Spider-man. A quick witted, red and blue clad superhero with spider-like abilities. Behind the mask, Peter Parker, a mild mannered science geek that lives with his aunt May. From an early age I’ve admired Spider-man. When I look at Spider-man specifically I see the epitome of a selfless hero. Someone that consistently puts his life on the line for what he believes is the greater good. That primarily being justice, human life and well being.
In the Spider-man mythos this attitude is adopted by Peter after his uncle Ben dies in direct consequence of Peter’s indifference to justice. In the story, Peter allows an armed robber to walk right past him. He feels no responsibility to intervene. Later, uncle Ben is killed only for Peter to discover the killer to be the very same man. This torments Peter and acts as the catalyst for Peter to realize his uncles saying ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ This ultimately leads Peter to become the person he is in Spider-man.
In most of the comics Peter’s entire life revolves around Spider-man. In fact, his selfless heroism is constantly compromising other areas of his life. His life as a student, boyfriend and nephew all suffer. He often struggles in school, not because of a lack of intellect, but because of exhaustion from late nights fighting crime. He constantly finds his relationship with Mary Jane endangered due to his absence and we often find her endangered due to the villainous maniacs that come after them. Sadly, Peter’s loving aunt is often shown to get the short end of the stick as well when it comes to Peter’s attention. Missing lunches, failing to be there for her and failing to keep in touch. It is clear that Peter’s personal life suffers on Spider-man’s behalf.
I have come to understand this pattern in Peter’s life as a way of illustrating the impractical and undesirable nature of pure selflessness. Yes, he creates a great impact and does a lot of good, but his own personal well-being is often disregarded. His academic responsibilities and development often suffer. And he fails to treat the people in his life the way that they deserve to be treated. Although Peter is an ally to justice, safety and heroism he is often an enemy to relationships, personal responsibility and self-care.
One of the more fascinating takes that I’ve enjoyed reading is a comic book called Superior Spider-man. In this arc we see a completely new and never seen before Spider-man. This is a Spider-man who has had his consciousness switched. He is no longer Peter Parker, but instead he has the consciousness of Dr. Otto Octavius (Doc Ock) while retaining all of Peter’s memories. Peter Parker’s consciousness essentially dies in Otto’s body, this being the result of Otto’s evil scheme. As the new man living in Peter’s body, and also the new Spider-man, Otto declares and names himself the Superior Spider-man!
One of the reasons I enjoyed this book is because it illustrates how a Spider-man could operate should the man inside not be a selfless and moral person. In his new identity, Otto retains his own memories and personality, but he also adopts all of Peter’s memories as well. This includes the memory of his role in his uncle Ben’s death. This results in a drastically different person, but one with a strong sense of moral responsibility. The Superior Spider-man proves to be less merciful, but much more resourceful, and willing to assert control in his life.
The results speak for themselves. One invention Otto creates and employs as Spider-man is an army of miniature spider-bots. He uses these to patrol the cities, identify criminals and get a leg up on crime in progress. Unlike the original Spidey, Otto does not feel an obligation to address every crime personally. He forms a partnership with the Mayor and the police force which allows him to reroute small crimes to law enforcement.
The fruits of this labor are sweet for his newfound personal life. He is able to maintain a relationship with Mary Jane Watson, before moving on to someone else that is. His aunt May is pleased with him. He even goes back to school to complete his doctorate. By taking some of the pressure off himself, by utilizing spider-bots and his partnership with the police force, Otto is able to have a much more happy and balanced personal life while being equally if not more effective as Spider-man.
One of the more drastic scenes in the Superior Spider-man story comes when Spider-man confronts a mass murderer recently broken out of prison. A man named, Massacre. Now this is an interesting scene because this is a villain Spider-man faced before back when he was the original and Otto remembers. In Otto’s mind, Peter is directly responsible for every person killed by him since he escaped prison. In his mind, it is only because of Peter’s weakness, mercy, and self righteousness as Spider-man that Massacre is still alive. Once the webbed wall crawler has him trapped, he makes sure he doesn’t repeat his predecessors mistake. He executes him on the spot.
The previous scene demonstrates a clear difference between the old and the new. Peter would never take the power to end another person’s life. Otto on the other hand sees it as his responsibility to do so. So which version made the right choice? On the one hand, who knows how many lives may have been spared? There’s no telling if he would break out in the future, if he would kill more people, if it would ever end. Yet, in taking his life an ethical line was crossed. He became judge, jury and executioner. Although in one sense he has always been lawless, Spider-man has always held regard for life.
Another twist in this story is that as Spider-man, Otto is able to maintain a much better public image. This largely comes as a result of his teamwork and communication with the city, Mayor, and police department. Interestingly, he is able to do so while crossing more and more ethical lines. A questionable, if not tainted public image has always been a staple of the original Spidey. Even though he worked for the paper and provided photos, his public image was constantly disparaged and questioned by the very same institution.
I’ve found myself wondering if this is symbolic of the power of the cooperation and communication. As Spider-man, Peter always places sole responsibility on himself. This is helpful in some ways because it gives him permission to maximize his heroic efforts. On the other hand, he is essentially neglecting the resources and people available to him. These are people that share the same mission of public safety. In ignoring them, he is downplaying their ability to contribute. In a way he is elevating himself and his own abilities, playing to his ego and minimizing others. Otto, on the other hand, allows others to be in the know. He asks for and reciprocates favors and in doing so lets other’s feel useful, valuable and appreciated. Could that be why he has a superior public reputation?
Peter Parker, the original Spidey, will always hold a special place in my heart. I will always admire that he throws himself straight into the fire. Even when all odds are against him, he always finds a way to pull through. The mental fortitude symbolized in the character will forever inspire me. The strength of his conviction will always be powerful. The higher calling he walks in will remain legendary.
Yet I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the shortcomings the character or the potential improvements that we see when Otto takes the mantle. With his willingness to outsource, his inclination to apply deadly force and his excellent public reputation, Otto paints a much different story then the one we are used to seeing. The stories found in this comic arc provide excellent material for meditation, contemplation and revelation. You may just find yourself struggling to make sense of which is the greater hero.
If this story intrigues you and you find yourself wishing for more depth then I would implore you to follow the link provided below. Youtube has amassed a handful of content creators that narrate comic book stories while pulling art from the comics themselves. This is a great way to get started in comic books without having to buy any physical books. I use these channels as a substitute for TV and cinema, a fun way to relax. I’ve provided a link to a version of the Superior Spiderman told by Rob @ Comics Explained. I’ve also provided a traditional Spider-man story by Benny @ Comicstorian.
If you feel inclined, check out the videos. I personally find the visuals, dialogue, and narrative presented in comics to far surpass that which is portrayed in the movies. Try to see if you can point out some of the personality traits of each version of the hero in pivotal moments. Ask yourself what consequences result from specific choices? How would the result would be different if the other Spider-man were present? Try to put yourself in the mind of the character and imagine the type of reaction each set of actions would illicit in you. Most of all, just enjoy the story.
Superior Spider-man by Rob @ Comics Explained
Spider-man’s Last Stand by Benny @ Comicstorian