By Body Language: Lessons From ‘Spider-Man 3’ | Published May 17, 2007
I’ve been milking the moral lessons from “Spider-Man 2” for almost three years now. Doc Oc, the eight-armed super villain from that installment, was an image of the passions gone wild. When our passions are out of control, humanity—as the movie memorably demonstrated—is on a train bound for destruction. Only Spider-Man, there a Christ-figure sacrificing himself in cruciform, can save us.
Now with the release of Spidey 3, I’ve got lots of new material to draw from with my kids. It’s a multi-layered morality tale. One of the main questions this movie addresses is, “What do we do with the hurt we feel when other people cause us pain?”
“Revenge,” Aunt May tells Peter, “is like a poison. Before you know it, it can turn you into something ugly.” And it does. When the man who murdered Peter’s uncle escapes from prison, Peter chooses revenge and Spidey’s alter ego emerges, overtaken by black-alien-parasitic goo. These nasty symbiotes, Peter learns from his college professor, bind to their host, and “when they bind they can be hard to unbind.”
It is very rare to see lust portrayed as something evil in a Hollywood movie. But here, Peter Parker’s lusty prance down Main Street is a clear indication that he is no longer “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” His respect for women has gone out the window. Peter only wises up when he sees how he has wounded his beloved Mary Jane. “I hurt her, Aunt May. I don’t know what to do.”
“You start by doing the hardest thing,” she says. “You forgive yourself.”
Peter, in a fit of merciless rage, had already told a fellow photographer who had cheated him out of a job at the Daily Bugle, “You want forgiveness? Get religion.” It was a sign of things to come. Where does Peter go to do battle with that diabolic goop that had overtaken him? To a church—a Catholic church. The cross atop the spire offers Spidey—and the audience—hope. In a grand image of what battling with sin often feels like, Parker breaks free from his oppression with the help of the victorious tones of the church bell. In the next scene, we see Peter washed clean in a (baptismal) shower.
From then on, Peter learns how to forgive himself—and others. For three movies now we’ve been feeling Peter’s rage toward his uncle’s murderer.
Note: If you don’t want to know the ending of the movie, stop reading now. At the end of this installment, having tried unsuccessfully to avenge his uncle’s death earlier in the movie, Peter faces his uncle’s killer.
The killer tries to excuse himself, “I had no choice,” he insists. Peter calmly replies, “We always have a choice.” Then, as the murderer confesses what happened that fateful night, Peter shows compassion and utters those liberating words, “I forgive you.”
The movie ends with this bit of wisdom: “Whatever comes our way, whatever battle, we always have a choice. It’s our choices that make us who we are, and we can always choose what’s right.”
When others have hurt us, we can always choose forgiveness. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” (CCC 2843).
In its own way, this is the message of “Spider-Man 3”: Hurt can be transformed into something positive. Forgiveness is the only path that brings true resolution to our pain. The alternative is to be possessed by the black, parasitic goo of bitterness and revenge. It’s our choice.
Christopher West, a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute, has lectured at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and Creighton University’s Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha.