“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I was a cartoon fanatic when I was a kid. I still love good, animated movies and TV shows. There were a few cartoons growing up, though, that were my all-time favorites. I could (and did) go back and watch episodes and storylines again and again and again. One of these was the original X-Men cartoon series. The Dark Phoenix and Apocalypse storylines in particular I must have watched a dozen times apiece. I have been most excited recently about the news of Disney+ doing a reboot of the series picking up right where the original left off. Another favorite was Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. From the original Batman the Animated Series to the more recent Young Justice, I can’t think of a cartoon universe that has as many different series that all draw on the same characters. While Marvel may be the king of live action, DC owns the animation wars. But the series that is still my favorite of all time was Spider-Man. There’s just something about Spider-Man that makes everyone a fan. As he has been taken from the small screen to the big screen, I’ve been there for all of his adventures. So, when the latest movie came out just before Christmas, my family made our first trip to the movie theater since before Covid started. Let’s talk about why Spider-Man: No Way Home was so good.
The first reason the film was so good is that Tom Holland owns the character in a way no other actor ever has. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were both good, but Holland is better. The second reason is that Kevin Feige is a genius. His creative vision for building the Marvel Cinematic Universe has resulted in one of the most successful film, and now TV, empires ever. Not counting the five fantastic small screen ventures, Feige’s 27 films (so far!) have collectively earned over $25 billion. I defy you to find another person responsible for as much and as successful content as Feige in the whole history of televised media. When Sony finally got over themselves and realized there was more money to be made in working with Marvel than against them so that Feige got his hands on Spider-Man, the results were never going to be anything less than stellar. And the third reason it was so good is that it was a gigantic “I love you” letter to Spider-Man film fans. It did this by bringing back both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield and the major villain from each of their combined five films.
The result of all of this was a story that was just fun. It was creative. It was simultaneously lighthearted and serious. It asked big questions, taught big lessons, and had real stakes and consequences that will echo through future Spider-Man movies. Sure, it had all of the usual superhero movie leaps of logic and convenient plot holes, but what’s a superhero movie without those? When you are trying to shoehorn into the real world a world of absolute technological, mystical, and superhuman fantasy, you’re going to have to play pretty fast and loose with the boundaries of what makes sense on occasion.
The basic story (if you’re one of the 10 people left in the world who haven’t seen it) picks up right where Holland’s second Spider-Man movie, Far from Home, left off. Mysterio has revealed his secret identity to the world and he’s now having to live with the consequences. The legal ramifications of this are dealt with pretty easily and really serve only to officially bring Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock (that is, Daredevil) into the MCU. The personal and social ramifications are a bit more complicated, and so Peter turns to his friend, Dr. Strange for help. Strange offers to work a spell that will erase the memory of Peter Parker from the world. Then no one will know his secret identity and he can go back to being the anonymous friendly neighborhood Spider-Man he had been before. Unfortunately, being an 18-year-old kid, Peter doesn’t really start thinking through the full consequences of the spell until Strange is in the process of casting it. His choosing that moment to try to add changes and exceptions to it results in a fracturing of reality. This fracturing of reality cracks open the multiverse and before long, bad guys start showing up from other universes (and conveniently only five of them along with the two heroes who defeated them) causing all the chaos you might expect.
These villains are Willam Dafoe’s iconic Green Goblin, Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, Jamie Foxx’s Electro, Thomas Hayden Church’s Sandman, and Rhys Ifans’ Lizard. After having a good bit of fun with all of these characters’ figuring out where they are and what has happened, and with the stern advice of Aunt May, Peter begins working with MJ and Ned to send them all back where they came from. The trouble, though, is that each of them were ripped out of their respective universes just before the moment they each were killed while fighting their respective Spider-Man. In spite of the dangers, Aunt May insists that Peter figures out a way to help them so they can go back and live some sort of a normal life, or at least, to stop being the villains they are.
As the story unfolds, most of the characters are at least willing to play along, but in a move that comes as exactly no surprise, Dafoe’s Green Goblin double-crosses him and in the process (spoiler alert) kills Aunt May. As a desperate Peter holds on to her as she dies, she reminds him once again to not give up on helping these villains because, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Yes, that’s right, in a powerful little twist of the standard Spider-Man canon, it is Aunt May who dies and speaks the words of the Spider-Man creed.
The rest of the story has MJ and Ned discovering the other two Spider-Men and using their influence to help convince Peter to complete his mission. The two of them serve as mentors to him in some powerful ways. They even both get epilogues of sorts for their own stories that offer each character some truly powerful redemptive moments. One in particular almost brought me to tears. All of this and a terrifically fun final battle sequence round out a truly spectacular movie. While I don’t think it was quite as good as the final sequence of Avengers: Endgame, it was awfully close.
If that is all what the movie is about, though, what should we actually do with it (other than enjoy it thoroughly)? Here are a couple of thoughts. This movie is a beautiful illustration of Jesus’ call to love our enemies. While Tom Holland’s Peter Parker didn’t have anything against any of these villains from other Spider-Man universes at first, Willam Dafoe’s betrayal and killing of Aunt May cemented him as a mortal enemy. Her death is the deepest wound this Peter Parker has yet received. On a personal level the stakes and consequences of this film were higher than either of the previous two Holland Spider-Man movies.
In a universe in which the God of the Bible does not obviously exist in any form or fashion, though, May’s Christlike insistence on Peter’s loving his enemies is as remarkable as it is illogical. If there is no higher power demonstrating or mandating that kind of love (and from The Eternals, as we talked about a couple of weeks ago, we know rather emphatically that there is not), such redemptive love doesn’t make any sense. There’s no objective reason that should be the right thing to do. And yet from this universe, we know that it is. We know that it is because of the imprint of God’s character we all bear. Marvel may not be willing to acknowledge it, but their worldview is soaked in ideas that are only explainable on the Christian worldview.
There’s something else here, though, that is of even more interest to me. As I have been thinking about writing this review, this saying from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was the obvious connection point. The theme of loving your enemies and doing good to them no matter how terrible they have been to you; of the poison of hatred and the freeing power of forgiveness, is impossible to miss as you watch the movie. Yet even as I thought about starting from this passage, something in my head said I’ve used it before. So, I looked it up. It’s nice to have a search feature on the blog so I can go back and remember what I’ve written in the past. At over 1300 posts since I started this venture, I’m okay admitting that I don’t remember nearly all of them. In any event, after a quick search, I discovered that I have commented on Matthew 5:43 twice. Once earlier this year, and once about a year ago. Both times I was writing up a review of the Cobra Kai series.
In other words, this is the third major media piece in the last couple of years running on a theme of the power of loving our enemies. And none of these pieces have been Christian in any meaningful sense. Cobra Kai did have a character who was a pastor in the first season, and he was actually presented in a really generous light, but that’s it. As I just said, there’s no God in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is only Arishem and he is rather decidedly not worthy of our worship. Nor does his character offer any meaningful foundation for our values. I suppose the MCU at least assumes on a purely Darwinian explanation for the existence and form of human morality. Yet from a purely Darwinian standpoint, things like love for one’s enemies does not make any sense. In fact, loving your enemies is a way to guarantee that your evolutionary development and that of your progeny gets short-circuited. In this sense, loving your enemies is not just counterproductive, it is wrong.
But again, here we are with three different shows all featuring the idea. It’s almost like God is trying to tell us something. We live in a culture that is increasingly polarized and antagonistically so. As the Christian worldview is stripped away from both the cultural left and the cultural right, we are looking more and more not to find common ground, but to collect scalps on our way to total victory. The trouble with both sides engaging in a campaign of total war is that there winds up being a whole lot of casualties. Yet we serve a God who loves us and wants the best for us. And He doesn’t just love those who love Him. He is good to the just and unjust alike. He loves His enemies. After all, He proved His own love for us by sending Jesus to die for us when we were still sinners. And because He wants the best for us, He doesn’t want us to destroy each other. So, we find these writers creating content that is seen by tens of millions of people quietly calling us back to loving our enemies. The world may be broken and breaking around us, but God hasn’t given up on us yet. In fact, He never will. Let’s make sure we’re listening to what He has to say no matter where it happens to come from. Let’s make sure we are helping the culture around us hear the messages as well.