, Spidey's creed of "great responsibility" is no substitute for faith in Christ. Yet, his "religion" carries a reproach, as does ours.
And yet, as the saying goes, you can't keep a good man down. The best stories, those we tell over and over, are a mixture of darkness and light, whose heroes taste both the bitter and the sweet, who lose hope only to find it again—and march on.
That's Spidey's message, but let's give the apostle Paul—a real-life hero cast in the same mold—the last word: "We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed" (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).
Gary Robinson is preaching minister with North Side Christian Church in Xenia, Ohio. He's also a writer with just a touch of arachnophobia.
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