Peter Parker’s morality is one of his defining character traits — he wouldn’t be Spider-Man if he didn’t believe his power gave him the responsibility to use it for good. The decision to let the robber go who ultimately went on to kill Uncle Ben is a trauma that cements Peter’s course to becoming a superhero. A spider bite may have given Peter power, but it was Uncle Ben who instilled the ethos that ultimately created Spider-Man. I mean, “With great power, comes great responsibility” isn’t an iconic phrase for no reason.
Spider-Man has had a long history on the big screen, and each new incarnation of the web-slinger has chosen to take a slightly different approach to portraying the character’s fundamental philosophy. Peter Parker is a teenager who doesn’t understand the weight of his newfound responsibility. Grappling with what it means to have powers — and keeping those powers a secret — is an incredible burden for a teenager to have. What happens when you’re forced to shoulder a responsibility you might not be equipped to handle?
Peter Parker’s origin is simple. Boy gets bit by spider; spider gives boy powers, boy becomes a superhero. However, before losing Uncle Ben, Peter doesn’t appear to be so interested in crime fighting.
In SPIDER-MAN (2002), Tobey Maguire’s Peter immediately uses his newfound abilities to try and win a wrestling tournament. The prize money will allow him to buy a car and impress Mary-Jane. His exploration of his powers draws concern from his family, who just want to understand their nephew’s newfound reticence.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN similarly finds Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker seeking out the scientist who worked with his deceased father and attempt to figure out what happened to him, rather than fighting crime. Garfield’s Peter chases ghosts until they obscure his view.
In both cases, Uncle Ben’s attempts to help Peter through his struggles despite not knowing what’s going on backfires incredibly. Peter doesn’t want to hear anything about responsibility, because what does Uncle Ben know? He’s not the one who’s got weird powers now.
For both films, this proves to be Peter’s first mistake — in a moment of spite and perhaps selfishness, Peter lets the thief get away. Like the cop tells Peter in SPIDER-MAN, he clearly could have done something. Instead, Uncle Ben dies, and Peter has to live with the guilt of his choice forever. Peter Parker’s first act as Spider-Man is born out of guilt, anger, and vengeance. Responsibility finds its way in there later.
Bearing the Burden of Responsibility
It’s pretty ironic that to outsiders, Peter Parker might seem like the least responsible person alive. He’s always missing things — school, plays, decathlons, graduations — and can never give a better excuse than “Sorry.” Promising it won’t happen again is clearly off the table, because who knows what kind of villain might pop up before the next big event?
While I love Peter Parker and his adherence to the code that makes him a superhero, you have to admit that the guy’s life is a mess. No matter which version of him you’re looking at, nearly all of his personal relationships are in shambles. Most superheroes who lead double lives like Peter experience similar issues, but most superheroes aren’t teenagers. Even Batman spends forever training before putting on the mask. Peter hopelessly attempts to find a balance between his two alter-egos and flounders. After all, being a superhero doesn’t pay the bills. Spider-Man won’t keep Aunt May from getting evicted.
Peter Parker’s Deteriorating Relationships
SPIDER-MAN 2 illustrates the difficulty of having a super secret perfectly. About an hour in, Peter’s two best friends, Mary-Jane Watson and Harry Osborn, have severed ties with him. Peter has disappointed MJ one too many times by becoming increasingly distant and flakey. Harry believes that if Peter had only turned in Spider-Man rather than becoming his personal photographer, his father wouldn’t have died.
As far as Peter is concerned, there’s no way for him to fix these problems. He can’t tell Mary-Jane or Harry that he’s Spider-Man, and he can’t stay close to them for fear of what might happen if one of his enemies caught a whiff of his secret identity. What is he supposed to do?
Tell Harry that Norman Osborn was a murderous villain and that he knows Spider-Man didn’t actually kill him because he’s Spider-Man? Yeah, right. Peter’s inability to be the friend Harry needs ultimately leads to Mary-Jane’s kidnapping in SPIDER-MAN 2 and the second iteration of the Green Goblin in SPIDER-MAN 3.
In addition to all this mess, Peter can’t keep a job, he’s in danger of failing classes at school that he would normally excel in, and his landlord is harassing him for rent money he doesn’t have. It’s understandably overwhelming.
Throwing Away the Mask
There’s always a moment in any version of on-screen Peter Parker where the burden of responsibility becomes too much. Peter takes hit after hit until eventually, he can’t get back up. This results in a brief soul-searching period.
In SPIDER-MAN 2, the deterioration of Peter’s cornerstone relationships has a physical effect on him. The emotional fallout results in Peter being unable to wield his powers. A trip to the school doctor reveals that it’s all a mental block — in fact, Peter needs to take a deep look into himself and make a choice about what he wants and whether he’s right to want it.
Peter expresses visual surprise at the idea of having a choice. He’s been Spider-Man for two years at this point. It’s never once occurred to him that he has a choice in anything. And what does he do? He quits being Spider-Man. Cue the “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” montage.
Garfield’s Peter doesn’t get the same amount of time to explore his relationship with the burden of being a superhero. After Gwen Stacy dies in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, a time jump tells the audience that Spider-Man has been inactive for months while Peter grieves.
Accepting the Cost of Responsibility
The most admirable thing about Peter Parker is that after taking off the mask, he decides to put it back on again. Despite everything Peter Parker might lose, Spider-Man is worth it.
In SPIDER-MAN 2, Peter has a conversation with Aunt May about Spider-Man’s disappearance. It’s a very unsubtle hint that Aunt May probably knows that her nephew doubles as a web-slinger. However, the advice she gives reminds Peter of why he chose to be a superhero in the first place:
“I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”
The decision to keep being Spider-Man plays out a little differently throughout the current films, but sacrifice is an integral piece. At the conclusion of SPIDER-MAN 2, Peter’s new understanding of responsibility as a necessary sacrifice convinces Doc Ock to dismantle the reactor before all of New York City is blown up.
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING presents the choice to Tom Holland’s Peter in the form of a school dance. Liz’s dad is revealed to be the Vulture, who deducts Peter’s true identity on the car ride to the dance. After Liz leaves the car, the Vulture physically threatens Peter to stop playing dress up and give up crime fighting.
This is a pivotal moment for Peter. He has to choose between staying with Liz or fighting her supervillain father. The scene throws the problem of Peter’s double life into sharp relief. He has only the suit he made himself, and he’s making an active decision to be Spider-Man. No matter how appealing being Peter Parker might be.
Is It Necessary to Take On Everything?
At what point does taking on too much responsibility become irresponsible? When Spider-Man makes mistakes, the results can have deadly consequences. In THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, the cost is Gwen Stacy’s life. It’s impossible to take on everything and do it right. The closest Peter gets to a healthy balance comes at the beginning of SPIDER-MAN 3, until his volatile relationship with Harry Osborn finally explodes.
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING features a younger Peter who can’t seem to do anything right. His desire to be an Avenger trumps all other responsibility in his life by biting more than he can chew. The first time Peter royally messes up in a fight with the Vulture, a ferry full of innocent people nearly sinks.
Peter’s eagerness to take on a responsibility he isn’t ready for results in more damage. The mistake demonstrates that Peter’s responsibility is first to properly learn how to use his power, rather than relying on the mini-Iron Man suit Tony Stark gave him.
Peter Parker’s fatal flaw is believing that every mugging is just as crucial as Doc Ock or Green Goblin threatening to destroy the city. He is Atlas, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders and letting it destroy him bit by bit. Peter Parker’s obligations outside of crime fighting are still obligations, even if it doesn’t mean peoples’ lives are saved at the end of the day.