The phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” could apply to every superhero, but only one has made it his mantra. That hero is none other then Spider-Man, who first heard these words from his loving uncle and guardian Ben Parker. Seeing as his history as a hero is very different from the other superheroes, it is not surprising that he would need to take these words to heart. Most of the superheroes began their official career as adults, but the man behind the mask began his career when he was barely done with puberty.
In the comic books the “kids” are largely relegated to the roll of sidekick. Think of Robin and Batgirl to Batman, Supergirl and Jimmy Olson to Superman, Kid Flash to the Flash, or Bucky Barnes to Captain America. They were all junior partners to a superhero, who eventually gained their own fan base amongst children reading the books, but not so with Spider-Man. Spider-Man had no partner and was working on his own at an age when most of his peers would have been getting their first car and starting a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant to put aside some money for college.
Spider-Man manages to join the ranks of the greatest superheroes and become a card carrying member of the Avengers, one that even Captain America would describe as an asset to the team. It is an honor that he does not take lightly. Even getting to give the rallying cry of “Avengers Assemble” he compares to being asked to host SNL and getting to say “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night Live.” He knows it’s a tremendous honor, complete with some great perks, like being able to charge any battle damages or purchases he makes in costume to Tony Stark as he is on a first name basis with him. Spider-Man even manages to marry a major supermodel by the name of Mary Jane Watson, something the guys all envy at his High School reunion.
So how, did this, self proclaimed “high school nerd who keeps his book collection in alphabetical order”, become one of the most popular characters in comic book lore? How did a skinny kid who got shoved in his locker quickly ascend the ranks of the superheroes and rub elbows with the likes of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Wolverine? How did he go from absolute zero that couldn’t get a date to marrying a super-model?
It is a question that even perplexes him, but that his beloved Mary Jane summarizes so perfectly:
“Peter, I didn’t fall in love with you because you could put your fist through Flash Thompson’s thick skull. I fell in love with you because you could, but chose not to… I loved you because your heart was stronger then your fists.”
But that declaration of love came at a point later in his life. Peter had to attend the superhero school of hard knocks like the rest of them. Long before he could get to hang out at the Avengers Mansion, he had to learn what it really meant to be a hero. In order to truly become Spider-Man, he had to learn what it meant to be a man.
This story begins on a school field trip to a science lab. Young science aficionado Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. The result mutated his DNA and granted him arachnid-like powers, such as the ability to climb walls, a “spider-sense” to warn him of danger, and enhanced strength. The first film demonstrates this not only by him climbing on walls, but successfully holding his own in a fight against the class bully, so well that the bully could have ended up in the hospital if he wasn’t careful.
Realizing he had this gift he did the very thing that any kid with newly found superpowers would do: he decided to make some money. Peter made a costume for himself and entered a wrestling competition. In a pivotal part of the first film, just as Uncle Ben drops Peter off, he has a heart to heart with him. He is concerned about the trouble Peter got into and tells him, “These are the years when you are going to turn into the man you are destined to be for the rest of your life. Just because you can beat some one up, doesn’t mean that you should. Remember, Pete, with great power, comes great responsibility.”
However, one night there was a robbery at the arena. The robber ran past him and Peter refused to intervene. The first film in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon from 2008 added a reason for this. The manager refused to pay Peter his full reward money for not only lasting in the ring with one of the best wrestlers, but taking him out. As the thief ran past him, Peter turned aside out of spite and let him get away. When the manager asked why he let him run off Peter replied, echoing the callous words of the manager, “I forgot the part where that was my problem.”
It soon would be Peter’s problem. The criminal escaped and ended up killing Peter’s Uncle Ben in a robbery. Peter hunted down the man and discovered it was the same one he let run by him. Peter remembered the advice from his uncle and decided rather then make money he was going to truly use his power responsibly and became a fully fledged superhero. It is even seen in the films that he purchases a police scanner so he can listen for any crimes and put a stop to them.
The theme of responsibility was one that echoed through out not only the comic books, but the cartoons and all three Sam Raimi Spider-Man films. In the second film he is told by Doctor Otto Octavius that his intelligence is a gift that had to be used responsibly for the betterment of all humanity, in the third film when he is getting ready to propose to Mary Jane, his aunt May reminds him that being a husband is a huge responsibility. Every battle he faces, every situation he comes across, serves to teach him the same lesson his uncle gave him.
Even in his own personal life, he tries to take care of his mundane responsibilities. This is one of the reasons many fans relate so well to Spider-Man. His problems as Peter Parker are real world problems. Unlike Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne (Batman) who are insanely wealthy, Peter has to try and hold down a job in order to pay his rent and all his other important financial obligations. Very often he is living somewhere bellow pay-check to pay-check. One story arc even featured him and Mary Jane getting harassing calls from creditors due to late payments on their credit card bills, which were handed over to the bank’s attorneys.
While some heroes may have a really cool mode of transportation, Peter has to try to catch a bus on time to get to school or work. He tries to buy a car, but can’t afford one so has he has to settle for a rinky-dink moped. He has to deal with a boss, news paper editor J. Jonah Jameson, who belittles him and hates his alter ego. Jameson will even issue rewards for Spider-Man’s identity and continually publish statements about Spider-Man that are slanderous. When Peter points this out to his boss, he shrugs it off and says , “ No it’s not! Slander’s spoken. In print it’s liable.”
One of Peter’s biggest responsibilities is to his Aunt May. Part of his overwhelming burden of responsibility towards her comes from the guilt he bears in knowing he did not stop in time the man who killed Uncle Ben. While anybody in his position might feel the same way, Peter knows he had the chance to help, but didn’t. It even makes it hard for him to tell her the truth about that night, fearing it would break her heart. She is alone because of him, and he every time he looks at a family picture he is reminded of that truth.
As Aunt May is all alone, he does what he can to look after her, especially after all she and Ben did for him. In the 2008 cartoon series Spectacular Spider-Man he says that “a man has to live up to his responsibilities and you’re one of them.” In Spider-Man 2, when she gives him twenty dollars for his birthday he tries to refuse her gift. He has just discovered that she is losing her home and wants to help her stay afloat. Aunt May tells him no, and like any good mother figure who knows her child well, tells him, “ And don’t try and sneak it back in my purse when I’m not looking.”
Peter cares about his aunt more then himself and knows full well that Uncle Ben would want this from him. He and Mary Jane even purchase a nice apartment for her at one point. Anytime she takes ill, he will hurry over to try and take care of her. Often times in stories he is trying to do battle against a villain while trying to get do something as important as pick up her prescription medicine, to something as seemingly mundane as picking up her surprise birthday cake. When she is shot in the Back in Black story arc, he not only risks everything to find her shooter, he tries to call in every favor he can to the other heroes to cover her hospital bills.
However, his responsibility to being Spider-Man, as well as his work and school struggles and responsibilities often times puts a crimp on his personal life. This is a fact he is more then aware of, so much so that in thinking back on his last night with his first girl friend, Gwen Stacy, before she died he says:
“It’s possible that I didn’t pay any attention to how she looked that night.
Possible that I was lost in my own head, worrying about schoolwork and bills
Aunt May’s health and Spider-Man’s troubles.”
Because of this, he often misses important events in his friend’s lives. This leads them to dismissing him as a flake and often times they are angry at him. He loses jobs quicker then he can find them as his bosses see him as unreliable. At times even his grades will slip in school. When the Green Goblin kills police Captain George Stacy, Gwen, she leaves the country, and expresses deep anger at Spider-man, blaming him for what happend . In the second Spider-Man film, Peter’s “job” to take pictures of “the bug” for the paper drives a wedge between him and his best ( if not only) friend Harry Osborne. The wedge that gets worse when Harry learns that Peter is Spider-Man, who he blames for the death of his father, Norman ( who had been the villian The Green Goblin).
This is part of the reason he fears that he cannot be happy. In Spider-man 2, he thinks to himself ,”Am I not allowed to have what I want?”
Feeling like he failed his friends, and missing out on having a normal life leads him at one point to quit being Spider-Man. For a time, he almost feels elated. He is allowed to carry on with his life, he doesn’t have to deal with Jameson’s slander, and most importantly he doesn’t have to worry about saving the city. In many ways his struggle between being Spider-Man and balancing the other aspects of his life is not that different from a kid in high school tying to balance the pressures of holding down that “first job” while trying to maintain things like school, a social life and up-hold their family obligations. It is a small taste of what lies in store in the “real world.”
However, unlike with a normal kid, Peter Parker’s “part-time job” entails fighting super powered bad guys. These bad guys of course would love nothing more then to go after the people he loves. Because of this, his greatest responsibility is to protect those he loves from the forces of evil. He knows full well that if any of them found out about the people he loves, they would be targets. This is a very common fate for Peter’s loved ones through out the Spider-man mythos in every media adaptation. His first love, Gwen Stacy died at the hands of The Green Goblin in the comic books, and Aunt May and Mary Jane are frequent targets for his enemies.
With the strain of Spider-Man on his personal life, and the threat to his loved ones from his enemies, it often leads him to consider retiring from being Spider-Man. However, as soon as an innocent person is in serious trouble, he realizes he cannot simply toss the costume in a trash can and walk away. He has been given his incredible gifts and abilities for a reason, and he has to use them. Sure enough he takes back the costume and continues being Spider-Man, even if it means he doesn’t get to have a normal life.
As he goes along on his heroes journey, much like any maturing human being, Peter learns to balance being Spider-man with being Peter Parker. By the time he is granted membership on the Avengers he has been doing the superhero thing for years, has had his share of victories and defeats and learned how to be responsible, and yet at the same time, maintain his upbeat spirit and positive attitude. As he says in the end of the first Spider-Man movie, “No matter what happens, I will always remember these words: with great power comes great responsibility. This is my gift, my curse. Who Am I? I’m Spider-Man.”
*Note, Spider-Man does not appear in the “Marvel Cinimatic Universe” of films ( Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America and The Avengers). The film rights to his charcter are owned by Sony Pictures, while the heroes comprising the Avengers belong to Disney/Marvel Studios. However due to his prominence in the Marvel Universe, the fact that the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film helped reignite the superhero film genre ( along with the first X-Men movie), his current membership on the Avengers roster in the comic books, and a new movie coming out later this summer, I felt everyone’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man needed to get his day in the sun.
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Spider-Man created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
2012 Marvel Comics, 2004 Sony Pictures