Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
Note: This article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming.
When news came that Sony and Marvel had finally reached an agreement to share the character of Spider-Man and let him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many fans rejoiced. Still, some trepidation remained: might the franchise experience some burnout after presenting a third incarnation of the teenage superhero in fifteen years? Yet once again, Marvel got the best of its detractors. Following a well-received appearance in Captain America: Civil War, Spidey got his own film that has succeeded both critically and commercially.
Spider-Man: Homecoming succeeds in part because it portrays a villain who emerges from an idolatry that beckons seductively to most of us.Spider-Man: Homecoming is not a standard origin story, assuming significant background knowledge on its audience’s part. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is already Spider-Man by the film’s beginning, living with only Aunt May (Marissa Tomei), Uncle Ben already gone and existing primarily as an allusion. Peter wants to be a full-on Avenger, but Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) counsels him paternalistically to keep local. Frustrated with the tedium of high school life and tired of his own blundering attempts at small-time crime-stopping, Peter tries to take on something bigger when he stumbles upon the workings of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who has used pilfered Chitauri technology left over from the aftermath of the first Avengers film to create black-market weapons and become the Vulture.
While Holland’s effervescent portrayal of the very teenage Peter is an infectious part of the film’s success, its reception surely owes almost as much to Keaton’s down-to-earth interpretation of the Vulture. Adrian Toomes is wholly unlike almost any other Marvel cinematic villain, working neither out of nihilistic madness nor power-hungry malice. Rather, he represents a disturbingly plausible amplification of a very natural human tendency: the idolization of family. In doing so, he provides a warning about the ways in which sin so often emerges from naturally, God-given goods; yet for this reason, he is also “redeemable,” and, paradoxically, in the process he provides the very lesson that Peter Parker must learn to defeat him.
We meet Toomes early, in a moment of somewhat justifiable indignance. A construction foreman, he looks forward to the work provided for him and his employees following the massive structural damage in New York that needs cleaning after The Avengers. Because of the threat from alien tech, however, Tyne Daly’s Anne Marie Hoag and her “Department of Damage Control” have been given supervision of all cleanup, effectively putting Toomes out of a job. Disgruntled, he gathers a cadre of willing men to scavenge for Chitauri machines with which they can make and sell their own creations to willing buyers.
But Toomes is no warlord, nor even a traditional arms merchant. At heart, he’s a blue-collar worker and a family man. In the movie’s initial scene, he at first appears interested primarily in the business venture afforded by a massive new job. He’s invested significant resources under the assumption that it’s his for the taking; when Hoag preempts his plans, he’s outraged. Part of this outrage derives from wounded pride, yet much of it (as becomes increasingly evident) stems from his concern for his family and the livelihoods of his employees and their families.
That is not to say that Toomes is somehow not a true villain. He embraces the “change” of occupation quickly. His operations can jeopardize innocent lives directly, to say nothing of the human toll that might be exacted when his buyers use the weaponry he’s sold them. He kills Jackson Brice (Logan Marshall-Green) accidentally but reacts rather callously to the death; and no viewer can doubt that his threats against Peter’s life are sincere.
Still, there resides within Toomes an inclination toward relational self-sacrifice that many other Marvel villains lack. I have previously examined the ways in which the very broken Guardians of the Galaxy stand apart from the nihilistic Ronan and Thanos not because they are unflawed but because their flaws emerge from distorted appreciations of legitimate goods in God’s created order. Toomes is no Guardian, but his flaws likewise come out of distortion rather than negation. In his case, he has taken the love of family and elevated it to an idolatrous extent.
Toomes’s idolatry ought to appear particularly relevant to our current cultural moment, including (indeed, especially) in evangelical Christian circles. For decades now, evangelicals have strongly identified as the leading advocates for “family values,” a commitment for homes based around stable two-parent nuclear families as the core unit of society. Such advocacy has obvious biblical warrant; Scripture famously calls children “a heritage from the LORD” (Psalm 127:3), and whether readers are combing through the Pentateuch or Proverbs or Paul’s epistles, they will find any number of instructions for the responsibilities of parents to shepherd their kids wisely.
On other occasions, however, the Bible itself can seem less than “family friendly.” God promised Abraham a son, only to demand the boy’s life in sacrifice. Jesus, who rejected the Jewish norms of his day by eschewing marriage, insisted, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Many, perhaps most, of his disciples were married, yet their families are almost never mentioned; and if the apostle Paul was ever married, he certainly wasn’t at the height of his ministry, when he could tell the Corinthian church, “I wish that all were [single] as I myself am” (1 Corinthians 7:7).
These apparent polarities are hardly contradictory. Rather, they should inform Christians’ understanding of a distinction we need to make in all facets of our lives: the difference between right appreciation of a created good and the sin of idolatry. There is a reason why the first of the ten commandments God gave Israel was, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7). The polytheistic culture of ancient Canaan (or Egypt or Greece or Rome) may seem hopelessly distant to us; we don’t set up shrines to graven images in our homes or dally with temple prostitutes.
Yet the Hebrews struggled to keep themselves from idols because it was so easy to convince themselves that they could do so and still be faithful to Yahweh. Adding other gods, like everyone around them did, seemed so reasonable. And ancient paganism had a strong pragmatic streak within it. While some Canaanites may have experienced religious devotion not unlike what we encounter in our own worship of God, for many, their gods were really just external manifestations of basic human desires. Someone seeking sex or children or love could invoke a fertility goddess, and placating a storm god could keep you safe from the elements.
So the reality is that we don’t need gold or stone or wood to forge graven images; like the Israelites or the Canaanites they were tasked with displacing, our own inordinate desires naturally draw us toward fabricating idols. And there are few idols so convenient for the Protestant Christian as the family. After all, Jesus truly did affirm the goodness of family, and when parents assert they “would do anything” for their spouses or children, the sentiment sounds unselfish, even downright noble.
Part of our problem, however, comes from an inadequate understanding of family itself. Indeed, most New Testament invocations of family actually refer to the “household,” using one of several variants of the Greek term oikos. While oikos can be used of physical structures, it is often used to mean “family,” but family in a far more complex and expansive sense than just father, mother, and kids. Ancient households could include any number of extended family members—grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins—and even servants or slaves. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the concept of nuclear families was wholly alien to the ancient Mediterranean world; but it is equally egregious to suggest such units had the significance or autonomy that many modern evangelicals attribute to them.
But even if they did, the Christians faith realigns our understanding of familial bonds anyway. That is why Jesus is able to demand of his disciples that they “hate” their relatives. In the radical “family values” context of first-century Palestine, Jesus had to use such forceful Semitic hyperbole to shake his hearers out of their potential for comfortable idolatry. Our ultimate allegiance is realigned; we are now, as Peter or Paul would say, members first of the “household of God” (Ephesians 2:19; 1 Timothy 3:15, 1 Peter 4:17).
For most of us most of the time, there will be little tension between our call to our biological families and our status within God’s household. But that status does mean that we cannot in good faith pledge to do anything for our families. In all honesty, I suspect there are few if any American Christians (married or single) who haven’t been guilty at some point of nepotistic idolatry, of compromising our principles for the sake of a loved one and justifying it ex post facto because it wasn’t done selfishly. Perhaps some of us are even like less extreme versions of Toomes, elevating our jobs not for personal glory but out of a misguided sense of responsibility—even if those jobs may have adverse effects on others.
In a fascinating reversal, however, Spider-Man: Homecoming allows Toomes, even in his excess, to teach Peter Parker the very lesson he needs. Peter’s household looks very different from that of Adrian Toomes—his only living relative is Aunt May, and his remaining relationships come from his high school friends. Yet those relationships are all strained by Peter’s own struggle with a more self-centered idolatry. It’s hardly surprising that the film starts with his own selfie-style version of his participation in Captain America: Civil War. Peter wants to ditch his school environment for the big leagues to become an outright Avenger, notwithstanding Tony Stark’s warnings. Critics have noted Tom Holland’s enthusiastic portrayal in the role of Peter. It is on the one hand appropriate for him to revel in a degree of child-like glee at working well. As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasingly evident that Peter has crossed the line into hubris. And so we can recognize, as E. Stephen Burnett has pointed out, that the movie tracks our hero’s journey from self-centered childishness toward self-sacrificial maturity.
While this progression is occurring across the scope of the film, the pivotal scene occurs when Peter and Toomes realize each other’s identities. When Toomes the family man threatens Peter’s household, Peter recognizes their value to him but also the greater value of acting rightly even when it might cost him. The final showdown between Spider-Man and Vulture may appear superficially similar to their earlier encounters—Peter Parker goes rogue, fights the villain, and gets away with it.
Yet the climax is fundamentally different from the previous battles. Early in the film, Peter is infatuated with the power of his high-tech suit, snarkily taking on bad guys in public places and prepared to highlight his association with Spider-Man and the Avengers. To his teenage mind, he has everything to gain from trying to take down Vulture. In the closing minutes of the movie, on the other hand, he fights when all extrinsic motives of self-glorification would suggest he should back down. After failing to reach anyone from Stark Enterprises, he consciously dons a clunky and less effective version of his Spider-Man suit, preparing to take on Vulture—who he now knows to be his girlfriend’s father. The battle is at night on an airplane that doesn’t even have a pilot, so it is far from any hope of public applause, but also (at least initially) from any prospective casualties.
And the film’s closing scenes demonstrate just how thoroughly Peter has learned the lesson that Toomes helped teach him. Rather than getting caught up in the heat of the moment and seeking Toomes’s death, or even passively allowing it to occur (as would be the case in many action movies), he actively works to save the life of his nemesis—successfully, much to my surprise. His decision to turn down Stark’s offer at the end and instead return to the oikos of his family and high school life demonstrates his growth from self-centeredness to humility. In their own imperfect, halting, and paradoxical ways, Peter’s two very flawed father figures, Tony Stark and Adrian Toomes, have imparted to him the guidance he needed. Stark acknowledges as much, however flippantly, and in the first post-credit scene, so does Toomes. His decision in prison not to reveal Peter’s secret identity shows that he is not beyond redemption. Toomes was wrong to do “anything” for his family, regardless of ethical constraints; but because he cared about them more than himself, he can, in the end, admire the strength of character embodied by the teenager who defeated him.
Idolatry comes in many shapes and sizes. It can come in the form of household gods, but it can more insidiously come in the form of the household itself. However selfless our motive may appear, they are sin if they prioritize any creaturely good above the Creator and his moral and ethical demands upon us. Spider-Man: Homecoming succeeds in part because it portrays a villain who emerges from an idolatry that beckons seductively to most of us. But it also reminds us of a good that undergirds that idolatry. To that good we must return, then place it down as an offering at the feet of the one who gave it as a gift. That is what life looks like in our true household.
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