Bruised and battered. Lost. Alone. Left behind by friend and foe alike. No resources, no backup, no help on the way. A villain is about to end the world, but the hero is miles away—and in no condition to fight him even if he could get there in time.
Many superhero films put their hero in this sort of hopeless situation at some point; they use it to examine the humanity of the hero, even if the hero isn’t a human. They look at the quality of the hero’s character and what really drives him. And they use it to ask big questions.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular has used these dark-night-of-the-soul moments to ask big questions like, “what if the villain is right?”, “what makes a hero?”, and “is the status quo worth saving?” But the MCU’s pair of entries into the Spider-Man franchise have asked much more personal and intimate questions of the webslinger when he’s seemingly down for the count.
Spoiler warning: plot and character spoilers follow for Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home.
In Spider-Man: Homecoming, the capital-Q-Question was posed by Tony Stark, in the form of an ultimatum: “if you’re nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it.” And in Spider-Man: Far From Home, both Nick Fury and Happy Hogan ask the Question: “Who will be the next Iron Man?”
The Hero’s Sacrifice and Those Left Behind
The question of “the next Iron Man” is poignant both in-universe and out-of-universe, and for largely the same reason: Robert Downey Jr.’s departure from the role of Tony Stark, a role that he inhabited so perfectly as to create the modern superhero genre, leaves a gaping hole in the very soul of the MCU in the fictional world as well as in our own.
Tony Stark’s sacrifice at the end of Avengers: Endgame looms large over Far From Home, and for good reason: he died to save everyone, and Peter was right there when it happened. It’s a familiar story to the Christian—a beloved hero with a band of devoted followers and friends heroically sacrificed himself to save humanity from its greatest threat. It’s a very philosophically and theologically powerful story, which makes the repetition of “who’s going to be the next Iron Man?” all the more important to answer, for Peter as well as the world.
But the question isn’t merely philosophical or theological. When people in Far From Home ask Peter Parker, “who’s going to be the next Iron Man?”—they’re not asking because they want him to answer the question, they’re asking because they want him to be the answer.
There are a lot of spiritual parallels in Endgame. But the similarities also extend to the people left behind, as this film explores. In John 21, Jesus asks a different Peter (and, through him, asks us), “Do you love me?”—which is, if you look closely, same question: “Who will be the next me?” Who will be my hands and feet? And He’s not asking because he wants to know the answer. He knows it already! He’s asking because He wants us to feed His sheep: He wants us to love what He loves, to do what He does, to be His hands and feet in a world that needs us.
“I don’t think Tony would’ve done what he did if he didn’t know you were gonna be here after he was gone,” Happy tells Peter at the nadir of this film. Jesus says as much in John 16: “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
So if Jesus died knowing that we would be here, indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue His work after He left, what is that work? What are we supposed to do? What does it mean to be hands and feet?
Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Mask
Tony “anoints” Peter with a pair of Dita sunglasses, but what is he anointing Spider-Man to? In Homecoming, it was to nothing Tony wouldn’t do and nothing he would do. The specifics are vague, and the joke unhelpful for figuring out a definite answer; but nonetheless, finding out what that anointing is all about requires looking at the life of the person doing the anointing.
For Peter, that means looking firsthand at Tony’s life as Iron Man: looking at how he reacted to the Sokovia Accords, and seeing how he dealt with Thanos, reveals a man who was self-sacrificing, principled, resilient, and persistent.
For us, finding out what to do means looking at what Jesus’ hands and feet did while on Earth; thankfully, we were given a whole book about it, and it can be boiled down to what Jesus wrote in Luke 4:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
—Luke 4:18-19, ESV
Jesus’ hands and feet went to those in need, bringing healing and freedom and truth: healing, from disease, from want, from physical and mental malady; freedom, from pain and grief and death and life without Him; and truth, an answer to the greater questions of our existence. Those three things were our task list when Jesus anointed us to continue His mission.
As a group, though, the Church hasn’t always been great at that.
Abdication and Illusion
For any number of reasons, we abdicate this responsibility: maybe for what we see as love, maybe for laziness, maybe in pursuit of a “normal life.” Maybe even because we get hit by a train. But I think the biggest reason we let up in our pursuit of being Jesus’ heads and feet is that we’ve been taken in by an illusion, just like Spider-Man was.
At the end of Far From Home, Mysterio insists that “people will believe anything.” He proves it with his actions, taking over for Iron Man when Peter refuses to. And this highlights a reality in the life of the church: When God’s people abdicate their responsibility, it doesn’t just not happen. Someone else takes up the mantle—often with their own evil intentions.
The world spins an illusion of a world saved without work, of a rescue accomplished without being the hands and feet of Jesus. We buy the illusion of an insular church, where no one is challenged or motivated to go out as the hands and feet of Jesus. We internalize the lie that our safety is more important than our mission, or that our advancement in society is the real task which Jesus gave to us.
We’ve abdicated the power Jesus bestowed on us, signing it over to another, and ignoring the responsibility. All of us individually do this, in our own ways; and the Church as a whole suffers from it as well.
When we realize the nature of the one to whom we gave up our abilities, we have to ask: Will we be the hero? Will we be like Him? Will we expose the illusion, save those around us, take up the suit and rejoin the battle? Or will we allow the world’s illusion to take our place?
It looks convincing. It feels like reality. But we have been given the true power. Everything else is an illusion.