ith great power comes great responsibility.” This six-word sentence, said first in Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962) by Ben Parker to a young Peter Parker, has become one of the most iconic sentences in all of comic book history.
This statement condenses Marvel’s purest sense of heroism into a balanced and understandable concept: those of us who have the ability to do good are charged with the duty to do so.
Peter Parker is the hero who most comic fans wish they could be. Wolverine is indestructible, but lonely. The Hulk is the ultimate power fantasy, but lacks self-control. Iron Man may be a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist, but he’s not exactly well adjusted.
Kids grow up pretending to shoot webs from their wrists and swing from lampshades because something about Peter Parker and Spider-Man has resonated with them for over 50 years.
In 2012, Marvel shook things up by ending 50 years of Amazing Spider-Man and starting up Superior Spider-Man to run in its place, with a surprising twist. Otto Octavius has swapped his mind with Peter Parker’s and left Peter to die in his own deteriorating body. For two years, Otto becomes Spider-Man. Having inherited all of Peter’s memories, he believes that, unshackled by Peter’s concrete morality, he can be a better hero, and—you guessed it—a superior Spider-Man.
To New York City, Spider-Man is still Spider-Man—he’s still spinning webs of any size and catching thieves just like flies. The first time anyone notices something is off is when Superior Spider-Man corners a murderous villain named Massacre. Spider-Man turns Massacre’s weapon against him and publicly executes him by shooting him in the head. Though Massacre deserved to pay for his crimes, this is not something Peter Parker would have done.
Marvel is no stranger to heroes with grey-area morality. We’ve been watching The Punisher gun down New York’s criminal underground without a flinch for years now, but to see Spider-Man straight-up murder someone is genuinely unsettling, even though we know it’s not Peter Parker who pulled the trigger.
The emotional impact of the murder allows Peter’s dormant subconscious to start wrestling with Otto’s for control. As more events unfold, New York City is plunged into an all-out war between the police forces and the Goblin Nation and Otto starts to experience the weight of Peter’s emotional sacrifices. The loss of Gwen Stacey, his parents, and Uncle Ben overwhelm Otto and he realizes his misguided understanding. He relinquishes his control, ultimately understanding what made Peter the superior hero all along.
Spider-Man is not made weaker because of the people he has loved or has lost; his resolve to do good is strengthened by their memory. It’s easy to look at heroes like Peter Parker the same way Otto did, thinking, “I could do it. I could always do the right thing.” But Otto’s experiences as Spider-Man are a great reminder not to judge a man until you’ve swung a mile in his tights. ♦