With the imminent arrival of this year’s first “summer” blockbuster, Spiderman 3, I wanted to return to the first two Spiderman films and examine the ways in which they speak to issues of identity and vocational calling. As a result, these films offer great points of discussion for teenagers, or anyone else for that matter, who might be struggling with what to do with their lives.
The heroic myths of most comic books parallel an important aspect of cinema: they both provide a the potential for a transcendent point of connection through which a reader or viewer can participate in the much larger on-screen story. The Spiderman series, with its focus on a nobody miraculously becoming somebody, raises important questions of identity, identity formation, and vocational calling.
Peter Parker/Spiderman slowly realizes that he can become a hero and that the accompanying power brings great responsibility. For Peter as Spiderman, this responsibility involves potential personal sacrifice through distancing himself from friends, family, and the woman he loves. Aunt Mae not only recognizes Peter’s potential, she also knows the difficulty of becoming that hero. She tells Peter, “To do what’s right, we have to be steady and give up the things we want the most.” Throughout both films, Peter struggles with this reality and, at the end of the first film, realizes that his identity and calling have a dual nature: “This is my gift…my curse.” As the second film progresses, this struggle weighs heavy on Peter, and at one point, he walks away from Spiderman altogether. He asks, in great frustration, “Am I not supposed to have what I want…what I need?” Peter does not understand why he must sacrifice a “normal” life with friends, family, and an intimate relationship, all for a calling about which he remains unsure. Ultimately, under the weight of his Uncle Ben’s haunting advice, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and his Aunt Mae’s encouragement, Peter embraces his true calling/identity as Spiderman.
In the first film, Peter bears the guilt of knowing that he could have used his power to stop the crime and criminal that eventually led to his uncle’s death. Sensing his responsibility for his uncle’s death and the relationship he now has to all injustice, via his power to stop it, Peter fully embraces his role as Spiderman and takes on the rather enormous task of ridding the city of its ever-increasing crime. It would appear that Peter, the nerd cum hero, now has everything he could want after years of longing to be something great. However, he quickly learns an important paradox: society often hates the hero or at least drastically misinterprets his or her actions. As a result, Peter constantly faces the question of whether to use his power for good or for evil, an important theme in both films. Peter uses his power and identity for good while his villainous counterparts use it for evil, with both good and evil characters desiring to be something more than they are.
The second film picks up where the first film ended and introduces a new villain, Dr. Otto Octavius. Peter still struggles with his identity and calling, and we see that this crisis affects his identity as Spiderman as well. The stress of trying to be two people, a superhero and a normal college student, begins to destroy both identities. Peter struggles in school and at work (always late for both), and Spiderman’s powers begin to fail him at the most inopportune times. Peter tries desperately to be someone or something he is not, and ironically, this other is not Spiderman. As the second film progresses, Peter abandons his role as Spiderman, attempting to be “normal” for reasons he neither knows nor is confident about. Though Peter’s schoolwork improves and life seems to be “perfect,” all is not well as news reports of rampant violence and questions of Spiderman’s whereabouts fill the papers. The people that once ostracized their hero now call out for a savior.
I am convinced of their message to not only a youthful audience, but to adults who continually struggle with identity and calling as well. In fact, I believe the two go hand-in-hand in this film. For example, we all know these thoughts or questions, no matter our age: What am I going to do when I grow up? Who or what does God want me to be? I wish I could be or do something else. I hate this job. Who or what have I become? Why has God placed me here only to experience pain and suffering? Many of us have asked these questions at some point in our lives, and many of us may be in the process of asking them now. These questions not only arise in “mid-life crises” or at the loss of a long-held job, but also find expression at all stages of life. Some of these questions, and others like them, confront nearly all teenagers and young adults in our society.
The Spiderman films reveal that our identities are composed of not only who or what we are at any given moment, but also what we long to be. Furthermore, our identities are also composed of personal questions or struggles that so often check those longings or help bring them to fruition. These longings to become someone else may go beyond the temporal or the ordinary as well: what are our longings to be more Christ-like or God-like if not desires to be someone or something that we could never fully be? On the other hand, we do show glimpses of such greatness at different moments in our lives, but more often than not, our sinful selves interfere, bringing us back to reality. It is here, in the sometimes-painful grip of reality that we struggle with our identities and ask such powerful questions.
I recognize that connecting such “serious” issues with a pop-culture phenomenon like Spiderman could simply be, in the end, theological or psychological shots in the dark, but I doubt it. The staying power of the Spiderman comic books and the wild popularity of the new movies signal an effectiveness that goes beyond pure entertainment. I truly believe that these mythic stories do tell us something about our personal stories, and especially about living into our identities and callings. Countless students sacrifice health and wealth to teach in poor school districts or to work for social work or non-profit organizations. Doctors who could potentially make enormous salaries move to the medical mission field or work in government clinics for much less pay. Ministers constantly wrestle with shepherding an ungrateful, conflict-ridden church, realizing that they are called to continually love and serve. Furthermore, did Jesus not face similar struggles when he asked God, “Take this cup from me” or more directly, “Why have you forsaken me?” All of these examples echo the questions that the Spiderman series raises. At the end of the day, we all realize that our lives and our vocations entail both blessings and curses. Perhaps we should embrace the curses, along with the blessings, as integral parts of our identities and encourage others by rejoicing with them in success and supporting them when they struggle.