Spider-Man and Philosophy: Does Great Power Bring Great Responsibility?

These essays are grouped together by theme again, and naturally the whole “power and responsibility” thing invites a lot of related essays. Since these guys aren’t the writers behind Into the Spider-Verse, expect a lot of direct, on-the-nose references to the line rather than subtle allusions to it that avoid exact quotes.

This essay examines the famous quote itself. Sure, power, responsibility, yada yada, the general vibe is certainly accurate, but brass tacks: Spider-Man is obligated to save people from super villains because that sells movie tickets. If he ever decided he’d done his good in the world and didn’t need anymore, that’d be the end of a lucrative franchise. Whether or not Spider-Man is actually morally obligated to help people is totally unrelated to whether his franchise will behave as though he’s morally obligated. But is the conceit of the franchise, coincidentally, correct? Regardless of the real reasons why Spider-Man movies claim Spidey is morally obligated to fight super villains, do their given reasons also just happen to be true?

As another way of putting it, when Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko made the comics, they presumably picked the whole “power and responsibility” motif because they knew they were writing a super hero, tried to come up with a good heroic motivation, and decided this qualified. Was that decision philosophically sound? Does it survive scrutiny?

The essay goes on to explain two basic theories of responsibility. In the first, you are responsible for not harming people, and it’s noble to additionally help people, but you aren’t required. According to this principle, the Good Samaritan who helps a random stranger (of an enemy tribe, even!) back to safety after discovering the aftermath of a vicious robbery, that guy is heroic, but it wouldn’t be villainous to just leave him on the side of the road. From this perspective, if someone is plummeting to their death and Spider-Man is swinging by, it’s nice if Spidey saves him, but it isn’t required. If Spider-Man declines to save him, he hasn’t behaved nobly, but he hasn’t done anything wrong.

This seems kind of weird. Like, it wouldn’t even be that hard for Spider-Man to save that guy. It’s like a thirty second detour. If someone prizes thirty seconds of their own time over someone else’s life, that seems pretty villainous. Thus, the essay segues us into our next perspective. The essay doesn’t attribute the first perspective to anyone in particular, but it does attribute the next philosophical paradigm to John Stuart Mill, a utilitarian. In John Stuart Mill’s perspective, what matters is whether or not you are causing harm overall. A hypothetical sinister Spider-Man who cares more about being briefly inconvenienced than about someone else’s life isn’t just someone who has failed to be heroic, but someone who has committed an act of villainy. The greatest good for the greatest amount of people is what matters, and willfully ignoring an opportunity to increase the greater good is always wrong (especially when the trade-off is this obvious).

The essay also examines the question of vigilantism: Is Spider-Man justified in taking the law into his own hands? Super hero stories almost never address the problem of a masked vigilante whose motives are even slightly impure. Even the Punisher is portrayed as exclusively targeting violent, organized criminals and never hurting anyone with a stray bullet. In season 2 of Daredevil, he talks up his USMC training and how it has magically made him so preternaturally accurate that he can fire multiple shotgun blasts in a hospital and still be certain that no one but his target will get hit (despite failing to hit his target with every shot), or unload on a cafe in the middle of a densely packed city on full-auto and somehow be certain not only that the target cafe is totally empty of civilian targets, but that every other building in the cone of potential danger is totally empty, and that starting gunfights with dangerous criminals in the middle of populated areas won’t result in the criminals’ stray bullets ever hurting anyone, bearing in mind that Punisher’s backstory is that his family were killed by stray bullets in a gang war. The Punisher kills people and that’s supposed to make him morally grey, but never do we see a vigilante whose recklessness inflicts civilian casualties as collateral damage, or who take it upon themselves to kill criminals that “everyone knows” are guilty and end up killing actual innocent people.

Regardless of that, though, Spidey doesn’t personally stalk random black kids and threaten them to leave the neighborhood because he assumes they’re burglars. He patrols for violent crimes actively in progress and half the time he fights super villains mid-bank robbery. Spider-Man is personally too morally upright for his taking the law into his own hands to be a problem. He isn’t accountable to the public, but he happens to be sufficiently responsible that he behaves the way we’d want law enforcement to anyway. Also something something Civil War something anti-registration. The essay contends that Spider-Man can do more good disregarding the law, even though upholding the law is usually a good idea. In the comics, this is definitely true, but only because there is that bizarre lack of costumed vigilantes being outright villains. At worst, they are anti-heroes who thwart violent criminals with violent force, often even tracking them down to their hideouts to kill them – but since they never hit the wrong target, who cares? The actual danger of rising vigilantism, that of people taking the law into their own hands and subsequently going mad with power, overtrusting their crime fighting abilities and injuring or killing people on a hunch, that never even comes up. Since the bad side effects of vigilantism arbitrarily fail to happen, of course Spider-Man is justified in engaging in vigilante justice. There’s no downside! The police may as well be disbanded and people left to enforce the law on their own initiative, because in Marvel-world that somehow just works out.

That whole tangent wasn’t in the essay, it just occurred to me while I was writing about it. The actual essay just concludes that Spider-Man’s vigilantism is justified, and furthermore, even under the strictest (reasonable) interpretations of responsibility, Spider-Man’s willingness to fight villain team-ups like the Sinister Six, enemies against whom he faces serious threat of death, mean that he’s going far beyond the demands of responsibility. He is a hero, doing more than is necessary just to be considered a decent person.

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