According to S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury in The Avengers, sometimes battles are simply too big for us to fight on our own – for those times, we need superheroes to step in and fight for us. But in the universe of The Amazing Spider-Man, it isn’t that the forces arrayed against the humans are too powerful for us to handle, it is that the authorities that should be in place for our protection have failed. The world Peter Parker inhabits lacks potent authority, and, in watching it, one gets the sense that he is – for the most part – on his own. If there are problems, it is up to him to fix it. This might not be the recipe for a feel-good summer film, but it does correctly identify the ingredients that makes The Amazing Spider-Man ring true for some of its viewers.
When Authority Fails
The problem of impotent authority is global in The Amazing Spider-Man. Early in the film – before a single Spidey-sense is tingling – viewers watch a high school lunch scene as the older, larger, stronger athlete Flash, humiliates a young high-schooler. Peter Parker – who, in this incarnation of the Spider-Man saga, is portrayed as a photographer for the student paper – is ordered by Flash to commemorate the boy’s shame in Kodachrome. When Peter refuses and dares to ask Flash to stop manhandling the other boy, Flash comes unhinged. What follows can only be described as a brutal beating. Flash knocks Peter to the ground and then begins viciously to kick him. Only the intervention of Gwen Stacy – the nerdy/cute debate team captain – saves Peter from a trip to the hospital…or the morgue.
There is not an adult in sight. No school administrator – not even a lunch monitor – arrives to interrupt the initial hazing, to save Peter, or to punish Flash. Peter doesn’t want to be a “snitch,” so the culprit is safe, even from the inquiries of Peter’s saintly Uncle Ben who “recognizes a right cross” when he sees one. Oh well, boys will be boys.
Once Peter gains his powers, he once again is in a position to stop Flash from terrorizing another student – this time a girl painting a pep rally sign. And while Peter now has the ability to literally take Flash apart, he merely shows him up on the basketball court. And even after demonstrating heroic restraint, Peter earns a rebuke from Uncle Ben for “humiliating that boy.” The world is upside down.
After Spider-Man becomes active in crime fighting – for reasons apparent to anyone familiar with the character’s storyline – the police choose to label Spider-Man a “masked vigilante.” Instead of thanking Spider-Man for trussing up the bad guys (none of them are harmed), they set a task force out to capture him. The streets run amok with evil doers, but the police force has men to spare to capture the one person who is, frankly, doing their job.
The Scriptures teach that when the wicked rule, the people groan (Proverbs 29:2). I am not arguing that the authorities in the Spider-Man universe are necessarily wicked, but they are certainly not doing their job. And the people are groaning. Is it wicked to be lax in the performance of official duties? The Apostle Paul tells us that we should fear the authorities if we are doing wrong, because they do not bear the sword in vain (Romans 13:1-6). But what happens when authorities do not properly execute their offices? The result is the spread of mocking and lawlessness among those who no longer fear reprisal.
When school administrators fail to act to protect their students, when police forces do not arrest criminals, those who are victimized either lose hope or feel that their only recourse is to take care of things themselves. The Amazing Spiderman serves as an indictment of failed authority.
Fixing it Alone
The reboot of the Spider-Man franchise is still tightly tied to the “with great power comes great responsibility” tagline from the initial film series. But instead of being a moral ideal that portends future action, it sits as a weight upon the shoulders of a seventeen-year-old boy – a command to make right past mistakes (even if they were the result of childish indiscretion). In The Amazing Spider-Man, the saying is best translated: “If you make a mess, you have to clean it up yourself.”
Peter is implicated – to one degree or another – in two particular “messes” in the film. His failure to act in one circumstance results in the death of someone else and, in his desire to get information about his absent parents, he gives information to someone that ultimately places the city in jeopardy. The first mess is the motivation to don the suit. Peter’s attempt to clean up the second mess takes up the bulk of the film.
The idea of becoming a masked web-slinging superhero clearly has its appeal. Who wouldn’t want to be that guy? But it is the abandonment of Peter by those who should be acting as a protective authority in his life that is the motive behind his solo venture. His father and mother dropped Peter off with his aunt May and Uncle Ben when Peter was just a young boy, and then left with hardly a backward glance. His father’s work, instead of providing for his family, broke them apart. Uncle Ben is understanding, but Aunt May is clueless, and neither provide the kind of wisdom or guidance found from these characters in the original series of films. And even though the police chief finally comes around, it is a long time coming.
Part of the drama of The Amazing Spider-Man is found in the idea that Peter Parker has to find his own way through the dangers that come from all sides. The myth of The Rugged Individual has a long history in the United States. But the rugged individuals we normally imagine are adults, not teenagers. Part of the success of The Amazing Spider-Man can be traced, I think, to the identification many young people feel with Peter Parker as a teen, not a superhero, and with his environmental predicament.
Do We Connect?
Some schools in the United States have become so violent that they are more like prisons than educational institutions. Students pass through metal detectors. Locker searches are routine. Some faculty members prey sexually upon their young charges. Others turn a blind eye to misconduct. Documentaries such as Waiting For Superman chronicle the plight of millions of children caught in dangerous and ineffective schools. Additionally, police officers are, in some communities, regarded as the enemy. In places, there has developed an us/them relationship between those under the law and those charged with its enforcement. It is as if some people regard the law as belonging to the enforcers, rather than to everyone. This is the kind of moral split that comes about when authority breaks down and larger segments of society become lawless. It is not the way civil society is supposed to be.
When authorities in a culture seriously take their God-appointed mandate to restrain evil, criminal activity, then young people dwell a bit more secure. But if people feel abandoned by authority, they will look to themselves for a remedy. The Bible has a great theology of authority, telling those in power how to act, and admonishing those under authority how to conduct themselves in order to be safe from the retributive power of the law.
There are no radioactive spiders out there that can confer superpowers to unsuspecting teens. But if more adults in our schools, government, churches, and homes were doing our jobs right, perhaps teens would not be so fascinated with gaining the power to protect themselves from an encroaching, lawless world.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman also teaches in the graduate program of School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.