Mon. October 29
I promised a renewed focus on heroism when I ended the most recent, Joker-centric post in my superhero series. To that end, let us websling our way across universes, publishers, and corporate ownership to a superhero whose origin was retold in last summer’s Amazing Spider-Man. New actors, narrative tweaks, and enhanced special effects aside, this adaptation’s most glaring change was jettisoning the famous phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Though director Mark Webb “didn’t think it [the iconic line] was absolutely necessary,” Spider-Man’s credo should have been included in the film. Not only is it the kind of pithy mantra that all superheroes should envy, one originating in Spider-Man’s very first appearance, but it would also clarify Spider-Man’s transition from fighting for revenge to fighting to protect the innocent. This shift does happen during the film, but it is epitomized not in a quiet moment but in intense action setpieces.
This well-done rescue scene shows Peter realizing that his powers require him to be a man for others. It also shows him give a mask to a child in danger, claiming the mask will make him stronger. This comforting fiction contains a profound truth about how we grow in heroism and virtue. C. S. Lewis spoke of this as the good kind of pretending, one in which the pretense “leads up to the real thing.” Spider-Man is a story about a boy pretending to be a man and a “loser” pretending to be a hero—but when he wears the mask of heroism, his face grows to fit it.
After all, unlike Clark Kent or Steven Rogers, Peter Parker does not start out as hero material. Every origin story for Spider-Man should show his journey from a bitter nerd with an internalized spirit of victimization to a selfless and inspiring hero. David Brothers’ astute analysis of the first fifty issues of Spider-Man is required reading. Brothers focuses on how, in the first few years of writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko’s collaboration on Spider-Man, Peter Parker defaults to typical teenage resentment and defensiveness, and it takes discipline for him to impersonate (and slowly become) the upbeat, confident, and responsible Spider-Man.
So what does responsibility mean? Responsibility entails a response: a response to one’s own abilities and to the needs of others. For Spider-Man specifically, responsibility is always tied up in his own failure to prevent Uncle Ben’s death. Across all media, Spider-Man’s growth in responsibility corresponds to an increased understanding of adulthood. Becoming a man is a fraught journey for Peter Parker: As Chris Sims cleverly elaborates, Spider-Man’s foes are usually adult figures in positions of power in his life: whether his teacher (Curt Conners, the man who becomes the Lizard), his friend’s father (Norman Osborn a.k.a. the Green Goblin), or his petty tyrant of a boss (the choleric J. Jonah Jameson). Rather than imitate these harsh and self-serving models of manhood, Spider-Man chooses to look up to and live out the ideals of his caring Uncle Ben.
In Marvel’s Ultimate line (an imprint of comics started in 2000 featuring reimagined and modernized takes on Marvel’s superheroes) Peter receives a longer version of the famous admonishment from Uncle Ben after Pete’s newfound powers cause him to act out in school. Ultimate Uncle Ben explicitly ties responsibility to purpose, telling Peter he falls short of his potential when he forgoes using his talents and gifts to help those who need him. It turns out this lesson is a defining aspect of Spider-Man, whether or not he is Peter Parker.
In a 2011 departure from Spider-Man’s mainstream continuity, Ultimate Peter Parker dies in battle with villains after taking a bullet for Captain America. Inspired by his example, a thirteen year-old named Miles Morales who also gained superpowers from the bite of a genetically engineered spider decides to rise to Peter’s heroic legacy as a new Spider-Man. Leah Libresco perceptively uses Miles’ picture to illustrate a post about virtue ethics and emulation.
Miles Morales witnesses the ultimate meaning of responsibility when he sees Peter Parker sacrifice himself to save his loved ones and other innocent bystanders from the Green Goblin. At Peter’s funeral, his sometime girlfriend Gwen Stacy passes on the message of power and responsibility to Miles Morales, unaware that the young African American man will become Spider-Man’s namesake.
The creators of Miles Morales seem to understand that a Spider-Man who never learns what responsibilities his powers entail is no Spider-Man at all. Maybe the next time the movie industry decides to reboot Spider-Man, we will get to see Miles Morales claim the heroic legacy of our friendly neighborhood webslinger.
Alexi Sargeant is an aspiring playwright and director studying at Yale University. His lifelong obsessions include Shakespeare, mythology, and superheroes. His writing has been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Yale Daily News, Yale Herald, and Imagine magazine.