A Tale of Two Superheroes

Spider-Man, the Punisher & the Ethics of Power

To those visiting theaters this summer but not part of the comic book crowd, Spider-Man (swinging in June 30, 2004) and The Punisher (onscreen April 16, 2004) will seem like two of a kind: tough guys who like to wear tights and take out the villains.

To regular readers, Spider-Man and the Punisher could not be more different.

Hero definition
To Spider-Man, the Punisher’s violent vigilantism aggravates an already violent citywide crime culture; the Punisher sees Spider-Man as a weak-willed gadfly. Regular readers know that when these two meet, they will not likely be glad to see each other, for each has a radically different vision for how his power is to be used.

In the beginnings…
High school student Peter Parker is accidentally granted the proportional speed, strength, and agility of a spider. He uses his newfound powers to increase his social status and earn some fast money until his uncle and foster-father, Ben, is murdered by a petty thief Peter had allowed to escape. Peter decides then to devote his special talents to fighting crime and protecting the innocent.

The Punisher has a more sinister origin, but marked by similar personal anguish. Federal agent Frank Castle kills the son of a crime boss during a routine bust. The crime boss in turn has Frank’s wife and children executed. From that point on Frank pursues a ruthless vendetta.

And that’s where the similarities between the Punisher and Spider-Man essentially end.

Shalom meets Kill Bill?
Spider-Man’s goals are something approaching shalomthe Old Testament concept of peace and well-being that ought to characterize a redemptive community. Thus, Spider-Man takes a responsive approach to trouble, intervening only when someone needs help. When he’s not needed as Spider-Man, he takes off his mask and makes goo-goo eyes at Mary Jane Watson or plays practical jokes on his boss or simply earns a living.

The Punisher is motivated by revenge first and justice second, and his sense of justice has been tainted by his lust for revenge. He never stops; his quest for justice is never satisfied.

And yet, Frank Castle’s violent agenda creates a void that will undoubtedly be filled by another source of brutish power. He offers no positive agenda for his city—no way out of the forest of trouble that he’s helped to plant, no way to a place of rest.

The perils of power
The Punisher, like 1980s-era subway vigilante Bernard Goetz , is powerful, and his guns are aimed at bad guys, so we are invited to cheer him on. He has observed a true problem in the chronic crime facing his city, but his solution is clearly inadequate—if you think about it. He and we would benefit from reflecting on the ethics of power embraced by Spider-Man in the aftermath of his Uncle Ben’s death: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

That one sentence has, for forty years on the page, restrained Spider-Man from using his enormous power to wreak devastation, and has instead consistently directed him toward the redemption of his city. It is not surprising that Marvel Comics used Spider-Man to narrate the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, in Amazing Spider-Man #36 . Our hero, helpless to stop the devastation
that took place, vowed to help in the restoration of his city’s hope.

The hero in us
In the end, responsibility is more important than power because, for all our strengths, we are only one part of the world God has placed us in; each of us shares our world with equal others.

My wife and I both hate yardwork; thus, to leave it for my wife to do would be to elevate myself at her expense. I have a responsibility to tend to the needs of my home and my relationships.

The political practice of demonizing opposing parties has historically hamstrung efforts to tackle problems like healing racial relations and improving communities—not to mention how it paints subhuman portraits of very human fellow citizens.

Our agenda—no matter how powerful we find ourselves—cannot be to reshape the world in our limited image. We are rather given the responsibility from God to shepherd our world toward the common good, toward shalom, and that occurs as we submit whatever power we may have to the guidance of the Good Shepherd, who knows what we need and has the power to deliver.