On Spiderman

Spider-Man Saves the World

By Robert Burke Richardson

For Peter Parker, and for each of us who reads, watches, or plays his story, Spider-Man saves the world.

The means by which Spider-Man achieves this feat is by getting hopelessly tangled in his own contradictory duties. Most ethicists distinguish at least two kinds of duties: duties to oneself and duties to others. For Spider-Man, the duty to himself conflicts with his duties to others, others interfere with his duty to himself . . . and others also interfere with his duties to (other) others. It’s a tangled web that cannot be untangled by rational or logical means–it can only be resolved through an act of faith. Peter Parker’s creation of Spider-Man is that act of faith.

In order to delineate the sources and threads of Spider-Man’s ethical duties, it is helpful to distinguish Peter Parker as a separate, pre-exist-ing entity from his heroic alter ego. In the two major modern retellings of Spider-Man’s story–Sam Raimi’s film version introduced in the 2002 Spider-Man movie, and Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man comic-book series, launched in 2000–Peter finds himself to be a promising young man long before the radioactive spider crosses his path. Peter has a talent for science that attracts the attention of people like Norman Osborn (and, later, Otto Octavius) and also suggests that Peter has a bright future ahead of him.

With the possible exception of Mary Jane Watson, Peter’s odd ways and potential for future greatness do not endear him to his classmates. In Ultimate Spider-Man, in particular, eternal  …

More from Robert Burke Richardson

Stay Updated

on our daily essay, giveaways, and other special deals

Our Books

Subscribe via RSS