After Peter Parker forgets to pick up his Aunt May in The Amazing Spider-Man and she has to walk home alone at night, putting herself in danger, Uncle Ben is fed up with Peter acting out and shirking responsibility. He tells Peter that his father lived by a code: “If you can do good things for other people, you have the moral obligation to do those things.”
In other words, when you have a particular talent or ability that could help others, your responsibility as a decent human being is to use your skills to benefit others.
It’s a clunky replacement for the traditional Spider-Man theme of With great power comes great responsibility. And while on the surface it could seem both the new version and the old version are essentially saying the same thing, Uncle Ben’s new line better reflects the subtle questions raised by the plot.
Because in saying that when we are able to do good things for other people, we’re morally obligated to do those things, we have to ask ourselves two questions.
Whose definition of good are we using?
And do we have a full enough view of the big picture to know what the truly good thing to do would be?
Dr. Connors, the villain in The Amazing Spider-Man, wants to release a gas into the air above New York to mutate everyone into giant lizards. As a lizard-person, he’s stronger, faster, and able to regenerate. In his own way, Connors believes he’d be helping turn people into something “better.” Humanity, in its current state, is weak. He has the power to perfect humanity. Wouldn’t that be a good thing that’s within his ability to do?
And when Peter Parker should have acted to stop the thief who later shot Uncle Ben, he stood by because he felt like the store clerk was getting what he deserved for being a jerk. In some ways, Captain Stacy was right in calling Spider-Man a vigilante. Peter felt his personal view of justice was the only right one.
For most of the movie, however, Peter’s actions fall more cleanly into a category of good accepted by the majority of people. He’s catching bad guys and helping advance science. And yet, he acts without a broad enough understanding of the consequences of his actions and the wider implications.
When he goes to dinner at Gwen Stacy’s home, he and Captain Stacy argue over whether Spider-Man is a hero or a hooligan. Peter suggests Spider-Man is doing good because he’s catching car thieves and other criminals.
“If the police wanted those car thieves off the street,” Captain Stacy says, “they would be.”
“Then why are they still on the streets?” Peter asks.
“Because they’re small fish, and we want them to lead us to the boss.”
The police were working with a bigger understanding. They wanted to catch the person in charge of the car theft ring, not just the low-level, easily replaced lackey Spidey webs to the wall. Were Spidey’s actions good? Yes. He took a criminal off the street. But did they also potentially sabotage a greater good and a longer-term plan?
Peter also gives the equation to Dr. Connors that allows the re-growth of limbs but also creates monsters. He didn’t know enough about Connor’s character or the morality (or lack thereof) of the bigwigs in Oscorp to so blithely share the equation his father worked so hard to hide.
While I do believe that we all need to use the talents we’ve been given to help others, I also believe we need to do so with a dose of humility. It’s so easy to look at what other people are or aren’t doing and think we know better. It’s also easy to judge them from the outside looking in.
Great power isn’t just about having the responsibility to act. Great power means we have the responsibility to think about the consequences if we act, to seek the bigger picture first. And great power sometimes means waiting until the right moment to act.
How do you walk the line between knowing when to use your skills to try to help others and when not to? Do you think having good intentions makes up for it when we accidentally cause harm?
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