Monday, May 14, 2007

Spiderman 3 and the moral imagination

This post is interspersed with spoilers throughout. If you want to watch Spiderman 3 and have not done so, it's best to read this only after you've seen it.

"We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We demand windows." [1] We demand stories. It’s how we make sense of the world. Narratives grip us, for good or bad: witness the heartbreaking drama of Madeleine McCann’s kidnapping currently unfolding in the British press[2]. Negatively, it’s why gossip holds so much appeal. The windows are shut, we want them pried open. It’s Gnosticism all over again – “secret knowledge” only known to the elite.

But surely the realm of the imagination has no bearing on reality? They’re fun, they’re entertaining, great for a Saturday night out. But the world of the fictive isn’t so easily separated from what we call the “real world”. They reflect something we already know – we already have an image of New York in our minds, regardless of whether it’s accurate or not, or whether we’ve actually been to the Big Apple – before going to watch Spiderman 3. Even fantastic creations – talking animals and extraterrestrials, have something fundamentally human about them that help make them identifiable in some way to us. But they can shape us too. Fables, fairy tales, morality plays all recognise this. In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Briony witnesses something which she can’t make heads or tails of, and, not being in possession of all sides of the story, allows her imagination to see things that aren’t quite there which ends up having real consequences. [3] "In works of fiction, we explore the possibilities of understanding and living in this world." [4]

Imagination is often thought of as that belonging to the special few – the artist, the inventor, the musician. But we all have imagination, it simply is that faculty which helps us explain life as it is and it ought to be. It’s part of being human, and it also is not exempt from the Lordship of Jesus Christ. So although it is not very fashionable these days, it is right to talk about the "moral imagination" [5]. The moral imagination speaks of virtue and wisdom, and seeks to mould us to moral living [6]. It is not sheer didacticism, since we know both from experience and the Bible that this will backfire. We chafe under the Law. Rather, it is about providing a compelling vision of goodness. It is that which fires our imaginations. It celebrates what is good in this world, weeps over what is bad, is hopeful of what will be, all in a manner that captures our hearts. As Christians, we believe that Christianity is the best way to explain the world, and so the moral imagination will always, in some ways, conform to the Christian story, although perhaps not in ways we might expect. In other words, it doesn’t specifically have to be “religious”! Conversely, this is why great art with an amoral imagination working behind it is also more dangerous: its power lies in persuading you that evil is the more glamorous sister, or that despair is the pit we’re all destined for.

And so, (finally!), I get to Spiderman 3. I think the point is rather obvious by now – Spiderman 3 has its flaws, but I find the strength of its moral vision powerful enough to render its weaknesses forgivable. It has too many villains, for one thing, meaning that both Sandman and Venom/Eddie Brock could have benefited from more character development and/or backstory. This interferes with the pacing of the movie as well; when we get to the climatic scene, there’s an “Huh? We’re here already?” feel to it. Indeed, that scene itself suffers from some cheese, including the cringe-worthy reporter (how did she get in there?) to the overly enthusiastic crowds which just feel out of place.

Yet it seems to me that although he just didn’t have enough time to fully explore it in the movie, Sam Raimi had a clear grasp, thematically, on what Spiderman 3 is about. From both the comic books and the start of this trilogy, we understand that Spiderman is all about recognising that "with great power comes great responsibility". And so the themes of selflessness as opposed to selfishness has always figured prominently. Peter fails the test. Spiderman becomes a celebrity persona to be cultivated rather than a servant of the community. He fails to "put his wife before himself".

The motif is clear: his internal degeneration is mirrored outwardly by the back symbiote that has attached himself to his costume. It is only gotten rid of when Peter chooses to turn away from that path. There have been hints: Peter apologises to his landlord over his earlier overreaction. He understands that he may have superpowers to help others, but he too needs help (as MJ reminds him, and in returning the ring). My brother tells me that the church scene comes straight from the comics, so while Raimi and Stan Lee are not Christians as far as I know, they do understand the Christian concept of grace and its tie to repentance. Interestingly, Eddie Brock is the doppelganger [7]: he’s also a photographer for the Daily Bugle, he has a girlfriend (Gwen Stacy is Peter Parker’s first girlfriend in the comics). Like Peter, he is motivated by revenge, whereas Peter raged against his uncle’s killer. But he allows it to become all-consuming, which, as we see from the climax of the film, ultimately destroys him [8].

Related to the above, Spiderman 3 also explores what it means to desire and what happens when desires that are not wrong per se govern our hearts and become an idol. Peter’s right desire for justice becomes distorted when he thinks that he is the rightful enforcer of that justice. By contrast, Aunt May also desires justice, exemplified by her tearful reaction to the news that Uncle’s Ben killer is at large, but she refuses to cave in to what she has no right to do: wish death on another person. The Sandman rightfully desires a cure for his daughter, but allows it to rule his heart such that he resorts to any means by which he can get it. Mary Jane rightfully desires good companionship – that Peter might become a better person and partner – but wrongfully worships such companionship until she fails to be faithful and kisses Harry. (She immediately recognises this as wrong. Peter too errs in wooing and using Gwen; again, his legitimate desire nevertheless leading to wrong actions). Spiderman 3 thus questions: how do we react to circumstances around us?

But actions have consequences. Peter has to recognise that he is implicated in the creation of Venom. Mary-Jane reacts to savage reviews of her performance by withdrawing into herself, and her initial refusal to be vulnerable closes the door on hope (Harry exploits this later in pretending to be the "other man".) Eddie Brock is caught by his deception. But Aunt May’s gentle response turns away Peter’s wrath and helps him see what a fool he really is.

Indeed, this then links to a minor theme, that of masking and unmasking, or to put it another way: a question of identity. Peter: is he the guy in the red or the black costume? His landlord and Aunt May both claim he’s good. Will he be that person? MJ: will she allow criticism to define who she really is? Harry: Peter’s best friend or worst enemy? (The butler really should have told him sooner though. =) Isn’t it interesting that in the climatic scene, both Peter and Harry, the “good” guys, fight unmasked. They've discovered what it means to be human. Venom and the Sandman, on the other hand, have become sub-human. [9]

No one will claim Spiderman 3 is a Christian allegory, or that Spiderman, or even Harry is a Christ-like figure. There’s no need to. Instead, Spiderman 3 simply pays close attention to moral virtues of forgiveness and grace, of understanding our shared humanity, and then majoring on them. It’s "telling the truth / but telling it slant" [10]. It simply helps invite people to have a closer look at the world once again. Then perhaps as Christians, we might be able to ask them to consider it in light of the truth of the gospel.

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[1] C.S Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

[2] See this for some details. The Observer has some poignant observations. We instinctively look for some sort of coherence in a messy world, but Christians recognise that ultimately, they don’t happen to be the Author. The McCanns, devout Catholics, headed straight for the chapel. They understand this.

[3] The point of not knowing everything tells us a little of why gossip is so damaging: it's applying deviation from the truth. I should hasten to add that I haven’t finished reading Atonement yet!

[4] Clarence Walhoult, cited in Literature Through the Eyes of Faith by Roger Lundin & Susan Gallagher.

[5] The term might have originated with Edmund Burke, who was a political philosopher in the Conservative Tradition. Just in case it has a specialised meaning within political terminology, I am here using "moral imagination" in a much more general sense.

[6] As opposed to moralism! I don’t claim here that the moral imagination is a substitute for the Holy Spirit, who is the only One who can make us more Christ-like. Nevertheless, it helps in the education of our character by pointing to truth.

[7] A doppelganger literally means “double”, a technique where another character is used to mirror the main character. I think strictly speaking, it’s meant to be the same character, eg. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! I don’t push it that far in Spiderman.

[8] Vengeance is a big theme to consider on its own, since it is also a huge part of Harry Osborn’s story. Consider too Peter's use of Gwen in getting back at MJ.

[9] Keeping in mind doctrine of original sin of course! Then again, Spiderman 3 ain't systematic theology. One final theme which I haven’t thought much about is the father-child theme. But it might be worthwhile thinking about Peter and Uncle Ben’s relationship. Harry and his dad. Marko Flint and his daughter. And even MJ and her critical dad.

[10] Emily Dickinson.


Cross-posted at the Agora



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Blogger The Hedonese said...

vERY well written review, bro! thanks for posting it, i wonder if there's any symbolism to the ringing church bells?

the last part when Sandman keeps hammering spidey while the reporter did a moment-by-moment commentary reminds me of a WWE wrestling match :D

3:05 pm  

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