Spider-Man's Villains Aren't What they Seem

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: “Dude, don’t ruin Spider-Man for me!” That’s a legitimate concern, given how so many Hollywood productions are easy to ruin in hindsight as we realize the dark paths they led us down and/or how much predictive programming they contained. But wholesome and true things tend to have staying power. That the original Spider-Man trilogy has stuck around for about two decades should tell us something. 

Director Sam Raimi cut his teeth in horror starting with The Evil Dead in 1981. The low-budget movie and franchise it spawned is all about demon possession, and definitely not from a religious worldview (more like a Three Stooges worldview). Still, as his Spider-Man movies prove, it’s a topic to which he’s given much thought. Yes, there are demons in Spider-Man, and not just any old evil spirits, but very specific entities.

Consider Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) from the first film. His lab is trying to create super soldiers, tests are not going well, and he’s about to lose his military contract. In a moment of desperation he tries the process on himself, deliberately altering his DNA and getting superhuman strength, with the side effect of awakening an alternate personality. But is that all? Just what recessive genes did he, with his red hair, switch on, anyway? Osborn becomes the psychotic Green Goblin and puts on a clownish mask (which, as our friend Paul Stobbs would have us believe, is what the nephilim looked like). Sometimes the mask talks to him.

In fact, immediately following a creepy conversation with the mask, the movie cuts to Aunt May saying the Lord’s Prayer seconds before the Green Goblin attacks her. He demands she finish it, and she screams, “Deliver us from evil!” Raimi makes sure we can’t miss it. This isn’t just a split personality but something more. While her faith isn’t enough to drive him away, we have to give the screenwriters credit for working Aunt May’s Christianity into the story in an authentic and organic way. 

Jumping to Spider-Man 2, arguably the greatest superhero movie of all time, we have Dr. Otto Octavious, aka: Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) and his neurolinked arms. While it’s never suggested that artificial intelligence is involved, the arms ultimately become self-aware. Hey Elon, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to plug computers into our brains? Doc Ock created his arms to help him multitask, and in our computers the background programs that allow them to do multiple things at a time are literally called “daemons.” Some believe that isn’t a coincidence. Too unhinged for real-life? You be the judge. For this movie, though, it makes too much sense to ignore. 

Another thing we can’t ignore is the Lovecraftian aspect of Octavious’s transformation into a tentacled man-monster. Like a mind flayer from D&D, the arms hold Octavious in thrall and change his charming personality into something malevolent. When he finally comes back to himself, Octavious sends himself and his arms into the ocean’s depths. 

No discussion of Spider-Man 2 is complete without mentioning Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s moment of sacrifice. In screenwriting school they used to call this story beat the hero’s “death and resurrection.” If you’ve seen the movie, you already know exactly what I’m talking about.  Peter stops the runaway train, holding out his arms like Christ on the cross. Once the people are saved, he passes out. Like the earlier example with Aunt May, the religious element is treated with respect. No, Spider-Man isn’t Jesus, but he does follow His example. There was a time when superheroes were aspirational, not all quippy and cynical and created in the images of pagan gods. 

Finally, we come to the much maligned Spider-Man 3, with its messy plot and one too many villains. The movie studio reportedly demanded that Raimi feature the alien symbiote (it’s never called Venom), and he incorporated the anti-hero as best he could. The symbiote arrives from space on a meteor and bonds with Peter, bringing out his dark side. Are aliens demons in disguise? For the purposes of this movie, yes.

After allowing the symbiote to influence him for a time, Peter ultimately rejects it. Where? In a church. How? By ringing a bell. Traditionally, church bells have been thought to drive away demons. Here it’s explained with science-y talk of frequency and vibrations, yet the symbolism resonates (pun intended). The symbiote then attaches itself to Eddie Brock (Topher Grace). In both cases, the demon is drawn to its victim because of their wounded pride. Surely there is a lesson in that.

Do I think Sam Raimi or his screenwriters deliberately worked any of these elements into their movies? For the most part, probably not. I believe they were trying to tell stories with mass appeal by being true to the human experience. By doing so, they ended up showing more truth than perhaps they realized. Honest and skillful storytellers often end up delivering truth beyond their conscious knowledge. Great stories reach us on a primal level (the nephilim looked like clowns, so run!) and a spiritual level (“For I am crucified with Christ and yet I live”). Great stories present the characters with choices and show the consequences. In that way, everyone who worked on Spider-Man knew exactly what they were doing, even if they didn’t know precisely why.


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