By Matt Griffin
“Listen Jesus, do you care for your race?”
–Jesus Christ Superstar
In 2011, as Sony Pictures began planning its first reboot of the Spider-Man film franchise, they signed a licensing agreement with Marvel Entertainment about requirements for the new take on the character. These included many of Spider-Man’s signature traits: his real name is Peter Parker, he “gains his powers from being bitten by a spider,” and he wears a “red and blue costume” (McLaughlin). In addition, however, the contract stipulated that Spider-Man must be “Male” as well as “Caucasian and heterosexual.” While these later criteria may seem very different than saying the character was “bitten by a spider,” their importance becomes clear after comparing Spider-Man to another prominent figure in American culture: Jesus Christ. In their 2012 book The Color of Christ, historians Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey argue that Americans portray Jesus as “a sacred symbol of their greatest aspirations,” meaning he is very often portrayed as male, heterosexual, and, counter to historical evidence, Caucasian (7). The fact that a historical figure follows the same representational trends as a fictional character reveals much about American religion, popular culture, and their intersections; a closer comparison of adaptations of these two figures reveals the way that they have come to serve similar cultural functions.
Specific images of both Jesus and Spider-Man initially achieved widespread cultural success through safe representations of the characters that conformed to white American standards. Blum and Harvey posit that Warner Sallman’s 1941 painting Head of Christ “revolutionized Jesus imagery” by way of fitting the character into 20th century American norms (208). The authors attribute the popularity to the painting’s “easy familiarity” and old-fashioned appeal (211). Jesus himself is white, “manly,” and set against a “simple brown” backdrop, seen in profile; he is strong and stable, yet unmistakably “approachable” (208, 211). Head of Christ resonated in a time of post-war fear and Red Scare paranoia, and “comforted anxious souls” who feared “nuclear Armageddon.” Above all else, white American viewers saw “a savior who spoke to their circumstances” and was a tasteful reminder of a simpler time (211). Ultimately, certain critics of the time believed Head of Christ to be “an exact likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ” (209). Sallman’s Jesus sold over 14 million prints in three years, and is a close analogy to the 2002 film Spider-Man.
The first internationally known and popular live-action adaptation of the character onscreen (though not the first ever), Spider-Man achieved “mainstream” success through the same wholesome avenues as Head of Christ. American actor Tobey Maguire plays Peter Parker, the high school student who becomes Spider-Man. Maguire is white, as is the original Spider-Man character of the comics, but the actor was also in his late twenties during production, which is about a decade older than Parker. However, this discrepancy is no doubt beneficial for the film’s take on the character. Like Head of Christ, Maguire’s Peter Parker is a comforting, safe choice for the majority of American audiences. He becomes endearingly speechless around his crush Mary Jane, whom he wistfully describes as “the woman I’ve loved since before I even liked girls.” Parker is helplessly nerdy, bullied relentlessly, and endlessly sweet. But despite his social ills, the mismatched age of the actor keeps him firmly planted in the tradition of manly American protagonists. Similar to Head of Christ, critics felt that Maguire was the definitive Spider-Man, and that after watching the movie “it becomes hard to imagine anyone else in the role” (Harrison). Like the painting, Maguire feels relatable, and shows that “Parker had the same sort of problems” as viewers (Harrison).
Just as Head of Christ emerged in a time of national paranoia, Spider-Man came out less than a year after 9/11. Multiple shots associate Spider-Man explicitly with American heroism. The last half of the film features New Yorkers coming together to take on the villainous Green Goblin, and one civilian states, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” In the final frames, Spider-Man clings to a large American flag before swinging towards the viewer. Spider-Man grossed over $400 million (IMDB, Spider-Man (2002)).
All of these elements add up to a friendly, easily consumable piece of pop culture. Both Head of Christ and Spider-Man aim for the center of American acceptability, and thus have a wide appeal. By sanitizing the art in every way possible, both works were able to revolutionize their respective characters to meet widespread acclaim in a new context. This mid-twentieth century depiction of Jesus was just as grounded in reality as a comic book superhero.
Both characters would later be reborn in “edgier” ways to appeal to new audiences. For Jesus, this came in the form of a 1964 painting by Richard Hook, also called Head of Christ. This painting represented a movement to infuse “Christ with new vernaculars of youth protest and media entertainment…Jesus as ‘a hippie type’” (225). Hook’s Head of Christ was made for “’young people’” and thus “appeared younger than Sallman’s and looked like he could have been a California surfer” (225). Jesus was still white, but appeared “kissed by the sun” (225). Depending on one’s perspective, this was either a cynical rebranding of Jesus or an organic evolution that made Jesus “’truly the Cool One’” (225). This became “the main rival” of the 1940s Head of Christ and showed that Jesus was as elastic and malleable as ever (225).
The next iteration of the Spider-Man franchise similarly evolved to target youth audiences. The first Spider-Man reboot began with a 2012 film called The Amazing Spider-Man starring British actor Andrew Garfield. Garfield’s Parker is more hip, rides a skateboard, and engages in witty banter with his love interest. Garfield is “very good-looking” and often takes off his shirt so his girlfriend can wash his battle-scarred abs (Ebert). In 2015, a leak of Sony emails confirmed the Amazing franchise was going for a more youth-oriented tone: producers discussed how to combine Spider-Man with “rising [trends] we see with Millennials,” such as electronic dance music, “the ‘humble brag,’” and Snapchat (O’Neal).
Jesus and Spider-Man are closely linked in the way new audiences required drastic reinterpretations. If the original Head of Christ were truly the perfect representation of Jesus, than there would be no need to reimagine him for a new generation. But, just like Spider-Man, accuracy takes a backseat to contemporary trends when it comes to Jesus. In recent years, however, this trend has begun to reverse itself.
The Jesus of today is represented not by one portrait but a collection of increasingly diverse perspectives. In the 21stcentury, “the color of Christ…could not be ignored” (249). White American Christians began to see white Jesus as “a racist myth,” and sought to “overcome prejudices of race, class, and sex” (249). Even evangelist Billy Graham, who heavily advertised Sallman’s Head of Christ, had to “[state] unequivocally: Jesus was not a white man” (251). The search for a more historically accurate, non-white Jesus coincided with growing concern for social justice issues and representation.
While white Jesus is heavily ingrained in American culture, some portrayals have begun to diversify those around Jesus as a sort of compromise. A prominent example of this is the 1973 film Jesus Christ Superstar, which focuses on the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Superstar continues the appeal to the youth market as a rock opera that portrays Jesus as “a young man who might even be interested in sex” (Greenhouse). While Jesus himself is still represented as a white man, the cast is relatively diverse and adds some people of color to Jesus’ world.
In recent years, Spider-Man films have experienced a similar trend. After two live-action Spider-Man franchises, Sony (now partnered with Marvel Studios) announced a new series that was going to “get back to the original Spidey” of the comic books and take the character “back to its roots” (Busch). This was reflected in the casting: Peter Parker was now British actor Tom Holland, a nineteen-year-old (at the time of casting) white man and the youngest modern Spider-Man actor by about a decade. The character’s return to both Marvel Studios and more realistic representation of youth was emphasized by the title of the first film, 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Similar to Jesus Christ Superstar, Homecoming also diversified the cast around the central character. Perhaps most significantly, the African-American actress Zendaya played Mary Jane Watson, a traditionally white role.
While the most recent representations of Jesus and Spider-Man are getting closer to the real-life figure and the original source material, respectively, there is another modern trend to note. Almost paradoxically, there is a concurrent embrace of the adaptable potential in both figures: shows like Adult Swim’s Black Jesus foreground the idea of a “different” take on Jesus, while 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse postulated the existence of countless iterations of Spider-Man made up of multiple races, genders, and even species. These adaptations are no doubt products of shifting American social norms and politics and suit a fragmented world in which no single painting can be widely accepted as a Messianic image.
For Spider-Man, it is impossible to see the “person,” because every new iteration of the character’s race or age is in effect a new character that does not claim to represent a historical person. However, this is not true for Jesus. Portrayals of Jesus that are not founded in reality are powerful articulations of (frequently racist) societal values. For better and for worse, Americans tend to value not the historical but the cultural Jesus: a malleable superhero who can fight for any cause, whether it is “cool” youth culture or white supremacy.
Matt Griffin is a student in Drexel University’s Communication, Culture and Media PhD program. His research interests include superhero fandom and religion. He is the writer of the all-ages webcomic Pumpkin and the Patch.
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