The Flaw of the Power/Responsibility Equation

When I was a very young nerd, Spider-Man comic books were my jam.

Amazing Spider-Man had been published since 1963 and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man had begun publishing in 1976. Marvel Team-Up; where Spider-Man joined forces with various other characters within the Marvel Universe; began publishing in 1972. This made Spidey the only character, at the time, with three on-going solo series (Batman was published in Detective Comics and Batman and Superman was in Action Comics and Superman). By the end of the 1980s, Web of Spider-Man would be added to the fold, but many characters would have multiple solo series, by then.

In the early 1980s, Webhead was all over the place, besides comic books. The cartoons from the 1960s and 1970s were on replay enough that ‘Spider-Man! Spider-Man! Does whatever a spider can!’ was still part of the common cultural lexicon. Spider-Man was also on a show called ‘The Electric Company,’ where he helped teach kids all sort of valuable lessons as part of ‘Spidey Super-Stories’ (generally alongside Morgan Freeman). Children’s books, posters, consumer products of all types, and even a video game for the Atari 2600, had Spider-Man’s webby face! Inundated with all this imagery, it’s no wonder I was a Spidey fanboy before I turned ten!

But then, something changed.

In 1984, the 12-issue mini-series, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, was among the first times that all the major Marvel heroes could be found battling alongside one another in the same series and, in fact, was the first of the ‘Big Crossovers,’ soon to be followed by DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. Throughout the course of the story, each of the heroes has questions as to who they are among all the other heroes. The Thing, Hulk, Storm, Magneto, Wasp, Iron Man (who was Jim Rhodes, at the time), and, of course, Spider-Man all end up questioning who they are as a part of the whole of the Marvel Universe. These underlying personal crises are, by far, the most interesting aspects of the story which, ultimately, is not all that bad and still stands up as being a decent tale to this day.

In issue #8, Spider-Man’s costume had been damaged and he was directed to a room that contained a machine which could read thoughts and create a uniform. Choosing one of the machines, Spidey received a small black orb that transformed into his black costume. Believing that he had been influenced by the outfit of the new Spider-Woman, Julia Carpenter, Spidey relished the fact that his outfit instantly repaired damage, would morph to appear as other clothes, and produced an unlimited amount of web fluid. Spider-Man mentioned, in passing, that it was cool that his new outfit could do that and the other heroes noted that theirs could not.

And that was that.

No further consideration was taken, by anyone, as to where the outfit came from or why it was so radically different than the outfits created for the other superheroes. Peter Parker kept his mouth shut and returned to Earth having started to bond with a dangerous alien creature that would go on to be half of one of the most dangerous villains in Marvel Comics and spawn a number of other dangerous, murderous horrors that would cause dozens, if not hundreds, of deaths.

It was after reading that, and then the follow-up tales, which led to the premiere of the villain, Venom, that I began to take notice of other actions taken by Spider-Man with a more objective eye.

At the end of the story that had the first appearance of Spider-Man, in Amazing Fantasy #15, a narrative caption reads:

And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware, at last, that in this world, with great power there must also come — great responsibility!

This quote is often attributed to having come from Peter’s deceased Uncle, Ben Parker, but, at no point in that issue, does Ben say that line. It wasn’t until years later that retroactive continuity indicated that Ben had used similar words, but that first story; in the final issue of a pseudo-horror series filled with double-entandres, second-guessing, and ironic twists, the narrator is the speaker of this line.

In point of fact, that first appearance of Spider-Man very much reads exactly as would an anthology horror story one might find in Tales from the Crypt or Eerie Comics, which was the purview of some of the Marvel Comics in the early days of the publisher, maintaining some of the focus that had come from Atlas Comics, prior to the change of name to ‘Marvel’ with Fantastic Four #1. That final piece of narration and the fact that Spider-Man had a wildly different appearance to other heroes, of the time (being fully masked and having a creepy insect motif), seems to indicate that this was not the origin of a superhero, at all, but, instead, that this was a cautionary tale of taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Analyzing the career of Spider-Man through that filter alters the trajectory of the character, considerably.

I stopped reading Spider-Man comics in the 1990s when every issue was part of some huge Spider-Man crossover that was, generally, caused by foes of his that were willing to sacrifice innocent lives to attack/control/murder Spidey. I paid as close attention to the ongoing situation of the character as I dared, knowing that I would likely be disappointed by his modern adventures due to my aging nerd sensibilities.

Upon subscribing to Marvel Unlimited, I went back and reread through the Superior Spider-Man series, where Doctor Octopus saved himself from death by switching his mind with Peter Parker’s. Throughout the course of the story, Otto repeatedly remarks that Parker could have done so much more with his abilities and his brilliant mind. As I read it, I began to consider the same thing.

Soon after, I went back and read some of the early 2000s story arcs of the character. Each story revolved around those same themes as the stories that had turned me away from Spider-Man, in the first place. I also noticed that Spider-Man repeatedly made decisions that put others; innocents, loved ones, or proper heroes; in mortal danger. Despite the fact that Parker is legitimized upon developing an association with the Avengers and, later, the Fantastic Four, he continues to act in ways that are beneficial only unto himself, repeatedly.

No instance is more telling of this self-indulgent, self-centered behavior than the events that followed the revelation of his true identity to the world during Marvel’s Civil War. Believing in the cause of the Superhuman Registration Act, Parker follows Tony Stark’s lead and unmasks on national television, divulging his name to the world.

This is after years of having hidden his secret identity to nearly everyone around him, including his dear Aunt May, the last thing resembling a parent that Peter had left in his life. He had lied to his family, his friends, his allies, and his employers (J. Jonah Jameson, whose first instinct was, rightly so, to sue Parker). In a moment of support of an initiative that forced those with superhuman abilities to register their true identity with the United States government or be arrested, Spider-Man’s truth was lain bare before everyone in the world. The only motivation shown was that of support of Stark, who had taken Peter under his wing and given Parker access to resources he had never had before.

Years prior, Peter had failed to see the value in stopping a criminal who was running past him, in a hallway, because of his personal distaste towards the criminal’s most recent victim. This had led to the same criminal, in a tale of abject irony, murdering his beloved Uncle. This singular petty act had, it seemed, driven Spider-Man’s crusade against villainy, but a pattern of behavior seems to suggest something different.

When Peter Parker allows a criminal to escape because of a selfish need for justice upon an individual that, in his eyes, wronged him, it’s no different than failing to inform the Avengers or the Fantastic Four that his magical outfit was different from the ones he received, which is no different from revealing his secret identity on television through the coercion of someone he respects.

When Spider-Man’s pattern of behavior is analyzed, one can potentially jump to the conclusion that he suffers from a number of personality disorders including extreme narcissism, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and possible sociopathy. The fact that he has never undergone extensive psycho-therapy and has engaged in constant extreme activity while continually making questionable decisions without thought as to the consequences, coupled with the fact that he has physical capabilities and intellect far in excess of the human norm, makes Spider-Man a remarkably dangerous person; especially since he adheres, obsessively, to some broken notion of ‘great power’ being directly related to ‘great responsibility.’

It is distinctly clear that Peter Parker lacks any actual sense as to what ‘great power’ and ‘great responsibility’ are. Thor has power that is far in excess of Spider-Man and operates as a hero to the masses, defending his homeland of Asgard as well as Earth. Captain America lacks a great many of the abilities held by Spider-Man, but takes upon his shoulders at least as much, if not more, responsibility as Parker. Aunt May, it could be said, is the least powerful person in Spider-Man’s dual lives, but she was willing to take the responsibility of her husband’s, brother’s orphaned child, despite the fact that she lacked in financial means and was in failing health.

Ultimately, with great power does not come great responsibility. Responsibility is dictated by the needs of the individual in regards to the environment around that individual. We make choices to take on additional responsibilities dependent upon our personal assessment of our individual capabilities while having additional responsibility thrust upon us, regardless of our personal level of ‘power.’

The most quoted line of the Spider-Man mythos is one that was meant in irony and is, ultimately, unable to withstand critical evaluation.

Peter Parker makes a choice to swing around New York City assaulting petty criminals rather than use his abilities in ways that would be truly valuable. He holds the sole knowledge of the creation of an adhesive formula which could revolutionize non-lethal response, rescue efforts, and crowd control. His body holds a variety of capabilities that have been shown, time and again, to be repeatable in others. He has a brilliant mind and could make the lives of every living person on the planet that much better.

It is concerning that such a character as Spider-Man could be considered a role model. He allows a thief to run past him because he doesn’t like the person being robbed, enabling this same person to affect him in a profound, and tragic, way. He introduces a dangerous alien life form to Earth because he doesn’t want to lose a cool, new outfit, causing the deaths of many, many people and a great deal of pain and suffering. He allows himself to be manipulated into revealing his own secret, hurting all those who had ever had faith in him and, ultimately, requiring an actual deal with the devil to make everything the way it was… a deal he is willing to accept, despite what it costs those around him.

[Correction: It has been mentioned that it was Mary Jane who made the deal, which I believe that I remembered in my first draft, hence the specific wording that I changed, later. Regardless, don’t read that story. It’s so awful that writer asked for his name to be removed from the last issue.]

A great deal of this can be attributed to writers being unable to resolve certain aspects of the character and thus, ignoring those attributes. That first story was meant exactly as I noted: a one-shot tale within an anthology of unusual tales. However, the popularity of the character led to a series following with no further explanation of those events to follow.

Perhaps it’s possible to break down any imaginary character, no matter how ironclad the motivations of said character may seem to be, and find the chinks in the armor. With Spider-Man’s lasting and incredibly prevalent popularity, it’s not unfounded that there would be weaknesses in the mythology and it’s possible that I have simply come to focus on some minor aspect of a character that others can ignore and simply enjoy the stories for what they are.

Still, I long for the day when a writer is willing to tackle the actual weaknesses of the character, because, when it comes down to it, there is an eight-year-old nerd deep inside my cynical skull who would love to see Peter Parker as a hero, again.

Until then, I will satisfy my Spidery needs with the Ultimate Spider-Man, Miles Morales, a character who is developing into the Spider-Man we always should have had. In fact, it seems that Marvel has come to agree with me, replacing the damaged Parker with the young and vibrant Morales.

With any luck, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will follow suit.