In the film Spider-Man II Peter Parker plays all three roles in the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10:25-37). The film character of Peter Parker/Spider-man (Tobey Mcguire) can be seen as Samaritan, the Passerby, and as the victim on the side of the road. The apparent villain, Dr. Octavius (Alfred Molina) starts out as an idealistic scientist who falls prey to the temptation to power (Luke 4:6). He is, however, only a tool manipulated by the real villain, Harry (James Franco). The one real hero in the film is Peter Parker’s girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) who rescues him and makes him whole – at least until Spider-Man III.
Before reflecting on the message, I should note that the film is just plain comic book level fun. It has spectacular action and Kirsten Dunst is beautiful.
Peter Parker is conflicted over the use of his superpowers. He takes seriously the injunction of his Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” His spider powers enable him to be the Good Samaritan, rescuing every victim. He finds that continuous use of his Spider powers causes burnout, diminishing his strength and producing fatigue. Peter represents those of us who pour all of our energy into our gifts and trying to save the world – or at least our portion of it. His dedication is driven by guilt: his Uncle Ben was killed by a thug Peter could have caught but didn’t. As a result, he feels he must stop every criminal and save every person.
As Peter’s powers diminish, he assumes the role of the victim, in need of a Samaritan to save him. He loses his part time job, nearly fails a university course and gets beaten up in a crowd. When asked, Peter denies Mary Jane, telling her that he does not love her. Peter’s sense of his calling is so great that he denies his own needs. He accepts rejection by Mary Jane, reasoning that, if they married, she would be in danger from Spider-Man’s foes.
Aware that he is experiencing burnout, Peter decides to give up being Spiderman. His energy returns and he begins to live normally. There is a price to be paid. He must assume the role of the passerby, refusing to rescue a victim. Even though he is uncomfortable in this role, he is determined to persist – until events intervene.
Dr. Octavius, a scientist whose ego had led him to believe he could save the world by creating a perpetual energy source, has attached four electro-mechanical arms to his back. He intends for these arms to give him the power needed to control the energy source. To his horror the arms become a truly sinister personification of his own lust for power. They assume control of his personality, forcing him into a destructive quest for power. He becomes a tool of Harry, who is bent on destroying Spider-Man. He captures Mary Jane in order to lure Spiderman to his death.
Peter Parker is caught in a dilemma. He believes that “With great power comes great responsibility.” He is convinced that love of neighbor requires that he ignore his own needs and rescue every possible victim. Yet, he recognizes that this is not possible.
Spider-Man II highlights a fundamental question: “What is unconditional love?” My teacher, Msgr. Chester Michael, once defined it this way: “Unconditional love means putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own wants.” In trying to be a Samaritan, Peter has put everyone else’s needs ahead of his own. Thus his power diminishes. While the definition is attractive, its application is difficult. A look at the gospels may help. Jesus, who abandoned needy crowds to withdraw into prayer (Lk 5:15-16), freely accepted the sacrifice of his own life. If the definition is to fit, Jesus needed to pray; He wanted to live.
Peter thinks that he has to sacrifice his need for Mary Jane and a normal life in order to exercise his powers. His true identity is revealed to her in the course of rescuing her from Dr. Octavius. Once she sees him as Spider-man, Mary Jane becomes the Samaritan, giving him permission to be himself, meet his needs and use his powers – or so it seems until we see Spider-Man III.