Notice: this piece contains spoilers.
The newest film featuring Marvel’s spider-bitten superhero, Spider-Man: No Way Home, failed to deliver the promise every story is obliged to offer. Before you write me off as one of many picky amateur film critics “hating on Marvel,” my fight is not with the cinematography, the idea of superhero film, or even overblown action and tasteless comedy—although No Way Home possesses that all in abundance. My fight is with the naive, idealistic, essentially elitist and certainly arrogant premise that evil has a simple solution.
To summarize—here is where the spoilers roll fast—a wizard-like figure, in Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange, casts a spell for the sake of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, because Parker wishes to erase the memories of a public that discovered his identity as the Spider-Man. The spell, conveniently for the plot, fails and the villains of the two previous Spider-Man franchises enter Holland’s. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield join the party as their own franchises’ Spidermen. The movie’s central conflict is the attempt to pacify the Green Goblin (flies around throwing grenades), the Sandman (literally a man made of sand), Dr. Connors (a massive lizard), Maxwell Dillon (loves electricity and explosions) and Dr. Octavius (utilizes metal tentacles attached to his body). Eventually, the Spider-trio use scientific means to revert the criminals to a civilized state from their vicious states—the Sandman and Dr. Connors become human again, Max loses his lust for energy and power, Dr. Octavius bursts free from the sentient grip of his tentacles and the Green Goblin returns to sanity.
It is the villains’ cure that I am calling naive, idealistic, essentially elitist and certainly arrogant. Great stories leverage the human experience in its polyhedron complexity. They do not substitute caricatures for their characters, they do not delineate in bold lines the path of goodness and the path of evil, and they certainly do not provide simple solutions for messy problems. The great stories offer the reader a portal, more powerful than those of Dr. Strange, into the human heart. There, they shine a light of enlightenment. This light is the light of new revelation into the timeless moral truths and spiritual dilemmas all people in all times have battled to understand. It has often been noted, but allow me to note again, that good stories stand as a bridge between the known and the unknown. If this is true, the question every reader asks subconsciously or consciously after encountering a powerful story is, first, ‘what did I know before this story?’ and, second, ‘what do I now know?’
Not only did No Way Home fail to reveal innovative applications of timeless truth, fail to accurately represent the human experience and fail to echo the complexity of good and evil, but it offered a hideous lie. Instead, it offered a perspective on human nature rooted in fanatic utopian prophetesses’ pipe dreams: We are essentially good people. Clearly, the 20th century should have dispelled that notion from Hollywood’s Tesla driving to Louis Vitton handbag carrying writers, but it somehow failed to deliver on that promise—just like its failed promises from Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Marx, Galton, Malthus and Castro. To be frank, evil is more hideous than you can imagine and more relevant than you can believe. Evil knocks on the Ukranian’s door as we coddle our eyes on the fast-food entertainment provided by a class of wokeism’s sycophants. It grips the throats of Uighur Muslims, it famishes the stomachs of millions starving, it spits bullets into Afghanistan peoples, it takes Trayvon Martin’s breath. It terminates life with a virus.
Evil is real, and it is criminal to misrepresent its nature and its solution. Spider-Man presents evil as the product of environment and mistake: if the villains would have been raised just right or would have acquired the just right ideas at the right time, they never would have become villainous. Indeed, Marvel says, to fix this accidental evil all we need is a small struggle without sacrifice and a solution gifted to us by the technology concocted in the labs of ideology. In the movie, each villain is portrayed as a victim of circumstance: Max fell in a pool of eels and didn’t have friends, Doc Oc never meant for his creation to take over his mind and the Sandman just wanted companionship. To fix these problems, they literally gave each villain inoculations or other lab-made gadgets.
If only evil were that simple. If only evil were the creation of happenstance, an accidental occurrence. If only evil could be fixed with a solution created by a minority. If only.
The fact is that evil pervades all. As the Russian gulag survivor and prolific author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, wrote, “[t]he line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” How does one fix the heart? A spiritual problem requires a spiritual solution. Evil is not resolved with fists and guns and webs nor neat and tidy devices—the analogues of these in the real world being ideology, politics and social justice reforms—no, the solution to evil is viewing the Good. For Socrates, the Good is virtue. For Mill, it is the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. For Jesus Christ, the Good is Himself. But, the Good isn’t relevant for Marvel because it doesn’t even know what evil is. It can not understand that the tendency to violence, selfishness, pride, and criminality grows with us from conception, from the first moment of existence. I could speak of Christianity’s doctrine of total depravity, but I do not have to, because anyone, regardless of their faith background, can recognize the utter inhumanity of humanity.
Evil is the monster inside us all, and its spirit manifests in every war, natural disaster and worldwide pandemic. It must be understood. That is what a story is about. It is about recognizing a timeless truth, such as evil, and presenting to its readers a perspective. Marvel, poor Marvel, offers half-baked popcorn and warm soda-pop cinema. It offers funny lines and great visuals, but nothing of lasting value. Any perspective it does offer is like a deflated tire, good only to kick repeatedly roadside, lacking any ability to move anyone anywhere.
The one lesson we have learned is the almost, but not quite, complete inability for mass appeal entertainment to adequately convey the complexity of reality. A superhero movie should be the prime analogue to good and evil; this has been true, for instance, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy. It understands evil is primeval and foundational: the fear of its villain the Scarecrow, the insanity of the Joker, its lust for power in Bane and its battle for the heart of Batman himself. I would be a cruel adversary of Marvel to compare No Way Home to Nolan’s masterpiece, which is akin to likening an architect to his lego-loving toddler. I simply highlight one rare instance where the goal of a story has actually been accomplished so that you know when it hasn’t.
No Way Home is naive because it avoids the truth of evil, idealistic because it’s grounded in baseless optimism, essentially elitist because only the self-anointed managing your entertainment consumption could maintain such a vision and certainly arrogant in its technocratic remedy to that timeless scar staining the flesh of human history which is the destructive force of evil. I discussed the idea of this article with a friend and he scoffed at me and replied, “I don’t watch Marvel movies for philosophical truth. I watch Marvel movies for fun.” This is a silly response because it assumes that Marvel shuns putting forth philosophical truth. They do, in fact, offer philosophical truth through the actions and dialogue of their characters. The problem is that their philosophy (as this one example reveals) is pitifully fragile and self-delusory; unmistakably a philosophy of thoughtless secular elite.
The key descriptor of Marvel’s philosophy might be separated, it is a philosophy of separation. Although the lust of the eyes and flesh is drawn to the visuals of Marvel, Marvel’s writers seem to be far removed from actual people and their struggles, and so we are not fed by Marvel’s dulling opioids but sedated. The great advantage of fantasy is its profound grasp of the spiritual playing field, that field invisible but more real than this visible one. This is why we love Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, and Rowling’s Harry Potter. Marvel, with every further story they perpetuate, forsakes the responsibility of every bard and troubadour and poet throughout the ages, and forsakes, too, the advantage of its genre. The unsuspecting come to Marvel for fun and leave with the virus of reckless -isms and -ologies.
Because we do attend Hope College, I feel the leniency to offer the Christian answer to evil and offer it in absolute terms. True evil is known by thinking of ourselves. True good is known by thinking of Jesus Christ. True salvation is known through Him and by Him and His story. This is the great answer of our faith, upheld by our institution, and proclaimed by many of my peers—let us lift the banner etched not with a spider but a cross, or at the very least find a better story, and at the very, very least something actually marvelous.