Spirituality in Spandex
If you’ve taken public transportation lately, glanced at a supermarket magazine rack or simply turned on the TV, by now you know that one very popular, web-slinging superhero is about to swing back into your friendly neighborhood multi-plex.
In the third and latest installment of the Spider-Man movie franchise, everyone’s favorite arachnid hero is seduced by his shadow side. As the Spider-Man motto puts it, “With great power comes great responsibility”, but this time around, Spider-Man and his good guy alter-ego Peter Parker discover that it also comes with great temptations to evil. Spider-Man is about to go off the derech.
Spidey’s costume has mysteriously changed from familiar blue and red to pitch black; in fact, the costume is actually an alien, shape-shifting symbiote that feeds on Peter Parker, making him more aggressive and less inhibited. Intoxicated with ego, power and celebrity, not even a superhero like Spider-Man is able to resist the forces of darkness.
In Spider-Man 3, Parker’s former best friend Harry Osborne becomes his worst enemy. Harry adopts the persona of the villainous New Goblin, determined to avenge the death of his father, the Green Goblin, who Spider-Man defeated in a previous film.
Our man Spidey is preoccupied with a vendetta of his own. Police finally re-discover the identity of the man who killed Peter Parker’s unerringly decent role model and father figure, Uncle Ben: petty thief Flint Marko. In the long standing tradition of comic books, Marko is a tragic figure: his small daughter has a deadly disease and he has no health care benefits. Then a mishap at an energy test site turns Marko into Sandman, a nasty, shape shifting sand-castle. Another new Spider-Man nemesis is born.
Meanwhile at the Daily Bugle, Peter the intrepid photographer encounters new competition in upstart Eddie Brock. Their overbearing boss J. Jonah Jameson pits the young men against each other, dangling the promise of one full time gig, with benefits, to the best paparazzi. Clearly Brock wasn’t blessed with as noble a role model as Peter’s Uncle Ben; when Peter throws away his sinister new black suit, it finds a new home in Brock, who is promptly transformed into the evil fanged Venom — yet another villain for our hero to tackle.
Things have come an awfully long way since Bronx born, Jewish comic book pioneer Stan Lee conceived of the character of Spider-Man in 1962. Many believe that Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) gave his creation a somewhat Jewish world view. After all, Peter Parker is a dark-haired, bespectacled, Woody Allen-esque nebbish burdened with stereotypical Jewish neuroses. Peter Parker’s guilty feelings over his accidental role in the death of Uncle Ben (which we now find out may not even be true) has led to further talk of the character’s Jewishness. Jewish author Michael Chabon (who co-scripted Spider-Man 2) claims that Spider-Man is “crypto Jewish”: “You know, living with Uncle Ben and Aunt may in Queens.” While the director of all the films in the series, Sam Raimi, quips, “the only difference is that [Peter's guilt] is caused by his uncle, not his mother.”
Now, living in Queens does not make a person Jewish (no matter how many Jews live in Spidey’s Forest Hills neighborhood) but we can still draw some biblical reflections from the latest saga, with its strong father and son theme. The great 13th century Jewish scholar Nachmonides famously taught that, “the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children.” Through the bible we see that the deeds of the earliest characters in the narrative will be repeated by their children. Character traits and behavior patterns of the early patriarchs and matriarchs — are a model for all of Jewish history. Learning from the past is the secret to making the right decisions about the future.
According to the Talmud, people are born with two opposing impulses: the yetzer hatov, the impulse to do good, and the yetzer harah, the impulse to do evil. Jewish sages have noted that the yetzer hara is not completely evil, but more like a selfish impulse, which needs to be balanced with the yetzer hatov. Spider-Man’s strange new black suit and the feelings of unhealthy empowerment that come with it are clearly part of the yetzer harah. Fortunately, Spidey’s Uncle Ben helped form our young superhero’s conscience from an early age. Sadly Harry Osborn, Flint Marko and Eddie Brook were not blessed with such a role model. With all his incredible powers, it is only that innate, very human sense of decency that helps our hero ultimately resists the temptations of the dark side.
The Hebrew word teshuvah means “return.” Although often mistranslated as “repentance,” the word really means returning to the proper path of infinite potential. By letting go of our demons, we can embrace the greatest power of all, the power to forgive. Will Spider-Man display true heroism and banish his own demons in a spirit of forgiveness? We’ll all find out when he makes his own long awaited return this spring.
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, the “Comic Book Rabbi,” is the founder of the Jewish Student Foundation of Downtown Brooklyn, an educational and cultural center that strives to ignite pride and commitment through innovative educational and social experiences in an open environment. A sought after television and radio guest, he has been profiled in many publications. He is also the author of the book “Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero”