(Also published on August 5 as the first segment of my newsletter at billschmitt.substack.com)
My “Spidey sense” was tingling as I finally watched the Spiderman: No Way Home film. I watched it on DVD, not the web.
As an avid fan of this superhero’s 15-cent comic books years ago, I loved the movie’s ability to remember, and draw the best from, the expansive history of Peter Parker.
The latest plot forced Parker, a role model who shines in the “Marvel universe” firmament, to survive a not-very-friendly neighborhood where mysterious menaces battered him incessantly. Audiences saw hypnotic, hyperactive scenes of chaotic violence, deadly hatred, and misshapen lives.
These long action segments, understandably enervating to someone not weaned on a procession of Spiderman products, prompted my book- and symphony-loving wife to comment on younger theater-goers who have consumed the film’s confusion and destruction.
As we watched in our living room, she said compassionately, “No wonder kids are the way they are today.”
This is food for thought. Our society has casually wondered for decades whether deaths on TV shows were affecting kids’ behavior. Now, we face a tougher debate: Is today’s menu of immersive movies, video games, pornography, and other distortions of reality, revisited and binge-watched incessantly, feeding trends of anxiety, depression, and nihilistic anger—toward self, others, the world, and God?
We tend to dismiss these influences as parts of the cultural ocean in which we swim. A spoonful of sugar, in the form of nostalgia for beloved heroes and addictive dopamine hits, helps this bitter medicine go down. Countless customers take not only this medicine, but actual drugs with such acknowledged side-effects as violent ideation.
I will still defend this film because I saw it reaffirming the humble integrity of Spiderman. I observed good conquering evil and marginalized folks—misunderstood teenagers and super-villains alike—overcoming unjust drags on the human spirit.
Admittedly, younger fans may see these battles through different lenses with a less rosy hue. Also, while I saw low-resolution depictions of affection and friendship, complete with clever buddy-movie rapport, other generations may focus on the high-definition kaleidoscope of strange beauty, exhaustion, and adrenalin. Does the dollop of sweetness leave an impression?
But I will offer one additional defense. Peter Parker’s “life verse” seems to be a maxim he learned from his Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is a profound message, rooted in the Bible (Luke 12:48).
Of course, I must again question my Spidey sense. Young audiences can learn about humility from Peter, but does he shine a light on responsibility to the common good, on higher authorities shaping our reason and goodness, or on bland virtues like prudence and patience?
Perhaps a film like No Way Home challenges society to initiate cross-generational conversations about what Baby Boomers and young adults see in Spiderman. In the human and earthly ecology envisioned by Pope Francis, this spider has a certain dignity and an important role. It is our responsibility to reflect on that and to appreciate how each amazing creature fits into a wide-screen view.
Although Peter Parker can be a uniting figure, as he is in the movie, we must ask what bonds he is forging. His artificial reality ideally would resonate with actual responsibility to our society and our humanity. Otherwise, is his story more destructive than constructive as a cultural artifact?
May he still build a web of hope. A mere roller-coaster ride through the multiverse is not even what Peter himself craves. He just seeks a way toward the happiness that only a true home can provide.
(Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs)