Sunday Morning Superheroes: Peter Parker and the Promise of the Cross

Before anyone comes into my bedroom for the first time, I usually give them a warning that goes something along the lines of:

“Alright, now watch out because some 12 year old snuck in recently and redecorated in here.”

Thus continues my life of feigning shame in arenas where I actually feel none. Because in reality a 12 year old did decorate my room. It was me as a 12 year old. And 8 years later I still see no reason to make any adjustments. My Star Wars toys look dope perched on my bookshelves along with my little league trophies and collectible Slurpee cups, and my light blue walls look better when they’re interrupted by posters of dinosaurs and Dreamworks’ Surf’s Up.

But the primary motif in my room is the Amazing Spider-Man. More accurately, it’s the Ultimate Spider-Man that graces the comforters and sheets of my bunk bed, as well as the valances over my windows and the border across my wall. I also have a large wall scroll of the web-slinger as depicted by my favorite artist, Humberto Ramos, but that is actually taken off a cover for the Spectacular Spider-Man and I was afraid that if I mentioned three separate Spidey titles before finishing the description of my room, people would just lose interest and stop reading. If you’ve stuck through it this far, then bless you and we’ll continue on.

Suffice it to say, I take my Spider-Man pretty dang seriously. And I always saw it as a generally positive, albeit nerdy, affinity, though I couldn’t ever find a place to truly apply it anywhere. One of the greatest things about comics is their message that so often focuses on the positivity we can find in the world. They depict heroes that, despite their problems and personal struggles, strive to better the world and show the human race what it means to be good.

And I won’t get into why I think Peter Parker is one of the best examples of that, but I want to share with you one of the most potent parallels, as well as one of the most personally significant discoveries, that I’ve found between Spider-Man and Jesus Christ.

But first: summer camp.

It was my first summer as a camp counselor for my church’s 3rd-6th grade camp and I was gonna be the best counselor these kiddos had ever seen. My life had always been guided by the influences I had, primarily camp counselors, and I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to be that for someone else. And obviously that started with hats. I made baseball caps for all half dozen of my campers that had superhero logos all around them and on the back it had a cross and said “who’s your hero?” Superheroes weren’t even the theme for camp that year, but by golly, it was something I could draw and what 4th grade kid doesn’t like superheroes? So I handed them out and we went through the week and all was fine and good.

Finally one of the campers called my bluff. Thursday, the day before we were supposed to leave, he took off his hat and looked at it and pointed out that we hadn’t talked about superheroes at all that week. I also want to point out that this was one special kid cuz he was the only one who’d worn his hat that week. That was probably because the hats were not pleasing to the eye, a fact that I begrudgingly own up to. But this kid calls me out and starts asking about why I’d even made them and I explained that I was really into superheroes and I think that the message that Jesus is the ultimate superhero is a really important one. To which he replied “Jesus wasn’t a superhero.” And somehow I was totally unprepared for that response.

To be fair, he raises a good point. I think we’d have to get down to brass tacks and define what truly makes a superhero a superhero to go any further, but that’s not the point I want to make here. The point I want to make is that I hadn’t totally bought into my own message. Superheroes have always been a great way to use familiar images in a VBS setting to draw kids in and engage them and expose them to the gospel with, like, these amazing acts that Christ has done or maybe draw attention to some of the more spectacular events of the Old Testament (like Levitcal law and the Song of Solomon, both of which are ripe for VBS curriculum). However, I’d somehow never internalized those messages or, worse yet, I’d never truly believed them myself. I’d just thought that I could carbon copy that same tagline I’d seen so much and peddle it to my campers without any pushback.

I’ve now come to realize and appreciate the fact that pushback is the most beautiful thing because it means that someone’s curious. We should all pray for pushback.

All that said, I stumbled around some recycled rhetoric to try and satisfy the camper’s curiosity, but ultimately it just fizzled out to a shrug and his replacing the cap on his head because, hey, the sun’s bright.

And I never really considered the question again until Peter Parker died.

Now, I don’t consider this a spoiler at all for three reasons:

1) It happened 3 years ago
2) It wasn’t in the primary Earth 616 Marvel canon
3) Most of the people reading this probably don’t care a whole heck of a lot anyway

Marvel had announced that they’d be killing off the Peter Parker in the Ultimate universe, an alternate universe that happened to be the one I most closely followed. I lived in denial to the months leading up to it, but by the time issue 156 popped on the shelf, I knew there was no getting around it. It was time to say goodbye to my most beloved hero.

I need to give you a summary if the full power of this is going to be translated.Ultimate_Spider-Man_157_panel

Peter Parker is still about 16 or 17 in this universe, still trying to balance high school with family life with being Spider-Man. Recently the Avengers have decided Pete needs special training because he’s got great potential, but is sloppy and (ironically) irresponsible. Captain America is the only Avenger who doesn’t believe in Pete and he tells him to his face. However, during their first training session, Cap gets an emergency call that the Ultimates, a sort of “secret Avengers” team is rebelling and causing havoc. So Captain America goes off to fight a sort of superhero civil war and tells Peter to stay where he is. Meanwhile, Norman Osborn (also known as the Green Goblin) breaks out of prison along with 5 other staple Spidey villains, forming the proverbial “Sinister Six.” And This part’s pretty interesting: Norman is so deranged that he believes their prison break was a sign from God that they need to finish the job and kill Peter Parker. By the way, Norman knows Peter is Spider-Man not only from their encounters, but because he was a father figure to Peter for a very long time, creating one of the greatest rivalries/conflicts the world has ever seen. Anyway, Peter, being the good kid he is, disobeys Cap’s orders to stay put and goes to check out the situation with the superheroes fighting one another. He spots that Punisher is about to cap Cap (for my less hip readers, that means Punisher is about to shoot Captain America. Do try to keep up, puns aren’t as funny when you have to explain them) and swings in, tackling Captain America out of the way, but taking the bullet through his own side. Later he wakes up and finds that the Sinister Six have escaped and knows Norman will be coming for him. He rushes home, sends Aunt May, Gwen Stacy, and Mary Jane away so they’ll be safe. Once they’re away, the Sinister Six Ultimate_Spider-Man_160_panelappear at his front door and Peter exhausts himself fighting them. Then he finds that Norman is still not taken care of and is absolutely bent on killing him. Mind you, Peter’s still got a gunshot wound in his side that he’s temporarily webbed up to keep, as he puts it, his insides on the inside. However, as Mary Jane is the love of his life, she acts as all loves of lives should and hijacks a semi truck to run into the Green Goblin when Spider-Man’s at his most vulnerable, equipping Pete with the vessel by which he will end the fight. He takes the wrecked truck, MJ now at a safe distance, and smashes it into the Green Goblin several times until it explodes, hurtling Pete through the air onto his own front lawn. By now Peter’s pretty much done for from blood loss and exhaustion, but he has time enough for his final interactions with Mary Jane and much, much more importantly Aunt May. I’ve included the panels down below because they’re simple but, as far as I’m concerned, some of the most important panels that have appeared in Spider-Man in the last decade, if not ever:

UltimateSpider-Man160Death

We finally find out that Peter had a very real, very concrete end in mind. He wasn’t randomly pursuing random acts of heroism, but everything he did served to further an ultimate purpose of keeping Aunt May safe. And maybe that’s something we can apply to Jesus as well. He wasn’t just doing everything he did because of their intrinsic good. Jesus has a very specific end in mind. A good end. And we know it’s a good end because everything that was leading up to it was good as well.

There’s a story in Luke about Jesus on the cross and about a man next to him. And as timing would have it, we were talking about this story when this final issue of Ultimate Spider-Man came out. That story goes a little like this:

As Jesus is being crucified, there are two thieves next to him. And as they’re all up on the crosses, one thief tells Jesus that if he is the Messiah, he should save the three of them and prove the crowds wrong. But the other rebukes him, says that the two of them are up their justly but that Jesus had done nothing wrong, and he asks Jesus to remember him when he goes back to see God. To which Jesus tells him that he will be in paradise with him that day. And only after that does Jesus give in and die.

And the question was raised: why does Jesus wait? I mean, crucifixion is drawn out, yes, but he could have surrendered prior to that, aside from the other question of why he submitted to death in the first place. The latter question is one for another time, but I think in tandem with Peter Parker’s last stand, I finally found an answer to my camper’s question from all those years ago. I don’t claim to know exactly what Jesus’s intentions were, but I like to think this:

He was waiting. Jesus was waiting for that last soul. That very last scrap of a criminal’s soul was worth the extra hours, the extra fighting, the extra effort. That last repentance. Christ will wait for that.

He wasn’t worth waiting for. Captain America didn’t believe in Peter Parker, but he took the bullet for him anyway. And then he kept fighting. Were we worth the bullet? Or rather, were we worth the nails? And were we worth the fighting afterward? Absolutely not. But the true blessing is that we have a loving God who looks at us and smiles at our recognition of that fact because we can’t see ourselves as he sees us. Because to him, as Jesus’s actions prove, the answer couldn’t be more obviously yes.

And there are a lot of other parallels I think we can draw. Like how Norman Osborn was insistent that God wanted Peter Parker to die, a claim that could seemingly be thwarted by Peter’s survival, yet he still died. Like how sometimes terrible things happen and we don’t know if they’re God’s will or not, and if they are, how they possibly could come from an all-loving God. Like how the supposed “good guys” of the Avengers and Ultimates were too busy fighting each other to actually do any of the good that they claimed to stand for. Like how churches squabble over doctrine and hermeneutics and what kind of crackers to use for communion and everything else under the sun while there are people inside and outside of the congregation who need something much simpler and more practical. Like how, despite that, Spider-Man still saved lives and got work done. Like how Christ so often moves in spite of our own imperfections and shortcomings.

I see much more clearly why Christ is like a superhero, but more importantly why superheroes are like Christ. I’m not sure that we’re called to self-sacrifice in as literal a sense as is portrayed by the death of Spider-Man. But I still think that question is the root of it.

How far will you go, how hard will you fight?

And I will continue to answer those questions with much hesitation and inconsistency. But my Jesus, in this regard, looks a whole lot like Peter Parker.

I serve a God who will continue to fight, who will continue to sacrifice and love until the very last breath.

Until there’s nothing else left and the work is done.

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