SPOILER ALERT. I went to see the latest Spider-man film during the week. The Amazing Spider-man is the Spider-man story ‘re-booted’: a new version of the original Spider-man rather than a fourth instalment of the Spider-man series which starred Tobey Maguire.
It seems to me that identity is always a central theme of the entire superhero genre, because the story hinges on the alter ego of the main character: who is Peter Parker? Spider-man or a geeky kid? Who is Superman? A titan from another planet or mild-mannered Clark Kent? And so on. Out of all the superhero cartoons and their movie spin-offs, the identity theme has been most strongly explored in the Spider-man series because Peter Parker is a teenager, and so his discovery of his super-powers coincides with his adolescent search to discover who he is.
Critics would probably dispute about whether the latest installment plays down the identity theme or actually treats it more subtly than in the earlier trilogy of Spider-man films. I am inclined to think the latter. While it underlies the whole of the film, it is only in the last scene that this theme becomes absolutely explicit when one of Peter’s teachers says that some people argue that there are ten plots in all of fiction. She then says that there is really only one plot line: Who am I?
Peter’s quest to find out what happened to his parents is a crucial part of his search to discover who he really is. And the scenes of Peter trying out his newly acquired spidey abilities like climbing up walls, testing his super-fast reflexes or utilising his superior strength serve as a sort of parable for the journey of adolescent self-discovery of one’s gifts and talents that all teenagers must negotiate. When Peter fails to remember his familial responsibilities to his aunt and uncle as he pursues his own ambitions and plans we get a glimpse into the frequently bumpy process of individuation that a young person undertakes in order to discover who they are beyond their family dynamics and patterns of behaviour. Yet another part of the theme of identity is explored as Peter painfully discovers that his moral failures can have catastrophic effects when he fails to stop a burglary.
All of the strands outlined above can also be found in the earlier films. The novel contribution of The Amazing Spider-man to the theme of identity is found in the character of Dr Curt Connors, Spider-man’s nemesis in the new film. We are told several times that the goal of Connors’s scientific research is to ‘eliminate weakness’, a goal born of his desire to re-grow his amputated arm. Connors makes it clear that he wants to transcend humanity’s limits… with tragic consequences.
Peter’s relationship to his weaknesses is different. His deepest wound – the loss of his parents – can and does cripple him relationally at times, such as when he storms out of the house after an altercation with his uncle Ben about his father. And his grief at Ben’s death sends him on a vigilante-style quest to avenge him. Significantly, it is his encounter with a child that brings about a moment of ‘conversion’ for Peter: as he plucks the child from a burning car he realises that Spider-man’s mission cannot be simply about revenge. After this encounter it seems to me that Peter’s weaknesses no longer cripple him, but are now the wellspring of creative, life-giving energy that now motivates him. His purpose is now to do good and not to simply find his uncle’s killer. Paradoxically, while his superpowers make him in some sense more than human, Peter’s true humanity is found in his desire to use his gifts in the service of others. And Peter’s true power lies not in the elimination of his weakness, but in the desire to allow those wounds to be life-giving rather than destructive. Contrast this with Dr Connors whose mission to eliminate weakness results in him becoming far more profoundly crippled than his amputation ever did.
This motif of power in weakness is deeply biblical of course. In 2 Corinthians Paul tells us that his thorn in the flesh is the locus for the Lord’s power to be made manifest, in his life, and for the sake of others (2 Cor 12:9). We don’t know what Paul’s ‘thorn’ was, but it became the place of grace for him, the place where the creative power of God was made visible in his life. We all have wounds, weaknesses, and Paul’s point is that they can cripple or create us. For Paul, the answer to the question, ‘who am I?’ is most profoundly answered by the God who is strangely more profoundly present in our wounds rather than in our triumphs. I think The Amazing Spider-man makes more or less the same point… with spandex, spider-webs and spectacular stunts of course.
Last night a bunch of my friends got together with an old friend of ours who was visiting from overseas. We had become friends about a dozen years ago, and since then some people married and had children while others have been ordained; some have moved interstate and overseas while some of us have returned to Melbourne. We did what any group of friends does when it gets together after a while: we brought each other up to speed on what life is like now, a wide-ranging conversation of windy career paths, buying houses, study and different ministries in the Church. Of course we also reminisced about times we had shared in years gone by, which by this stage required being reminded of things we had said and done that some of us had long forgotten. For a part of the evening the Indigo Girls provided the accompanying sound-track, conjuring up memories of similar soirées in years gone by. I think most of us realised that there were a few ghosts present too: friends who for various reasons couldn’t be there last night. They were missed. Mostly though, we laughed. A lot.
As I drove home I couldn’t help but reflect upon the significance of those friendships in my life. I had been a pretty lonely kid, wounded by the taunts of school yard bullies, and these were among the first friends that let me feel safe in truly sharing myself. Our friendships have survived mistakes and conflicts and diverging journeys, and in so doing have taught me a great deal about forgiveness, about myself and about friendship itself. While I was driving I was reminded of Yeats’ famous poem, ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’, in which the poet reflects upon the portraits of his famous friends hanging in the gallery. My friends will almost certainly never be as famous as Yeats’ friends, but as I revelled in the ordinariness of our gathering, I felt the final lines of Yeats’ poem nevertheless expressed my sentiments too:
Think where man’s glory begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.
I have recently had cause to wonder about whether young people find friendship more difficult today than in the past. There seems to be fresh pressures that conspire against deep friendship at work in our culture. Of course, young people desire friendship as much as they ever have; it is their capacity to forge enduring friendships that I am not so sure about. Some young people possess a precarious sense of security and self if they have not experienced the love of their parents that can make the levels of trust required to form friendship problematic. Many voices in our culture are suggesting that the social media can stunt genuine relationships as people spend more and more time online. The pervasive perception of all relationships through the lens of sexuality can also obscure the distinctive form of friendship from other kinds of love. And our culture’s obsession with image and success can combine to produce a fear of being vulnerable and a satisfaction with superficiality that militates against the depth and vulnerability that make friendship possible. Just as the mere sight of a steak by a starving man only intensifies rather than satisfies his hunger, these impediments only increase young people’s desire for friendship. And so E.M. Forster’s famous epigraph may well be the most appropriate epigraph for this generation too: ‘Only connect…’
While friendship is one of life’s chief joys, I think it is possible to fall into a certain idolatry of intimacy that paradoxically punctures the very thing it most desires. Friendship, like all forms of love, needs a little air to breathe, and it can be suffocated when people make it an end in itself. Our passion for connection, for friendship, actually find its fulfilment in God. We’re made for communion with God, and in and through him communion with one another. And so memorable gatherings of friends are signposts to heaven, because they point to the eternal communion we are to enjoy with God and with one another forever. As C.S. Lewis was wont to say, Christians never have to say goodbye, because we know that our friendships here are elevated by grace to the joys of eternal life.