Fairfax, VA. Today, the 10th Spider-Man film since the turn of the century comes to theaters. Just like much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) now, it will be set in the “Multiverse.” It will likely be entertaining, but its premise and scale guarantee that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse will also be meaningless.
Each reboot of Spider-Man since Tobey Maguire’s trilogy wrapped in 2007 has steadily replaced Spider-Man’s local concerns and moral depth with generic global or universal problems. While Maguire in the early aughts was content keeping New York City safe, Tom Holland’s recent iteration and the current animated Spider-Verse hero, voiced by Shameik Moore, are now saving the planet and the multiverse.
This tendency parallels the internet’s expansion and its ramifications for our day-to-day lives. Our virtual lives and global concerns provide the illusion of power, influence, and importance while undermining local, interpersonal decency, empathy, and nuance. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is a hero for our moment.
He can be deceived but he is never wrong, and real virtue in his world is not the moral discipline of self-mastery. It is finding the villains and then destroying them. He is the superhero equivalent of what Freddie DeBoer calls our “Planet of Cops”:
The woke world is a world of snitches, informants, rats. Go to any space concerned with social justice and what will you find? Endless surveillance. Everybody is to be judged. Everyone is under suspicion. Everything you say is to be scoured, picked over, analyzed for any possible offense. Everyone’s a detective in the Division of Problematics, and they walk the beat 24/7. You search and search for someone Bad doing Bad Things.
Nathan Heller’s recent essay on the decline of the English major touched on a similar theme within the academy:
One literature professor and critic at Harvard—not old or white or male—noticed that it had become more publicly rewarding for students to critique something as “problematic” than to grapple with what the problems might be; they seemed to have found that merely naming concerns had more value, in today’s cultural marketplace, than curiosity about what underlay them.
Both this professor and DeBoer describe a consequence of our social media-inflected society where the virtues that earn acceptance and praise are often less moral than intellectual; not self-governance but right thinking. It is a trend Daniel Boorstin spotted back in 1962: a culture increasingly concerned with image and persona rather than ideals and right conduct. Sixty years later, the worst sins are not the seven deadly ones, they are sins of belief, of ideological heterodoxy: TERF, RINO, Oreo, anti-Vaxxer, Election Denier.
And conversely, the great virtues are often matters of knowledge rather than character. Knowing about preferred pronouns, land use acknowledgments, and how words like “American” or “Immigrant” should now be avoided. Or, knowing what remdesivir really is, about the Hollywood pedophilia ring, or what really happened on January 6th.
As the internet has connected us and virtue has transformed from moral strength to intellectual stance, our heroes have changed. They are now celebrities turning the tide, our champions in the culture war: Greta Thunberg, AOC, Jordan Peterson, Ron DeSantis. Whereas the saints of the Church modeled moral virtues that all people could aspire to, our heroes today are necessarily those with the power to strongarm or shame their (and our) opponents. And the superheroes of our time follow this same pattern, fighting cosmic battles of simplistic morality.
While I realize superhero films are not known for subtlety, even in the last twenty years—the time between Tobey Maguire’s trilogy (2001-07) and Tom Holland’s (2016-21)—Spider-Man has lost the “neighborhood” part of “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” as well as the moral complexity that made him a beloved hero. He is no longer a kid from Queens, maturing within a community. He has become another placeless superhero. As we the audience continue to lose a sense of place and time and human virtue amidst the internet’s tumult, Marvel films reflect back culturally dislocated heroes. Spider-Man, once inspirational, has turned vapid.
In 2017, Alan Jacobs summarized his problem with all modern action movies, including Marvel:
They’re at least 30 minutes too long;
Most of that excessive length results from the decision to stage one massive action set-piece too many;
The decision to stage one massive action set-piece too many stems, in turn, from the catastrophically erroneous belief that raising the stakes — putting a city or (better) a country or (better still) a planet or (even more better) the universe or (best of all) ALL THE UNIVERSES THERE EVER WERE OR EVER COULD BE at risk—will increase viewers’ emotional investment in the story.
Marvel has attempted to solve the logistical puzzle of making an engaging movie for global audiences while laying the groundwork for sequels and tie-ins by constantly raising the stakes. The Avengers films steadily grew in budget, cast, box office, and stakes: from saving NYC, to Earth, to half the universe. In Holland’s trilogy, his concern went from the East Coast, to Europe, to the Multiverse. Each raise in the MCU creates the floor for future releases. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) skipped straight to multiversal conflict.
Ideally, as raising the stakes replaced human interest, there would be a shared moral vision still undergirding the whole project. However, Marvel has risen to power as Christianity’s cultural influence has declined without meaningful replacement. We are left with the facsimile of good vs. evil necessary for cool fight scenes but lacking depth or significance.
Maguire’s trilogy was, in hindsight, a high ebb for Christian cultural affinity. In Spider-Man (2001), the Green Goblin bursts in to abduct Aunt May as she is praying, “And lead us not into temptation…” He taunts her by saying, “Finish it!” so she babbles, “but deliver us from evil,” and with that final word, he snatches her. Even the villains in 2001 knew The Lord’s Prayer.
Christianity Today wrote that Spider-Man 2 (2004) might as well be subtitled “The Passion of Peter Parker,” so overt was the Christ imagery. In one scene, Peter stops a runaway train in cruciform pose, tears his side in the process, appears to die, only to come back to life and continue the fight. Everyone from Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Savas to Catholic author Christopher West to Christianity Today saw in this film a truly Christian morality tale.
Then in Spider-Man 3 (2007), a black suit heightened Peter’s aggression and worst impulses, making his internal struggle the explicit conflict of the film. Now, Peter battled his own demons: vindictiveness, self-righteousness, self-obsession. His pivotal moments are almost too on the nose. By ringing a church bell, he is able to repent and rid himself of his black suit. By forgiving Uncle Ben’s killer, Sandman (Peter’s enemy) dissolves, just like Peter’s lust for revenge.
In each film, Peter grows personally through his conflict, and his struggles are human-sized. The wrestling promoter swindles him, his landlord harangues him, his boss disrespects him. And his nemeses are scientists, photographers, family men: people that Peter empathizes with even as he opposes them.
As the trilogy’s director Sam Raimi put it, echoing Solzhenitsyn, Peter eventually learns “he’s not just the hero, that they’re not just the villains, but we’re all human beings.” The moral center of the trilogy is Uncle Ben’s line, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and Ben tells this to his nephew Peter regarding Peter’s coming-of-age, not his superpowers. Thus, all viewers intuit that moral virtue is a calling for all, regardless of your power or influence.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), the first in Holland’s trilogy, begins with Uncle Ben already dead and Tony Stark playing the surrogate father. Powerful, brilliant, immature—in many ways, Stark is the opposite of Uncle Ben’s down-to-earth style. Aunt May (played by Marisa Tomei) is defined not by her piety but by her beauty, which everyone from Peter’s chaperone to his high school classmates comment on. The call-back line of the first film, “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you don’t deserve to wear it,” is vaguely wise-sounding, but meaningless for ordinary viewers. Peter can still stop a bus without his suit, and this line only provides inspiration to lift a collapsed wall, not to be a better man. The plot structure remains, but the moral substance of Maguire’s May and Ben are gone.
And the villain, Vulture (Michael Keaton), rather than the personification of some temptation—power, control, prestige—is just anti-rich. Because Super Rich Tony Stark, colluding with Big Government, withdrew a key job from this down-on-his-luck contractor, Vulture chose to steal and resell Stark’s technology. He justifies his actions to Peter: “The rich and the powerful, they do whatever they want. Guys like us, like you and me, they don’t care about us. We build their roads and we fight all their wars and everything, but they don’t care about us. We have to pick up after ‘em. We have to eat their table scraps.” Rather than an average viewer feeling any sense of complicity or conviction, Homecoming’s clearest message is that the 1% should pay their share.
Then in the sequel Far From Home (2019), Peter is duped by the smooth-talking Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal). Since Stark mocked Beck’s “Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing” illusion technology by dubbing it “B.A.R.F.,” Beck and other disgruntled Stark Industries employees decided to use B.A.R.F. to take over the world. Once again, uber-rich Tony Stark is the real villain, and there is little empathy aroused or moral instruction for the viewer. Just Peter getting woke to problematic Beck (who himself claims Stark created a toxic workplace).
Finally in No Way Home (2021), Spider-Man battles villains who have been pulled from various universes into his own. He wants to try to heal these mentally-ill lost souls before sending them back. Dr. Strange wants to send them back immediately, on vaguely technocratic grounds: “In the grand calculus of the multiverse, their sacrifice means infinitely more than their lives. Sorry, kid, if they die, they die.”
The ethics of this decision are nearly impossible to evaluate. The grand calculus of the multiverse or helping out these troubled villains? But before you can really consider the merits of either position, we are thrown into an exciting action sequence in the mirror dimension! The gesture toward right and wrong is all that is needed, so long as we are entertained.
Aunt May’s dying words to Peter are, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but because May has been set up as eye candy rather than as wise elder, and because rehabilitating multiversal villains is so bizarre and she already knows Peter is Spider-Man, the line lacks the resonance of Maguire’s Uncle Ben.
In Maguire’s world, New York City is the extent of his concern. In Holland’s world, his concerns are multiversal. He is only “friendly neighborhood Spider-man,” concerned with stolen bicycles and small-time bank robbers, while he is waiting for Tony Stark to give him a world-saving adventure. Doing good on a small scale bores him. It is not impactful.
While the desire to be famous and influential is nothing new, the internet has democratized fame-seeking. 86% of young Americans want to grow up to be influencers, and that’s possible for any kid with an iPhone and TikTok. Daniel Boorstin warned of this cultural shift from heroes—those who showed greatness in some achievement, whether Moses, Ulysses, or Shakespeare—to celebrities—a person known for being well-known, like Kim Kardashian or Tom Sandoval. “Influencers” are celebrities par excellence, acting as spokesperson, counsel, and #goals with no prior experience, skill, or even public exposure required.
Whereas heroes had real accomplishments, which their public image reflected, a celebrity’s public image overshadows real life. An influencer goes out to eat only to photograph and document the meal. “Reality TV” is, by design, staged and nothing like real life. This image obsession seeps into all our lives, whether it is curating our Instagram or self-censoring in conversation. Although the tension between reputation and true virtue is a timeless struggle, our technology has amplified the importance and fragility of our public image.
Every day, the news or our feeds show us upsetting problems far beyond our scope. Even though I cannot influence Putin, police brutality, or the electoral process, I feel pressure to be not only aware but opinionated about all these events because having a clever, cynical quip signals that I have “taken a stand,” that I have done my part. A Twitter pile-on can seem a better, more important use of time than a small, personal, undocumented act of kindness.
And the recent Tom Holland trilogy reinforces this bias toward bigness. By setting action in the multiverse, morality at a human scale feels insignificant. As Spencer Klavan notes, words like “right” and “wrong” do not have much use when considering “the grand calculus of the multiverse” or, as in the case of Eternals, a triumph that leads to the heat death of the universe. He goes on:
One way of adjudicating between theologies, though, is to ask whether they can inspire art that expresses the full range of man’s nature in a satisfying way. In this capacity it is telling that multiverse theory has inspired the increasingly nonsensical and exploitative schlock of the MCU, which gestures emptily toward heroism even as it portrays a world in which human action cannot possibly have consequence or significance.
When Tobey Maguire was Spider-Man, he kept his job at The Daily Bugle, he pulled kids out of traffic, and he got frequent, meaningful guidance from his wise Aunt May. He never outgrew his local community because his Aunt, his high school sweetheart, and even his boss were the people who could challenge his cruelty, insensitivity, or ego in ways his fans and acquaintances never could. The spider bite made him powerful, but his community made him a hero.
Tom Holland’s Spider-Man lacks community with moral backbone, so even as his external conflicts grow from local to multiversal, his internal stagnation makes the films repetitive. There is no maturation, only new Bad Guys who must be opposed by any means necessary. He is a model for young people who think themselves virtuous for working as Chief Keyboard Warrior in the Division of Problematics.
Billions of dollars go toward convincing you that clapping back and getting outraged by the depravity of your opponents is valuable work, but this “engagement” profits Big Tech, not your soul. Instead, our real, modest sphere of influence—our families, co-workers, clients, fellow parishioners—allows us to aspire for true greatness rather than fame. As Yuval Levin has argued, by elevating individuals above institutions, we provide platforms to people lacking the necessary moral formation and wisdom of a community and tradition. We get Sam Bankman-Fried mouthing Effective Altruism platitudes, while he lives in a Bahamas penthouse running a Ponzi scheme.
Jesus’s earthly ministry is a striking contrast to this approach of image-tending, influence-seeking, and name-calling. He spent a lot of time with normal people and did not really “leverage” his divinity. Instead, he modeled moral formation through personal encounter. Our online lives seduce us into eschewing messy in-person interaction for sanitized public profiles and messaging, but that trade impoverishes our ability to empathize, to rethink our position, and ultimately to grow in virtue.
Spider-Man now devalues human-scale kindness and decency by questing in the multiverse, and ideological rigidity and swift judgment have replaced his former nuance and virtue-seeking. This makes for impersonal, simplistic, boring films. So, to the siren song of more multiversal Spider-Man adventures, I say: “I have a Spider-Man. His name was Tobey Maguire.”
Header Image of Tobey Maguire in Spiderman (2002).