It is common knowledge that Spider-Man’s heroism is driven by the realization that “with great power comes great responsibility,” but that tagline hasn’t always existed in that form. In the first appearance of Spider-Man in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15, the final panel of the story introducing the new superhero is overrun with words. It says, “a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come – – great responsibility!” [punctuation as it appears in the original].
That phrasing is a little different from the more streamlined version we are used to today, and frankly, I think that phrasing difference matters, and says something about how Spider-Man has evolved in our cultural consciousness and our expectations about the intersections between power and responsibility.
Even before Stan Lee and Steve Ditko collaborated on Amazing Fantasy, some version of a statement about the connection between great power and great responsibility had circulated for decades previously. Lee was probably familiar with the version Franklin Delano Roosevelt drafted before his death, which asserts “great power involves great responsibility.”
If a student of mine used that verb “involves,” I would circle it and ask just how the two are involved. That statement is modified in Lee’s version, which instead exhorts that responsibility “must also come” with power. Lee’s version is an entreaty rather than a simple statement, while FDR’s statement connects and correlates the two ideas without suggesting what relationship they have to each other.
Lee and Ditko’s version in the context of Peter’s realization about how he should use his great power, and what it will mean to him, becomes a statement about what Peter has been wrong about, and a need to step up to the proverbial plate. The inclusion of the word “must” makes the final, extremely wordy panel of the story seem urgent. Peter needs to take the responsibility he had been shirking.
Interestingly, as Spider-Man’s line gets simplified to “with great power comes great responsibility” in later versions of Spider-Man’s origin story, the statement returns from the exhortation using the word “must,” to an assertion of fact. As in Roosevelt’s statement, this later and more famous incarnation of Spider-Man’s tagline seems a simple observation of fact that these two things go together.
I see this as an evolution of what the word “responsibility” means in this context. The urgent need is no longer there, because the responsibility arrives automatically. It comes with the power like a free lipstick with purchase. The ability to take that responsibility is no longer in Peter’s control. Instead, whether or not he will take it seriously is the question.
The tagline also develops to be attributed to Peter’s Uncle Ben. In 1962, it is a caption in Stan Lee’s heavy-handed narrator voice that tells readers in the final panel of the comic that Peter became “aware at last” that great responsibility “must come” with his new great power. In Bendis’s 2000’s Ultimate Spider-Man, in contrast, after Peter defeats his Uncle Ben’s murderer and recognizes him for a crook he failed to stop earlier in the story, he remembers his Uncle Ben telling him, “Great things are going to happen to you in your life, Peter. Great things. And with that will come great responsibility.” Uncle Ben isn’t the kind of guy to melodramatically talk about power, but he is certainly someone who wants Peter to understand responsibility. It makes sense that he would see the two going hand in hand, feeling only the need to point it out to Peter rather than exhorting him to recognize his responsibility as a thing he must acknowledge.
This shift in the framing for Peter’s realization, that will drive the character to super heroism ever after, is telling. The realization that in Lee and Ditko’s original conception was something Peter realized alone, is instead placed in the mouth of a beloved paternal figure, one whom Peter has just lost and feels guilty about. That has the potential to change the role of the realization and thus the resolve to become a hero.
If he is remembering it as something Uncle Ben has told him, is it, in fact, something of which he is “aware at last?” or rather something that he knew all along and decides to live up to after all? Or something he might not even agree with, but will honor in Ben’s memory? In any event, Peter’s motivation for becoming a superhero becomes something that Ben once told him, rather than something he realizes for himself.
If I was only a very slightly different person, I’d be taking this paragraph to talk about the super-ego and possibly also parenting, and how a general sense of responsibility toward society is replaced by the idea that Peter should specifically live up to a paternal figure’s ideal.
In the 2002 movie Spider-Man, the aphorism gets even more explicitly linked to Uncle Ben and his memory as it is repeated over and again during the movie. In Raimi’s film, the important line “with great power comes great responsibility,” honed to clarity, is heard three times. First, Uncle Ben says it aloud to Peter during an argument. Later, Peter remembers that scene in a flashback and the audience hears the line in Uncle Ben’s voice again. Then, ultimately, Peter thinks it himself in a voiceover monologue at the end of the movie, having internalized the message from his paternal figure.
Overall, I think in each of these versions, in a variety of comics retellings and animated TV shows, and in the other Spider-Man film series that followed Raimi’s, the phrasing of the relationship between power and responsibility is telling, because it conveys how Peter Parker thinks of responsibility and what we are to expect of his relationship to his own power.