Spidey Shrugged

by Tom Ingram

With great power comes great responsibility

It’s a famous quotation. It explains, in one sentence, the core motivation of Spider-Man and countless other superheroes. They have abilities far beyond those of a regular human, and they feel morally obligated to serve humanity as a whole with those abilities. Even when they don’t want to, and even when serving humanity causes them to suffer a great loss, they keep doing it, because to do otherwise would be to condemn people to their deaths. There’s a strange contradiction to his way of doing business, though. In order to understand it, you have to understand Spidey’s creator.

Spider-Man was created by Steve Ditko, the man responsible for my favourite comic book characters. Ditko is an Objectivist, and it shows in his Mr. A comics and The Question (pre-Denny O’Neil). Objectivism takes a healthy emphasis on individuality and stretches it out to occasionally ridiculous proportions. Thus, welfare and other social services are seen as looting and robbery, essentially the use of force to coerce the strong into helping the weak. Objectivists hold that using moral guilt to force someone in a position of power to help you is tantamount to slavery.

So Spider-Man’s self-imposed moral code is something that most Objectivists would sneer at. Spidey himself is too naive for his powers–he gets taken in by the collectivist idea that a man must sacrifice himself for his brothers. He’s a slave to a system that uses its twisted “morality” to keep him from using his own abilities to better himself. Instead, he swings from building to building, seeking out evildoers to the detriment of his social life, his academics, and his romance with Mary Jane. Uncle Ben himself is one of the small-minded looters who perpetuates this poisonous ideology of altruism. “With great power comes great responsibility” is a crock. If we were to take the philosophy at its word, we would still be living in wooden huts, burning buffalo fat for our survival.

I kid, of course. It is interesting, though, that the philosophy behind Spider-Man is completely incompatible with Ditko’s own philosophy. It’s a similar story for other characters. Superman is really Clark Kent, the awkward reporter. Superman is something he does in his spare time because he believes it’s his moral obligation. Iron Man tries to get out of the weapons business because he doesn’t want his creations used for evil. I don’t know about the comics, but the movie shows a struggle between a post-epiphany Tony and his business partners who have the “every man for himself” mentality. Batman could qualify, but it seems to me that his crimefighting is as much obsessive insanity as moral impetus. For something more recent, Harry Dresden has the same mentality.

Across the board, we see heroes who use their abilities to protect the weak because they couldn’t live with themselves if they didn’t. This is invariably presented as something noble. It looks like traditional heroics are simply incompatible with the strongly-stated individualism that comes with being an Objectivist. Is this a failing of Objectivism, or is there something wrong with our ideas of heroism?