For the last two entries of Flashback Friday, I’ve touched on how tales of superheroes and their four-colored world of comic books can inform how we as people treat one another, just as other media, as well as religion and philosophy, can give us a window into the Good. I’m almost 35-years-old, and I’m not afraid to admit that some of my formative influences on my morality and sense of right and wrong were shaped from the comic book stories I read growing up and the stories I read now. And while I love to read stories of western justice in Preacher or love of country in tales featuring Captain America, no one superhero’s tales of struggling with right and wrong have made such a formative impact on me than those of the world’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
That’s why, even though it’s a comic book, when Bendis killed off Peter Parker in Ultimate Spider-Man: Death of Spider-Man, it was like losing a friend and mentor.
Ultimate Spider-Man takes place in the Ultimate Marvel line of comics, which takes characters with which we are familiar—such as the X-Men, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four—and puts different spins and takes on them to give them a fresh sheen for new and old audiences. While in the “regular” Marvel universe, Peter Parker is probably in his mid- to late-20s, the Ultimate Spider-Man is still a teenager in high school. While many of his family and villains come in different forms and have different relationships with the wall-crawler—in this version, for instance, Aunt May knows Peter’s secret identity and has come to terms with it—the core of the character, a smart, good-natured person trying to do right by the world, remains the same.
Bendis wrote Ultimate Spider-Man for 160 issues, beating out Stan Lee’s run on the character, which is mind-boggling considering how prolific Marvel’s chairman was in the wealth of material he wrote. Bendis and the folks at Marvel decided that Peter’s story in the Ultimate line had reached its natural conclusion and had made plans to introduce a brand-new Spider-Man, a black/Latino teen named Miles Morales, to take over the webbed threads. Before Peter was ushered out, however, Bendis crafted a tale of absolute heroism worthy of the web-slinger.
Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, breaks free from S.H.I.E.L.D. custody and assembles the other members of the Sinister Six, hellbent on killing Peter Parker once and for all. His very DNA mutated to an obscene degree, Norman is crazier and more dangerous than ever. Osborn and the other rogues head to Peter’s Forest Hills to murder the wall-crawler. Peter manages to convince Aunt May and Gwen Stacy to leave before Osborn can get there. During his hunt for Norman, Peter is shot saving Captain America and is wounded horribly. Barely making his way back to Forest Hills, Spider-Man makes his final stand against his assembled enemies. In the process, he’s able to rectify the mistake he made with his Uncle Ben: He protects and saves his loved ones—Mary Jane, Aunt May, and Gwen—but at the cost of his life.
I remember setting down the final issue of the story, smiling but with a tinge of sadness. More than just about any other superhero—including Batman, which is saying something—Spider-Man rarely caught a break. He’s perpetually tired from his responsibilities, to the point that he never quite gets any of those responsibilities completely right, something to which I can relate. His relationships are strained. He’s perpetually broke. A lot has been made about him having terrible luck, all of which I won’t recount here. He has suffered loss upon loss to the point that no one would blame him if he were to turn to the dark side or just give up superheroics altogether.
And yet, he doesn’t. In Death of Spider-Man, Peter is, by all accounts, dying and fighting a battle that will end his life. He knows this and even has a moment where he just goes to sleep. But he doesn’t. He keeps pressing forward. There are so many times in stories spanning the character’s 53 year history that he wants to do the easy thing, the wrong thing, and, despite this conflict within, he digs deep and does what he knows is the right thing, even if it’s difficult.
Aristotle said in Nicomachean Ethics that doing the Good comes from habit. You do the Good over and over until it becomes second-nature. If you are struggling with doing the right thing, you haven’t achieved the highest level that you can. I disagree with that whole-heartedly. Humans are complex creatures, not habit machines. We have inner turmoil. We have storms within us that try to push us to do that which we know might be ill-advised or wrong. When you can dig in and do what you know is right despite your all-too-human urges to do what is easy, that, to me, is the true essence of heroism. And it’s something that writers of the character, from Bendis on back, capture perfectly.
When I read Death of Spider-Man, I was going through a dark night of the soul myself, something with which the wall-crawler himself is familiar, and I was reevaluating my life and whether some of my efforts were even worth the energy. And then I remembered Spider-Man’s mantra: With great power comes great responsibility. Corny or not, it rings true still. We only have one responsibility in this world: to try to help and do right by one another. Everything else flows from that.
Thanks for joining for another installment of Flashback Friday, folks! Let’s go do some good.