Spider-Man & Proverbs: The False Wisdom of Vices

I argued recently that Uncle Ben’s urgent plea to Peter Parker is quite similar to Solomon’s exhortation to his “son” in Proverbs. The Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movie really brought this out.

But there is another aspect to that franchise that also is quite similar to the warnings of Proverbs.

Peter Parker’s development of unexpected and profound new powers threatens to lead him to a bad end. For years he’s been bullied by stronger and faster jocks. Suddenly, they are in the inferior position and he has a chance (he imagines) to replace them and attract the female that he thought would never notice him.

Solomon writes to “sons” on the cusp of adulthood and is worried they will adopt ways of violence and run after the wrong kinds of women (the two long temptation narratives of Proverbs 1-9). In Parker’s case, the woman isn’t necessarily the wrong type, but how he sets about winning her is foolish.

While the Maquire Parker doesn’t intentionally embrace violence against his high school rivals, in the 2012 Amazing Spider-Man reboot, Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield) definitely does.

It’s hard not to enjoy this scene, and the tongue-lashing delivered by Uncle Ben to Peter seems aimed at the movie audience as well for their vicarious enjoyment. (Later, the “bully” is revealed to be no villain.) Parker is headed in the wrong direction with his new powers. His straying continues until he participates in a minor way in the theft that leads to Uncle Ben’s murder.

my son, do not walk in the way with them;
hold back your foot from their paths,
for their feet run to evil,
and they make haste to shed blood (Proverbs 1:15–16; ESV)

It is clear that Parker, though quite intelligent, is rendered stupid by his new abilities. He is headed towards villainhood and it takes the death of Uncle Ben to enable him to hear the voice of wisdom and change course.

Coming back to the Tobey Maguire franchise, the escape of Peter Parker from foolishness is highlighted by the path taken by those who become villains. In the original movie, the Green Goblin is created when Norman Osborne takes a drug that gives him strength and speed but makes him psychotic. While Parker is initially led astray by his abilities, Osborne’s actually speak to him as a split personality:

In the second movie, Doctor Otto Octavius develops automated arms that he can plug into his nervous system to control them to perform an experiment. The arms have an artificial intelligence that could control Octavius except for a chip that restrains them. When the experiment goes wrong, the chip is destroyed.

The result is a great scene where Doc Oc’s abilities/habits/ambitions/desires start doing his thinking for him:

Solomon warns that our habits do our thinking for us. Ideally, we learn from out mistakes. But, if we don’t, our mistakes provide a fake wisdom that leads us downward.

Thus, “A man of great wrath will pay the penalty, for if you deliver him, you will only have to do it again” (Proverbs 19:19; ESV). You would think that the penalty would train a man to bridle his anger and develop different ways to respond to frustrations. But it often doesn’t. Anger is its own reward once you become accustomed to it.

Or consider sloth: “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish and will not even bring it back to his mouth” (Proverbs 19:24; 26:15). This is irrational and self-destructive behavior, but sloth is inherently self-rationalizing to the one who falls into it. “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!'” (Proverbs 22:13; 26:13). Does the fear produce the sloth or does the sloth pursue the fear? “The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor” (Proverbs 21:25). But the sluggard is not likely to admit he’s killing himself. “The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly” (Proverbs 26:16).

The behavior of an alcoholic (to use modern terminology) is well-known. Proverbs warns against being “led astray” by wine because the one so led “is not wise” (20:1). But all foolishness can be similarly enslaving.

The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him,
and he is held fast in the cords of his sin.
He dies for lack of discipline,
and because of his great folly he is led astray (Proverbs 5:22–23).

As we become adults our abilities give us great power in the service of God. But otherwise they become ultimately lethal masters. Instead of seeing the danger and changing course, these vices often provide false wisdom to those under their spell.

Originally posted at Kuyperian Commentary.

Mark Horne holds an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary and is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is the executive director of Logo Sapiens Communications and writes at www.SolomonSays.net.

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