A Story about Fathers

I hadn’t watched Spider-Man (2002) since remarrying in 2013. The last time I saw it, my stepson was my girlfriend’s kid and I was introducing him to it when he was 10.

Flash forward five years to the present. The whole family is watching Spider-Man. Uncle Ben drops off Peter at the downtown library and is trying to find out why his nephew has become so secretive. When Uncle Ben says, “I know I’m not your father—” and Peter cuts him off with, “Then stop trying to be!”, well, that was hard to hear.

As far as I can tell, the moment went right by the children. They were caught up in the film and didn’t notice the parallel. My wife did. She quietly took my hand and squeezed.

When you’re an adoptive or stepfather, nothing is ever given to you on credit. Every single piece of love, respect, and admiration must be earned.

Because the threat of “You’re not my real dad!” is ever-present, waiting like a jaguar to pounce from a tree branch and disembowel your credibility as a parent. Even perfect kids like Peter Parker are willing to use it.

As he got out of the car, I was silently begging Peter to apologize. I knew what would happen next, but I tried to use my will to rewrite the story.

Please, Pete, I thought. Please say you’re sorry. Please tell him you didn’t mean that. Don’t let that be the last thing he ever hears from you.

But of course, Peter doesn’t apologize. He leaves his verbal knife sticking in his uncle’s heart, and several hours later, Uncle Ben is dead at the hands of a thief Peter had a chance to stop and didn’t.

Peter Parker is a good kid, and he feels immense regret at the things he said and how they turned out. And as an adoptive and stepfather, I feel terrible for him because I know he didn’t mean it.

But the basic truth of not being the biological father remains. You have to earn every piece of the child’s love. You don’t get any for free.

And that’s really hard. Parenting is a difficult business as it is. The crouching jaguar always waiting for the step-parent is cruel.

Spider-Man is an interesting film. Despite driving an emotional knife through Uncle Ben’s heart and then unintentionally abetting his murder, Peter Parker internalizes his stepfather’s most important lesson: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter transforms from a kid with freaky powers into Spider-Man because Ben Parker was a good father. He taught his adopted son right from wrong and the call to service, so that, when fate bestowed great power on Peter, he chose to do good.

Contrast that with Norman Osbourne. Like Peter, he starts the film as obsessive and self-absorbed. Unlike Peter, he doesn’t grow. He descends into madness, motivated purely by greed and the lure of power.

And like Ben Parker taught the values of responsibility and helping others to Peter, Norman teaches his own son to be like him.

Harry Osbourne is Peter’s friend, but he dates Mary Jane behind Pete’s back, knowing how Peter feels about her. And his concern for MJ seems to focus largely on the status she can bring him. She’s beautiful, she’s fun, and she looks good on his arm. He wants her to impress his father, because Harry hero-worships his dad and wants his approval. Norman is the biological father, so he gets everything on credit; he doesn’t have to earn Harry’s love and admiration, even though he deserves none of it. He’s a terrible father who doesn’t believe in his son, and he treats Peter – his son’s best friend – better just because Peter is a good science student.

And when Norman says horrible things about Mary Jane, Harry doesn’t defend her. He backs his father instead. When Norman is killed by the very weapon he was attempting to use to murder Peter, Harry blames Spider-Man, not his father.

Harry has little to offer the world besides the money he got from his dad. And all he wants it for is to have an apartment in the city and to buy Mary Jane pretty things so that she will like him. He allows Peter to live with him, but he otherwise doesn’t use his wealth for any positive purpose.

Meanwhile, Peter truly cares for Mary Jane – not because he wants her for a girlfriend (although he does), but because he loves her. He comforts her when her own father abuses her. He takes two buses and a cab to show up at her audition to see if it went well. He consoles her and offers to buy her dinner when he learns things went poorly. He confesses his feelings to her in a way that makes her feel worthy of love for the first time in her life. And he refuses to be her boyfriend, because he believes that’s what he must do to protect her.

Peter Parker loves. Harry Osbourne just wants.

And they both get it from their father.

Spider-Man has been my favorite superhero for nearly as long as I can remember. I have often identified with Peter’s everyman struggle just to make it in a world that seems designed to work against him, his constant battle to make the world better even though the effort is largely thwarted and unappreciated.

But as I watched Sam Raimi’s 2002 masterpiece, I realized my life has changed. I may want to be Spider-Man, but I can be Uncle Ben. I have three children, none of whom I sired. They are all teenagers struggling to figure out who they want to be. I may not be their biological father, but I can still teach them great power does indeed come with great responsibility; it’s not just a catchphrase in a comic book.

And if they sting me with “You’re not my real dad!”, if they unleash that always-lurking jaguar from the trees, that doesn’t actually change the truth. Fathering is more than creating children; it is raising them.

Peter Parker is wrong. “This story,” he says in the film’s opening voiceover narration, “like any story worth telling, is about a girl.”

It’s not about a girl. Spider-Man is a story about fathers. One makes a villain. The other shapes a hero.

I aspire to be Uncle Ben.


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