Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age by Bob Cutillo, Free for CAPC Members
Dr. Cutillo seeks to engage readers in rethinking, and re-engaging, health and care from a redemptive approach.
**This article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.**
When it was first released in December, Sony’s non-MCU film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse came as a bit of a surprise. It’s not necessarily unexpected that it would turn out to be a commercial success, but it also scored high praise from film critics (currently sitting at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes). Focusing for the first time on the Miles Morales incarnation of Spider-Man, Into the Spider-Verse has won acclaim for its innovative comic-art-inspired animation style and quick, self-referential wit, coupled with an emotionally resonant storyline. These factors make for an entertaining and legitimately heartwarming family movie experience, one that is also worthy of more serious analysis on several levels, not least of which for the way in which it emphasizes the significance of friendship.
“You’re like me,” declares Spider-Man upon first meeting Miles, and this is arguably the film’s thesis statement.The film places us in the universe of Ted Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, initially narrated by Peter Parker. The focus, however, quickly shifts to Miles Morales, son of a cop and a nurse who desperately want to keep him from becoming like his cooler (but less respectable) Uncle Aaron. Miles is bitten by the obligatory radioactive spider and watches as Parker dies trying to stop an interdimensional vortex created by the villainous Kingpin. The Spider-Man mantle thus passes to Miles, whose own ambivalence about inheriting the role is eventually assuaged by a series of other (often absurd) incarnations of the character from a variety of alternate Marvel timelines. Through this group—Spider-Woman, Spider-Ham, Peni Parker, Spider-Man Noir—along with his family, Miles eventually develops the confidence to take on Kingpin and heal the universe.
In many ways, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a film about love in its manifold manifestations. As such, a profitable line of approach for the Christian viewer of the film can be to interpret it through the lens of C. S. Lewis’s classic work The Four Loves. Published in 1960, The Four Loves examines the broad concept of the English term “love” by looking at four variants of it from the Greek vocabulary. Broadly speaking, Lewis breaks them down into storge (affection), philia (friendship), eros (sexual attraction), and agape (Christian charity). While some more recent scholars challenge Lewis’s distinctions and argue that the terms are biblically interchangeable, I hold with those who see these as legitimate scripturally warranted distinctions; but whether one does or not, they present helpful categories for understanding gradations that are far too easy to gloss over when using the monolithic English word “love.”
I suspect that the astute viewer could identify every one of Lewis’s four loves in the movie. Miles’s initial attraction to Gwen Stacy (and his subsequent fretting about the onset of puberty) suggest eros. Miles’s parents, meanwhile, demonstrate a storge love that helps prepare Miles for a self-sacrificial love in the climax which may make a near approach to agape. But it is Lewis’s second love—philia, or friendship—that I find the most interesting aspect of the movie.
At the beginning of Into the Spider-Verse, Miles sees himself as distinctly isolated. Though he experiences a close connection to his neighborhood in Brooklyn, he is starting out in an elite school at which he feel out of place. His loving father’s apparent sternness pushes him toward his Uncle Aaron, whose own past is complicated. In one sense, there is no shortage of loving influences in Miles’s life; yet he doesn’t seem to fit in, a loneliness which is drastically exacerbated once he begins to exhibit his spider-powers.
These powers—which the film comically and consciously links to puberty and thus adolescence—propel the movie’s narrative, of course, but also serve as a stand-in for the awkwardness of teenage social development more broadly. Miles is different from everybody around him—but in his recognition of those differences, he is therefore paradoxically just like every other high-school-age student. He is embarrassed, confused, mortified, alienated from his family. Alone.
It is in such settings that, at its best, friendship can provide an opportunity for respite, even for flourishing. For Miles Morales, such friendships emerge even in the midst of a trauma far greater than puberty—they occur in the wake of Peter Parker’s death. The Peter of Miles’s universe sacrifices himself trying to stop Kingpin’s particle accelerator, but five other such heroes from parallel universes were sucked into its vortex and sent to the same earth as Miles. The contorted logistics of the comic-book world thus provide the backdrop for the protagonist to stumble into a simple yet profoundly human experience: true friendship among people who understand him.
In The Four Loves, Lewis identifies friendship as “the least natural of the loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious, and necessary” (74). For this reason, he maintains, it is seldom emphasized in our age of post-Romantic sentimentality and post-Darwininan suvivalism. On purely pragmatic terms, humans, it would seem, don’t need friendship, not in the way we need parents to conceive and give birth to us and elders to rear us. Yet this is, in a sense, its glory: “Friendship is unnecessary,” Lewis claims, “like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival” (90).
Friendship certainly gave value to Lewis’s life, as anyone even passively familiar with his own circles (such as the Inklings intellectual group) can recognize. Indeed, writing from a period after those writers had ceased meeting (some due to untimely death), Lewis directly references them in the philia chapter of The Four Loves (78).
And if those men were able to feel joy and draw great works out of one another in the heyday of their friendships, so too is Miles Morales in his own encounters with the parallel Spider-heroes. Lewis laments the lack of recent narratives that glorify friendship the way that the ancients did, but while Miles’s family plays a significant role in his development, I think it would be safe to say that Into the Spider-Verse is preeminently just such a philia-oriented story. Miles encounters his own circle of friends who initially seem radically distinct from him. There is Gwen, the confident new kid who he soon learns is Spider-Woman. There is his “mentor,” an alternate Peter Parker who is divorced, disillusioned, and badly out of shape. And eventually, we meet the even weirder set.
But like Lewis’s Inklings, this group of Spider-People (dare I call them Weblings?) complement one another in their differences while drawing strength from their commonality. For each member is drawn together by a mutual set of experiences that is alien to almost everyone else around them—the peculiarity of their superpowers. “You’re like me,” declares Spider-Man upon first meeting Miles, and this is arguably the film’s thesis statement. This combination of their diverse capabilities with their shared insight into the peculiar pressures of heroism is what allows the Spider-People to survive and ultimately thwart Kingpin’s plot.
And here too, Into the Spider-Verse tracks closely to The Four Loves. For while Lewis does assert that friendship is the least “necessary” of the loves, he also acknowledges that the companionship that forms its “matrix” may indeed have be born out of a primitive survival instinct, one which however expanded into something far higher: “Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one’” (83).
Could there be a more apt description of the Spider-Friends than this? Yet, as Lewis also points out, such bonds of friendship imply a degree of exclusivity that those outside its ambit may find threatening: “The pack or herd—the community—may even dislike and distrust it. Its leaders very often do. Headmasters and Headmistresses and Heads of religious communities, colonels and ships’ captains, can feel uneasy when close and strong friendships arise between little knots of their subjects” (74-75).
During the course of Into the Spider-Verse, it is Miles’s father—also a policeman—who most commonly expresses this distrust. An authority figure on two levels, as both dad and cop, he distrusts the rogue figure of Spider-Man and also misunderstands his son’s alienation, an alienation that at first pushes Miles closer to his disreputable Uncle Aaron. This is precisely because Miles feels Aaron understands him in a way his own father does not. Miles’s dad clearly can’t recognize his son’s need of extra-familial comradeship at first, concertedly embarrassing him in front to his peers to extract a declaration of love. And when the Weblings eventually join together, they are, until the climax, hunted collectively, as enemies by Kingpin’s forces and as vigilantes by law enforcement.
The medieval monk Aelred of Rievaulx wrote an entire treatise on the subject of Spiritual Friendship in which he asserts that lower forms of carnal and world friendship and different in kind from the spiritual friendship that Christians may experience. It can be almost a depressing read in a sense, since his bar for spiritual friendship seems set so high that many readers will despair of ever attaining it in a relationship. I do not know that Lewis’s philia is quite the same thing as Aelred’s amicitia, but Lewis too contends that in our deficient modern world, “few value [friendship] because few experience it” (74). Some of the Spider-People in the film have had significant loves—include philia-loves—prior to meeting Miles, but not all of them, and those that had have often lost those relationships. So the bond that forms between them is rare and special indeed.
Though Christ calls his disciples friends, this philia is not the highest form of love in Lewis’s analysis of the biblical hierarchy—that distinction is reserved for Charity (that is, agape love). But all the other loves (friendship included), when not made idolatrous, can serve as preparations or allusions to this highest form. “I believe,” Lewis asserts, “that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness” (156). A true philia love of the kind C. S. Lewis identifies, as we can see it in the Spider-People, while part of the created order, is a good nonetheless, a joy worth having and a potential pointer to Christ. We all long to have someone to walk side by side with along the road. And in a human friendship, when we exclaim, “You too?” we can be reminded of the God who also walked our road, so that we might look into his eyes and affirm, “You’re like me!”
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