Entering the Shadow to Expel the Sin in Spider-Man 3

Anthony G. Cirilla
Monday, September 21st 2020

When the hero’s identity has been established and he has overcome reluctance to accept his responsibilities, he enters into the dangerous temptations of pride. In the opening voice over of Spider-Man 3 we hear, “It’s me. Peter Parker. Your friendly neighborhood… you know. I’ve come a long way from being the boy who was bit by a spider. Back then, nothing seemed to go right for me. Now… people really like me.” He speaks these words to the audience while he, dressed as Peter, admiringly watches himself, as Spider-Man, web-slinging on a big screen on display in the streets of New York. At the top of the world, Peter Parker is dangerously poised to plunge into what is called in the Hero’s Journey “The Shadow,” where the “unrealized, or rejected aspects” of subconscious potential for evil can manifest in the hero when he “gets carried away with his own success” (Christopher Vogler, The Writers Journey 84-85). While seeing our hero appreciated brings a certain satisfaction, something feels off about Peter’s eager consumption of praise from his fans, which becomes all the more disturbing when we see the effects of his obsession with fame on his relationship with Mary Jane Watson.

Sin Before the Shadow

At the outset, their relationship seems to be going well. But a romantic date spent lounging in a hammock made by Spider-Man’s webbing and star-gazing turns ominous for Peter and Mary-Jane when a comet lands in the forest park, and a mysterious, oily and sentient ooze affixes itself to Peter’s moped. Reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, the apparent romantic paradise of the couple has a dark entity lurking in their midst. At first, this symbiotic monster appears to have little effect, until Peter starts to exhibit a prideful narcissism in the face of Mary Jane’s pain caused by cutting reviews of her Broadway performance. As she confides in how deeply the review hurt her, he dismisses her concerns by comparing them to his own experiences as Spider-Man, making the conversation about him when he should be focused on her needs. The hurtful exchange is worsened when Parker cuts it short to respond to a dispatcher’s urgent broadcast over his police scanner. As he leaves MJ emotionally unattended, the viscous, shadowy blight stirs in Peter’s room, catching Mary Jane’s attention but moving out of sight before she can see it.

Peter’s pride begins to metastasize as he is offered the key to the city for saving the chief of police’s daughter Gwen Stacy, leading to two other of the seven deadly sins: lust and wrath.[1] When the crowd suggests that Stacy give Spider-Man a kiss, he encourages it, despite the fact that the kiss recreates the first kiss exchanged by him and MJ in the first film, even though he knows Mary Jane is watching. Later on, when Peter intends to propose to Mary Jane, Gwen Stacy interrupts their dinner, revealing to MJ that she and Peter have been working as lab partners. Rightfully disturbed that both sides of Peter’s identity have had inappropriate interaction with another woman, MJ leaves before Peter can pop the question. Although he had not intended infidelity, Peter flirts dangerously with subconsciously adulterous impulses, made all the more dangerous that he is blinded by pride from seeing that he is engaged in wrongdoing. This blindness is made painfully obvious when he reacts with surprise at MJ’s understandable jealousy.

Wrath follows lust soon after when Peter realizes that the Sandman, who he has already battled, is actually the killer of his uncle, not the man who he had chased down in the first film. Learning the police’s error Peter says with a voice tightened by rage, “You got this wrong,” and when the officer pleads with him to settle down he rejoins, “I have no intention of settling down. This man killed my uncle, and he’s still out there!” Rebuffing MJ’s attempts to comfort him, Peter falls into a fitful sleep listening to the police scanner, and responding to his rage, the amorphous, greasy strands of the symbiote eagerly engulf him. Shortly after, Spider-Man awakens in a black threaded version of the spidey suit, hanging upside down in front of a reflective office window with no recollection of moving there.

Dancing with the Devil

Clearly evocative of demonic possession, the effects of the symbiote also accord, however, with the Scriptural emphasis on human culpability in sin. James 1:14-15 reads, “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” Dr. Connors tells Peter that, as a symbiote, the substance he has found “amplifies characteristics of its host… especially aggression.” Although the symbiote leads Peter to act in ways he wouldn’t, he can’t cry “the devil made him do it” for, like unclean spirits, it only tempts him with the sins common to his kind (1 Corinthians 10:13) – and natural to his own heart.

The hyperbolic behavior Peter engages in is thus a diabolic exaggeration of the sins he already participated in before the suit had him in its clutches. As he goes to extreme lengths to protect his pride – breaking Brock’s camera and then mercilessly ruining his career (for admittedly heinous fabrication of Spider-Man in the act of stealing), Peter slams Eddie against a wall and tells him, “If you want forgiveness, get religion.” His wrath pushes him to a vengeance quest, using the subterranean sewer system to drown the Sandman, about which he gloats to Aunt May, “Spider-Man killed him.” Aunt May’s concern is visible (all the more so personal if one takes her monologue in the second film as a subtle hint that she knows that Peter is Spider-Man) as she says, “Spider-Man doesn’t kill people. What happened?” Unable to hide his frustration and confusion, Peter replies, “I thought that you’d feel… He deserved it, didn’t he?”

Aunt May’s response is evocative of Gandalf’s to Frodo. “It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he got a chance,” Frodo had said, to which Gandalf replied, “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hands. Many who live deserve death. And many who die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Then do not be so quick to deal out death and judgment.” In a similar spirit, Aunt May tells Peter, “I don’t think it’s for us to say whether a person deserves to live or die… Uncle Ben meant the world to us. But he wouldn’t want us living with revenge in our hearts. It’s like a poison. It can take you over.” Much as Frodo must resist the demonic call of the One Ring, Peter is confronted with the subversive attraction of the symbiote’s power, and he decides to put it away – but not to destroy it.

It is not until Peter’s prideful wrath marries itself to lust that he realizes how deadly the suit is. Egged on to don it by Harry’s backstabbing attack on Peter’s relationship with MJ, Parker puts the shadow suit back on and embraces the evil of the suit more than he had before. Crushing Brock’s photography career, Parker dons a black business suit to mirror his symbiote’s spidey suit, signaling that the shadow has indeed taken over both sides of his persona. Making a fool of himself by dancing in the street and lewdly eyeing women who pass him by, he hardly seems like the innocent young boy who can see angelic meaning in Mary Jane’s beauty. He carelessly flirts with Ursula, an act repugnant for her innocence, but even worse is his manipulation of Gwen Stacy’s emotions, ostentatiously getting her to dance with him at the bar where Mary Jane sings. The flamboyant display of showmanship is a shameful, cutting and intentional reiteration of the showmanship as Spider-Man which Peter was caught up in the outset of the film – but worse now because he directs the full extent of his charisma and his superhuman powers to show off at Mary Jane’s expense. Only when his grotesque exhibition culminates in a fight with the bar’s bouncers, leading to him inadvertently strike out at Mary Jane, does Peter realize the full, ugly import of the symbiote’s influence.

Scouring the Shadow

That Peter’s second period under the influence of the symbiote is so much worse than the first recalls Matthew 12:43-45, where Christ teaches that demonic possession can, after a respite, actually worsen when merely human activity resists the oppression. Just so, Parker seems to realize that he cannot break free of the parasitic creature’s influence on his own. We see him in the shadow-spidey suit atop a cathedral bell tower, in a posture clearly evocative of penitential prayer. As he struggles to tear the tenacious, viscid strands from his body, Parker accidentally strikes the church bell, and the symbiote shrieks, revealing a terrifying visage as it unwillingly detaches from Peter’s face.

The symbolism of the ringing bell evokes powerful, rich contexts in Scripture and Christianity. Bells were hung on the garments of priests entering the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament, and their ringing in modern Christian churches signifies the ability of believers sanctified by Christ’s blood to approach the Holy of Holies without fear. Bells, too, are an instrument of worship, but they were also used in rituals of exorcism to signify the holiness of God which evil spirits cannot tolerate.[2] Above all, what it symbolizes is Peter’s inability to remove the curse of sin himself which attracted the demonic entity in the first place – the scene, filmed at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church, clearly evokes the idea that grace must be communicated to free one from such demonic power.

As Peter wrestles with his demon in the bell tower, Eddie Brock comes to the church to offer an absurd prayer: “I come before you humbled, and humiliated, to ask you one thing…. I want you to kill Peter Parker.” If a prayer can be sin, this is it, and it marries Brock’s pride to wrath more intentionally and viciously than Peter ever had prior to the symbiote’s influence. One could find a light parallel here with the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector – one prayer self-righteous and the other truly remorseful. For this reason, when by apparent chance he stands at the base of the bell tower and hears Peter’s screams, Brock becomes the new bearer of the symbiote – and his transformation is more demonic, his face splitting into a toothy maw.

Venom makes an alliance with the Sandman to take Spider-Man out, the catalyst for the final confrontation of the film where Spider-Man tries to save Mary Jane from their vicious clutches. This battle becomes a resolution for many character arcs, an elegant if tragic resolution to the various elements of the Shadow as it has darkened Peter Parker’s life. A touch of the Cain and Abel story has played out between Peter and Harry, friends so close they were like brothers (underscored by comments not only by Harry but also Norman before his death), but Harry forgives Peter to such an extent for his involvement in his father’s death that he sacrifices himself to save his friend.

But the film also avoids sentimental softness in the face of sin’s dire reality. Recalling that his own struggle with the diabolical symbiote had been possible only when it was exposed to the frequencies of the church bells, Peter perceives the creature’s vulnerability to certain noises. Surrounding Venom with the pipes and creating a gauntlet of intolerable clashing sounds, Spider-Man tears Brock from the suit, attempting to save him even after he killed Harry, but Brock, as enamored of symbiote as Gollum was of the One Ring, leaps into the explosion Spider-Man had caused to destroy the menacing, wailing parasite. Unrepentant evil, set inexorably to enact its destructive resentment in the world, cannot be tolerated, and though Spider-Man was right to try and save Brock, he sealed his own fate by marrying himself to Satanic prayer. “Thy will be done,” God says to Brock, but not his will to kill Parker – his will to be a force of ruin was enacted on himself. Even so, Peter discovers the “felix culpa” of having fallen into the grips of his own shadow self, so that when he faces his uncle’s true killer again, Peter is able to understand what led to the Sandman’s actions and his own complicity, telling him, “I have done terrible things too… I forgive you.” Peter has learned that when we see our own dependence on grace for forgiveness, only then can we extend that same forgiveness to those who have wronged us. Parker finds himself both the giver and receiver of mercy as the fruit of his scouring of the shadow in the cathedral’s bell tower. Truly humbled and repentant because of his confrontation with his shadow, at the end of the film he is able to come back to Mary Jane and, as it is implied by her embrace, ask for her forgiveness too. With the demons cast out, he can ask her to dance.

Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.


[1] This is in accordance with the medieval discourse on the seven deadly sins, as in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica II-II, q. 162, where in Article 6 he argues that pride is the “most grievous of all sins” because it enacts “contempt for God,” and in Article 7 argues that not only is it one of the seven of “capital” sins but indeed, as Gregory the Great termed it, “the queen and mother of all sins,” including the other six deadly ones.

[2] See Bernard Cohen, Benjamin Franklin’s Science: “Typical inscriptions on church bells described their power to ‘ward off lightning and malignant demons’; stated that ‘the sound of this bell vanquishes tempests, repels demons, and summons men,’ or exhorted it to ‘praise God, put to flight the clouds, affright the demons, and call the people’” (119).

Monday, September 21st 2020

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