Peter Parker: The Hero We Need

As I watched Spider-Man: No Way Home I was struck by the feeling that Peter Parker/Spider-Man, the Marvel Comics Icon introduced in 1962, is the perfect hero for our current troubled times. Wondering Why? Read on, true believer! (Well, read on if you’re comfortable with the knowledge that spoilers – lots and lots of spoilers – lie ahead).

Spider-Man: Born of Tragedy

Covid-19 and the new Omicron variant. Inflation. “Flash Mob” robberies. School shootings and violence. A seemingly insurmountable rise in crude and crass behaviors. Free floating anxiety seems as prevalent as oxygen. It is understandable that some people feel forlorn and disillusioned.  What else could go wrong? Let’s look at Peter Parker’s life as the opening of  No Way Home propels him into his own cauldron of chaos.

He is facing serious (but short lived) legal problems. While many support him, he is facing social resentment for “murdering” Mysterio at the climax of Spider-Man: Far From Home. His secret identity now revealed, his friends find their lives assaulted – intense social and media scrutiny and rejection from colleges – because of their association with Peter. Peter, being true to himself, is pained by guilt over the hardship he has brought upon MJ and Ned. A rash decision and the inability to contain his loquaciousness bring super-villains from across the multiverse to New York, placing another burden on his young shoulders. That’s quite a load, even for someone with super strength, but there’s more.

The defining moment of Peter’s transformation into Spider-Man has always been the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. In the lead up to his death Ben utters the famous line, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter blames himself for Ben’s death as he did not stop the man responsible when he had the chance. Despair, anger, and a desire for revenge could consume him. Ultimately he emerges as someone who forever seeks to wield his power responsibly. The flames of this furnace melt away much of Peter’s innocence, and though he is well known as a wise cracking hero it is important to note the pain that molded his commitment. 

In the MCU Peter never faced this pain. There are those who feel he did because of his connection to, and the loss of, Tony Stark. That tragedy does not fill this horrific bill. Tony was a superhero who chose a very risky path in life. Uncle Ben did not. Tony became a beloved mentor but he wasn’t there to keep the family afloat with his working-class salary. Six-year-old Peter. Nine- year-old Peter. Twelve-year-old Peter. He didn’t have much, but he had Uncle Ben. Ben was his rock as he struggled with the challenges of growing up poor, unpopular, and bullied because his greatest asset – his intelligence – made him a target of bullies. Tony was loved by Peter. Of that there is no doubt. He wasn’t, however, embedded in Peter’s soul like Ben and when something is torn from your soul it creates a terrible and unique suffering. The MCU Peter never faced that pain, well, at least not until No Way Home.  

The Loss of Aunt May

When the MCU introduced Peter his Uncle Ben was already out of the picture. Aunt May was the central adult in Peter’s life. Befitting the heart of a true caregiver, her compassion extends beyond Peter as she works with the poor and views the newly arrived foes as people to be helped, not harmed. She convinces Peter that the villains who have made their way to his universe deserve to be “fixed” (freed from the ailments that drive them to villainy) rather than sent back to their universes where they are fated to die, consumed by the violent path they walk. The plan goes awry as Peter senses that the Green Goblin persona has emerged from Norman Osborn. The Goblin convinces Electro to reject the path of peace and a brutal battle erupts. Badly beaten and at the Goblin’s mercy Peter pleads with May to run, but the Goblin has other plans. His glider and a pumpkin bomb mortally wound May as he departs, leaving rubble, both physical and emotional, in his wake. Despite his power and prowess Peter couldn’t save his Aunt. Heartbroken, Peter flees the scene and isolates himself on a rooftop, wrapped in cloaks of despair and rage. It’s not a darkness he can overcome alone. Can anyone?

Resiliency: Peter’s (Peters’?) Greatest Superpower

MJ and Ned come to Peter with two unexpected allies, Peter Parker’s from other universes, who assist in the process of helping find his footing. The three Peter’s (Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, and Tobey Maguire) quickly forge a deep bond – they do have many shared experiences after all – and work together to end the threat of the multiverse rogues.  Before that happens, however, we are privy to a lesson in resilience, which may well be the  greatest attribute the Peters possess. 

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a stress management researcher and speaker, illuminates the fact that part of our stress response is the release of oxytocin, a hormone and neurotransmitter that helps create a biologically driven desire to reach out to others when in pain. Our bodies knows what we need when pained, but our will allows us to resist this urge – hence Peter (Holland) isolates himself. MJ, Ned, and the two Peters seek him out and offer support and council. In so doing they tap into and build upon Peter’s already existing well of resiliency.

Resiliency is the ability to bounce back from adversity. It is built in the furnace of suffering as people face the emotional toll that the tragedy of life heaps upon them. Psychological hardiness does not come to us through birth but through living. The experience of the Peters can illuminate the important and transformative keys of resilience. 

I Always Wanted Brothers

Peter (Holland) is pulled (coaxed) from his isolation in no small measure by the other two Peter Parkers. They share stories of lost love – Maguire’s Uncle Ben and Garfield’s Gwen Stacy. The three step into their shared pain together, finding coming ground in both the suffering, but also in the compassion shared and the wisdom gained (With great power…). Stephanie R. deluse, Ph.D’s writing on stress management comes to life in this scene. Dr. deluse emphasises that sometimes we need to shut down sometimes, particularly when an exceptionally painful trauma has occurred. Space and time to process is necessary. The flip side of this coin is the necessity to not allow the down time to become the only coping mechanism. As she states, “Wallowing isn’t the goal but regrouping.” The key to regrouping – in both her article and the No Way Home – is social support. She calls social support (making and keeping good friends) “one of the most important resources for coping.” The various Peters share their pain and offer one another hope as MJ and Ned allow the unprecedented conversation to unfold. In the end they find themselves in the lab, united in their vision of saving the villians and utilizing their scientific acumen to that end. As they prepare for the final battle Andrew Garfield (who I found to be a revelation in this movie) blurts out, “I always wanted brothers!” He found them and the marvelous support they can give. I sincerely hope you have found yours as well.

Watch the Self Talk

A roadblock to resiliency is negative self talk and cognitive traps that reduce our energy and efficacy. As our trio of heroes prepare for battle they engage in some brotherly banter about past foes (what else would three Spider-Men do?), Holland and Maguire reveal they have both fought aliens. Holland shares he did so both on earth and in space. Garfield then grumbles, “I’m lame” as he recounts his list does not include aliens but a “Russian guy in a rhino suit.” Maguire puts the break on the conversation, asking that they rewind for a moment. “You are not lame,” he assures Garfield. Saying it twice before stating “You’re amazing.” Garfield thanks him and they move on. How many times, unfortunately, do our inner voices conspire to cripple us. We all need friends…or brothers…to remind us that our worst voices are rarely correct, even if they are the loudest.

We Suck at This!

Well…that seems like an odd heading following a reminder to avoid negative self talk! There is a line between negative self talk (I suck) and an honest, hyperbolically honest perhaps, assessment of a situation. You can’t improve unless you assess the problem. When the battle begins the Spider-Men are out of synch with each other. They gather on a scaffolding and Maguire exclaims, “We suck at this!” He doesn’t mean fighting super villains, all three have proven to be pretty good at that! No, the problem is teamwork. Of the three only Holland has worked as a member of a team. The other two have always been solo acts. Holland offers some advice on coordinating their efforts and the trio swing back into the fray. A pause as they swing is necessary.

Dr. deluse mentions the importance of role diversity, the idea that we play many roles in life. With no ego or agenda the two older Spider-Men were willing to listen to the advice of their younger partner because when it comes to fighting as a team he had the most experience. How many times do stressful situations become worse because we don’t fulfill the role we need a given moment? Sometimes the youngest brother is correct and the right thing to do is to simply follow his lead ( I hope my younger brother doesn’t read this!).

An Eye on the Future

As the film ends Peter has made a momentus sacrifice, setting his personal life aside for the good of his universe. No one remembers who he is, effectively cutting Peter off from the social supports that are so important. He does seem, however, determined to find his place, and his joy, in this familiar yet unfamiliar setting. I can’t help but wonder is his lawyer Matt Murdock (Daredevil) will play a role in this process. One of my favorite scenes from Daredevil is the rooftop conversation with Frank Castle. In the heated debate Matt stressed the right all people have to try again when they have fallen. To seek redemption for past errors. The genesis of Peter’s dilemma was brought about by his rash decision to enlist Dr. Strange’s aid early in the film and then interrupting the mystic as he cast his spell. Peter is paying a price for his mistake. I think he will find his way. Resiliency is his super power after all. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were everyone’s?

Note: All references to Dr. deluse can be found in the chapter “Coping With Stress…The Super Hero Way” found in the book The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration

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