God so loved the world that he gave his only son. God so loved me that he has given me three sons. And last month, they discovered superheroes. Not a moment too soon, it turns out, as apparently overnight what I used to think of as our respectable middle-class home has become an alarming hive of after-school crime (or as my boys call it, “trouble”). So they fearlessly answer the call every afternoon, bounding around the house and the yard with hand-towel capes safety-pinned around their necks. And Mom or Dad (sometimes known as Wonder Woman and Batman, respectively) are always ready with a band-aid and a kiss if one of them should stumble from a height more super than our hero was ready for.
I must admit that I derive a certain amount of personal satisfaction from their new discovery, as I’m now able to tap my long-dormant Guy Knowledge, a rich trove of encyclopedic detail stored away from my earliest years. “You see, son, Superman is actually Kal-El, son of Jor-El and Lara of the Planet Krypton.” “No, Tony Stark doesn’t have any super powers, he just wears the super-powered Iron Man armor.” “Wolverine’s claws? They’re made of adamantium, an indestructible metal alloy.” To which, my oldest can only stare at me awestruck and ask, “How do you know so much, Daddy? Did you learn it at school?”
As part of this education, we’ve been enjoying various animated series I’ve been picking up every couple of weeks at the local library. Though among such shows it’s the darkly noir Batman from the 1990s that gets the most attention (it won four Emmys and was nominated for several more), I was struck by the sophistication of The Spectacular Spider-Man, an anime-influenced relaunch of Marvel’s famous webslinger that premiered in 2008 and ran for two seasons. Not only is the theme song as infectious as radioactive spider bite, but it may even help teach my boys something about the nature of sin and temptation.
Season one, which we recently finished, finds Spidey battling a familiar cast of baddies in each episode. But two-thirds of the way through the season, Peter Parker encounters a much more subtle threat, an alien parasite that attaches itself to him in the form of a sleek new black spider-suit. At first the costume seems to be the perfect discovery, enhancing his abilities, even anticipating his needs.
But in subsequent episodes, the alien is shown to have a mind of its own. Even as it seems to conform itself to Peter’s body, it is really working to conform Peter to itself. The alien is bonding with him, entwining itself into his soul, whispering dark thoughts into Peter’s ear: “There’s no one you can trust.” “There’s no one else we need.” That’s the temptation: I can do it myself. I must, because I’m all alone. The more time Peter spends with the parasite, the more aggressive, self-absorbed, and withdrawn he becomes, shouting that his friends can “keep their help, and their sympathy!”
Peter realizes what’s going on and in his showdown with what he now calls “the ooze” he draws on the strength of everyone he knows, everyone who loves him, instead of giving in to despair and giving up—“I’m not alone in this,” he says, and in the internal battle for his soul, he imagines himself surrounded by family and friends (even his loud-mouthed boss J. Jonah Jameson and former high-school bully Flash Thompson).
The alien costume eventually finds another host body in the form of Peter’s disgruntled ex-friend, Eddie Brock, who is reincarnated as the supervillain Venom. Spider-Man admits he cannot defeat Venom through sheer strength, and so he humbles himself, feigning defeat. The alien life-form then moves in to possess Peter, but it cannot because there is no malice in Peter on which it can feed. Spider-Man triumphs not in hate or revenge, but in love and humility.
Sin so often disguises itself as the answer to our prayers that we must be on our guard. And it tries to get us alone because it knows, one-on-one, it can take us. That’s why in the universal Church, my relationship with Jesus cannot merely be a “personal” one, but must take into account the entirety of the Body of Christ—those who have gone before me, those to come, and even those to whom I cannot imagine having responsibility or need of at all. Those vital bonds of love made strong by Love itself will help ward off attack. After all, heaven is not a private audience but a communion of saints.
I don’t want to make too much of the religious themes one can find in a children’s cartoon. I would be surprised if many of the series’ writers and animators read as much into it as I did. But if the earliest attachments are the strongest attachments, then as a father of three boys I’m glad that in this Easter season there can be some healthy lessons drawn from even this sort of light entertainment.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear the phone ringing. It could be Commissioner Gordon.
John B. Kienker is managing editor of the Claremont Review of Books, and co-editor of the newly released Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Ten Years of the Claremont Review of Books.
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