Copyright 2012 Doing the Right Thing
A Tangled Web
By: John S. Ehrett|Published: July 9, 2012 3:49 PM
“Character is doing the right thing when nobody's looking. There are too many people who think that the only thing that's right is to get by, and the only thing that's wrong is to get caught.”
J. C. Watts is correct. Foundational to ethics is an individual’s commitment to doing the right thing, no matter what – even if no one happens to be watching.
This past week, “The Amazing Spider-Man” hit theaters. As a “reboot,” this film retold the Spider-Man origin story with a new cast and a new story. One of the biggest selling points of the movie was its much-ballyhooed “darker and grittier” tone. Unfortunately, “The Amazing Spider-Man” offers a deeply flawed understanding of moral behavior, sharply contrasting with the edifying themes of 2002’s “Spider-Man.”
The story of Spider-Man is the story of Peter Parker, a high-school student bitten by a genetically modified spider. After Peter’s tragic inaction results in the death of his Uncle Ben, he resolves to protect society as a masked superhero. Uncle Ben’s oft-quoted dictum – “with great power comes great responsibility” – is the core of Peter’s ethical understanding.
“Responsibility” is an increasingly unpopular concept in modern culture. To embrace responsibility requires that one embrace the possibility of self-sacrifice and self-denial. Even more crucially, responsibility must stem from an internal motivation to do the right thing; anything else is mere kowtowing to social pressures.
Throughout “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Peter appears to lack this internal motivation. Again and again, Peter’s “good actions” are shown to be either remedial (the equivalent of cleaning one’s room after being chastised for not doing so), vindictive, or contingent upon the requests of others.
In the closing scenes of 2002’s “Spider-Man,” Peter chooses not to pursue a relationship with the woman he loves. His reasoning? To do so would make her a target for Peter’s enemies. This altruistic impulse stems not from any external factors, but from a deep personal commitment to behave morally. The film’s final monologue drives this point home: “Whatever life holds in store for me, I will never forget these words: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ This is my gift, my curse.”
In the 2012 reboot, Peter faces a similar dilemma. Yet in this case, he is explicitly warned by the girl’s father to abstain from romance. Here, Peter’s incentive for moral behavior stems from a direct edict, not from personal convictions. However, the movie’s last scene undermines even this: in response to the statement “Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Peter leans forward and whispers to his love, “But those are the best kind!”
If these flaws were included as part of a maturing-character story arc, perhaps they would be understandable. But the producers of “The Amazing Spider-Man” seem determined at every turn to undermine the character’s traditional morality. Even the famous “with-great-power” line is mangled into something almost unrecognizable.
Responsibility, stemming from a strong sense of personal ethics, may not be particularly glamorous or groundbreaking…but it is critical to a successful society. It’s disheartening when even a simple superhero fable – a “modern myth,” if you will – disavows this underpinning.
Perhaps it’s time for Hollywood to reconsider its love of all things “dark and gritty” – if nothing else, affirming the importance of personal character might be a good place to start.