Sex and the Single Superhero

Spider-Man’s vow of celibacy.

Spoiler alert: This article gives away plot points of Spider-Man and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

“This story, like any story worth telling, is about a girl,” Peter Parker intones in the opening line of the summer’s blockbuster hit Spider-Man. Except it’s not about a girl. At the film’s end, Spider-Man wins the girl, as we’ve come to expect of our movie heroes, but instead of embracing her, he spurns her love. Spider-Man turns out to be a coming-of-age story about a boy who decides that his moral responsibility to the world at large is too great to allow himself the selfish, singular attachment of romance.

Which sounds a lot like what Roman Catholic priests do. Or are supposed to do, anyway. Many critics have pointed out that Spider-Man unfortunately reminds viewers of the World Trade Center disaster. But the movie also speaks, quite eloquently, to the debate over celibacy in the Catholic Church. By the end of the movie, viewers learn that Spider-Man is celibate, and his superherodom is a calling, a voluntary priesthood.

The vow of celibacy in Spider-Man isn’t overt. The movie implies that Parker/Spider-Man’s decision to rebuff M.J. is made out of a concern for her safety, because Spider-Man’s enemies will seek to harm those whom Spider-Man loves. But Parker never considers the alternative: He could  abandon being Spider-Man and live a life of normalcy with M.J. No one would be the wiser, and as an added bonus, Parker’s roommate, Harry Osborn, wouldn’t have to deliver on his vow to avenge his father’s death—because Spider-Man would have mysteriously disappeared. (This decision would of course ruin the potential for sequels.) Instead, Parker/Spider-Man tells M.J. that friendship “is all I have to give.” Because “with great power comes great responsibility,” Spider-Man must be wedded to the world. He can’t walk away from the moral obligations his powers impose on him.

And it’s not just Spider-Man. Hardly any movie superheroes get laid, for similar reasons. In the summer’s other big movie so far, Attack of the Clones, we learn that Jedi (the superheroes for young boys born in the past 30 years or so) are bound by formal vows of celibacy. Anakin Skywalker’s decision to break his vow and get busy with Padmé Amidala is one of the acts that leads to the downfall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire and Darth Vader. And in Superman II, Clark Kent/Superman initially makes the same decision that Spidey rejected: He explicitly renounces his superhero powers in order to settle down to an ordinary life with Lois Lane. But by the end of the movie he’s realized that the obligations of Superman are too important. He reclaims his powers, defeats General Zod and company, and returns to his lonely, solitary superhero existence.

Who’da thunk it? Hollywood takes celibacy more seriously than most members of the elite Eastern media, whose by-and-large reaction to the church’s pedophilia scandal has been to opportunistically attack a celibacy doctrine they see as outdated and nonsensical. It’s startling to see putatively liberal moviemakers portray celibacy as a noble, selfless, even rational endeavor. Of course, it’s possible that the Hollywood message is more subversive and underhanded than that: Only superheroes are fit for lives of celibacy, and as we’ve learned, not all priests are superheroes.