“With great power comes great responsibility.” These words not only justify Peter Parker’s arachnid-inspired vigilantism, but define it as a moral imperative. There is clearly crime in New York City, more than can be successfully contained by the NYPD, and Peter Parker is better suited than any other individual to stop it. Therefore, it is his duty to clean the streets of criminals, and if this entails dressing up in tights and slapping a spider on his chest, then so be it.
Despite his sweet powers, Spider-Man does not have an easy life. He doesn’t share the same public adoration that many heroes do. He runs a much more real risk of death or bodily harm than some of his less vincible caped compatriots. And of course, the revolutionary appeal of Spider-Man is that we care just as much about the man behind the mask. Watching Peter Parker balance his love life, his job, and his education is what makes the character so relatable, and if he also has to work crime-fighting into his schedule, well then that’s just more fun for us.
But is being a superhero really the best way to assume responsibility? Spider-Man is shaped fundamentally by the death of his Uncle Ben; he could have stopped the burglar, but the younger, immature Peter let the crook go. When he first got his powers, he thought they were cool, but had no visions of crime fighting. It wasn’t until his apathy led directly to the murder of his father figure that he decided to do something more with his powers.
We have to realize that Peter is in a fragile mental state at this point! He suddenly has spider powers (which, whoa!), and now all of the sudden his uncle is dead, and not only that but it’s his fault, plus he’s just some high school kid dealing with bullies and girls and homework and trying to make money to help out his Aunt May, especially because his uncle just died, and I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is a lot on his mind right now! A lot of Princeton students probably did a bunch of stuff in high school, but I’m telling you that you had nothing on Peter Parker.
So he chose to be a superhero. I mean, I guess it’s better than turning to drugs, but I remain unconvinced that he was in a situation where he was fully capable of making such a huge life decision. I’m not saying that he shouldn’t have taken action, but there are several more constructive, less dangerous ways of fighting crime than, like, with punches. Besides, how much good can one man do, no matter how good a combatant he is? There’s a reason that we train actual police officers and don’t just pay black belts to roam the streets. (Actually, is there a reason? Because that sounds kind of awesome.) While Spider-Man may be quite adept at rounding up criminals, he just kind of leaves them there unconscious and/or wrapped in webbing. If nobody arrests them by the time they wake up, or by the time the webbing dissolves (about two hours), then all of Spider-Man’s hard work was for naught.
Peter Parker has been Spider-Man for decades now, and you’d think that he’d have thought this stuff through. If his initial decision were nothing but a grief-and hormone-fueled mistake, he would have sobered up by now and quit. Well, he’s tried. The “Spider-Man No More” storyline was first used within the first few years of the comic, and it’s resurfaced everywhere from the 2004 film Spider-Man 2 to the current Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. It’s powerful stuff, because, again, there are some pretty convincing reasons not to throw on a fancy outfit and go out in search of fisticuffs in New York City. He has a family to consider, women to woo, school to attend, friendships to keep, money to make.
Yet every time, he jumps back on the eight-wheeled wagon. Usually, these relapses are triggered by some sense of guilt and duty. There will be some citywide villainy that the cops cannot handle by themselves, and Peter will be unable to stand idly by. He will conclude that he can’t quit, because New York needs Spider-Man. There’s a lot of truth in this, and I won’t argue guilt’s power or merit as a motivator, but it’s certainly not a healthy motivator. Of course Peter wants to help out, but there are times where it’s more of a cross to bear than a willingly assumed responsibility.
Still, we ask it of Spider-Man, and he delivers. If our friend was working as hard as Peter Parker, we’d tell him to relax, we’d tell her not to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders. But we are unfair to our Spider-Men. People agree that with great power comes great responsibility, but no one wants to admit that they have power. We’ll say that if we had spider powers we would protect people, but we don’t, so what a shame. We, the fictional public of New York City, don’t see Spider-Man as a person with problems like ours, and we, the readers and viewers of Spider-Man-related media, just want the stories to keep coming. So come they will.
Please excuse me a quick tangent—the super-villain to superhero ratio in comic books is astronomical, and I’m not sure how we’re supposed to interpret this. In a few cases, the super-villain is explicitly a response to the hero—for example, the Scorpion is given powers in the comics specifically to defeat Spider-Man. He eventually turns to crime, but he would not exist without his fellow arachnid-themed superhuman. Other times, it just seems like the world of comics is a world where people get superpowers all the time, just as a thing, and it’s lucky that at least some of them are good or else everyone would be screwed. So it’s possible that Spider-Man is in fact indirectly responsible for some serious harm to the world, but it’s also possible that Spider-Man is the last and only line of defense against this whole cadre of super-villains, and we’d all be dead several times over without him.
Either way, perhaps due to the impulsive decision of a teenager, super-villains are here to stay and it’s silly to ignore them. (Unlike the rest of this exercise, which is absolutely not silly in the slightest). Like it or not, we do need Spider-Man in these extreme cases. But in the case of pettier criminals, Parker’s marginal utility is not quite as high. I’m sure it deters crime just to know that Spider-Man might be out there, but it is impractical and kind of weird for Peter to deal with every minor infraction. There’s something just a little bit totalitarian about a single man doling out justice as he sees fit, but we’re somehow okay with it because he tells jokes, wears bright colors, and has demonstrably good intentions for now.
Maybe it would be better for all of us if Peter Parker hung up the tights every once in a while. Not too often—he still prevents a lot of crime, and he should definitely help out whenever there’s a super-villain, because he’s the only one who can. But the streets don’t need patrolling every night. What we truly need from Spider-Man is a symbol. We need a reminder that not everyone is going to sit around and accept injustice. We need to be shown that people can’t just do whatever they want, because there are those who will stand up for what is right. And it really doesn’t matter how much Spider-Man actually accomplishes; it’s enough that he tries. If he is willing to risk so much for me, who am I to let that be in vain? He tells us that it is possible to be selfless, and that a single citizen can make a difference.
We all have power, in some form or another. For Spider-Man’s sake, please use responsibly.