MHAM: ‘We All Have Powers’: Grief and Trauma in the Spider-Man Films

This article contains spoilers for the Spider-Man films

When the character of Peter Parker and his superhero persona Spider-Man was created by comic book writers and artists Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the early 1960s, they were excited about the concept of a superhero who wasn’t completely invincible. Peter Parker is a regular teenager from the Queens borough of New York City struggling with financial issues, the long-lasting effects of losing his parents when he was a kid, and trying to find a place where he fits in within his high school. He just so happened to have been bit by a radioactive spider, causing him to inherit superpowers. 

We’ve seen three different prominent portrayals of Peter Parker in the past 20 years: Tobey Maguire in the early 2000s Spider-Man trilogy directed by Sam Raimi, Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man and it’s sequel both directed by Marc Webb, and Tom Holland in the current series directed by Jon Watts, starting with Spider-Man: Homecoming and Holland’s appearance in Captain America: Civil War. In the 2018 animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which follows Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) as he becomes his own version of Spider-Man, we are introduced to two Peter Parkers from alternate universes: Peter Parker (Chris Pine) and Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson). Although these adaptations take their own unique approaches to Peter’s story (and the introduction of Miles’), they each explore how the character consistently experiences loss, grief, and trauma, and how those things affect how he evolves as a character and person. 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

In Spider-Man, the first film of the Sam Raimi trilogy, the primary focus is introducing the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) with his infamous superhero origin story. A crucial part of that story is the death of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), who is shot by a robber trying to flee the scene of the crime. In this adaptation, Ben and Peter get into an argument in the car mere hours before, after Ben expresses concern over recent changes in Peter’s behavior. Naturally, he assumes Peter’s stress is due to the usual overwhelming aspects of growing up, unaware of his sudden superpowers. This is when Ben tells him that just because he has the ability to beat up his high school bully, doesn’t mean he should, because “with great power comes great responsibility.” Although this line is undoubtedly the most famous in the Spider-Man series, I would argue that just as much importance lies in Ben telling Peter in that same conversation, “These are the years when a man changes into the man he’s going to become the rest of his life.”

That line, combined with Peter’s guilt about his last interaction with his Uncle and not stopping the robber, acts as a precipice in Spider-Man’s origin story. Between trying to figure out what to do with his newfound abilities and finishing school, Peter has very little time to actually process the shock of his Uncle’s sudden death. He finds himself in a position where he has to grow up quickly, attempting to stay strong for his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and maintain some sense of normality. Peter’s motivations as Spider-Man become more realized, allowing him a platform to seek justice and prevent others from harm or experiencing losses of their own. Taking on a role as a “vigilante crime fighter” is his act of grieving. In acknowledging the responsibility he has with his powers and the kind of man he could become by doing good, Peter is simultaneously honoring his Uncle and finding purpose in all that he’s capable of.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

However, Peter’s guilt doesn’t go away easily – if anything, it’s elevated by the choices he makes throughout the rest of the trilogy. In Spider-Man 3, his best friend Harry (James Franco) is determined to avenge the death of his father Norman/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), the villain who was unintentionally killed by Spider-Man in the first film. When he learns that Peter is Spider-Man, it shatters him. Harry attempts to use his father’s Green Goblin tech to go after Peter, but in a chaotic fight through the alleyways of New York, he eventually crashes and receives a blow to the head, resulting in temporary amnesia. Peter has to reckon with the fact that not only was he responsible for what happened to his best friend’s father, but that he unintentionally hurt Harry himself. 

At the same time, Peter and Aunt May learn from the police that a recently escaped convict was the one who actually killed Uncle Ben; the robber that Peter failed to stop was only an accomplice. Which means that Peter physically threatened an innocent man until he fell from a second story window to his death. Although he’s infuriated with the police, he also feels immense shame for his own actions. Peter has to question whether or not he’s actually a good man and truly following the advice his Uncle gave him that acted as his primary motivation as Spider-Man. 

In one of the final scenes in the film, Peter fights to save Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) from the construction site where Eddie (Topher Grace) – as his antagonist persona Venom – is holding her captive. Just when he thinks he doesn’t have it in him to win the fight, Harry arrives and jumps in to save Peter, sacrificing his life. After learning that his father’s death was an accident, his resentment toward Peter turns into forgiveness. Therefore, allowing Peter the kindness to finally grieve everything he didn’t have time to process before. As he and Mary Jane cry over Harry’s body, it feels like they’re mourning all of the losses they’ve had to immediately recover and become strong from over the last few years. It’s a rare sort of vulnerability not often shown in superhero films of the same era. 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

In The Amazing Spider-Man, the first installment in the duo of Spider-Man films directed by Marc Webb, we are once again introduced to the character’s origin story. Only this time, a prominent theme is Peter (Andrew Garfield) being burdened with trying to come to terms with his identity – one that is heavily influenced by the loss of his parents and not fully knowing what happened to them. As he learns more about his father and his scientific work from his former co-worker Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans), it’s clear that Peter and his father had more in common than he even realized. Being a bit of an outcast with a passion for science, he finds confidence in the anonymity he’s granted while taking on the role of Spider-Man, and feels a comfort in developing gadgets and conducting experiments to better understand his powers. 

Similarly to the previous Spider-Man films, there’s a visible change in Peter after Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) is killed. It feels like he’s lost another part of him, one that he perhaps took for granted. At the same time, he is driven to fully commit to being a vigilante and doing good with the inherited powers he didn’t choose to have. Peter understands the complexities of what it means to be Spider-Man. On one hand, it’s a curse – completely uprooting the life he knew and guaranteeing that he and his loved ones may always be in danger. On the other hand, it’s an immense privilege. He has the opportunity to help people and protect the city that feels as much a part of him as anything else. In the process of trying to find out who his father was, Peter ultimately found himself. 

This process carries on through The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which further explores the relationship between Peter and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), the heart and core of an otherwise chaotic film. Peter struggles with his promise to her father to stay away from her, which he asked Peter to do because being a part of Spider-Man’s life would place Gwen directly in harm’s way. Naturally, that’s a difficult promise to keep when the two fall in love, and it’s evident that Gwen understands Peter like no one else does. After building up the importance of what the characters mean to each other, it’s shocking to watch the scene in the clocktower when Peter tries to save Gwen from falling through the rubble. Just when he thinks he has a grip on her with his web, she violently hits the ground, snapping her neck. Peter is forced to watch the most important person in his life die in his arms after he failed to save her. We know this is a traumatic event that he’s not likely to ever fully recover from. After all, the effects of trauma are long-lasting, and manifest in ways a person may not even recognize as symptomatic of their experience. It’s a constantly evolving, constantly changing thing that becomes tethered to your identity in difficult to define ways.

Image courtesy of Marvel Studios/Sony Pictures

In Spider-Man: Far from Home directed by Jon Watts, Peter (Tom Holland) readjusts to life after the events of Avengers: Infinity War, in which he was one of the victims of Thanos’ snap, and Avengers: Endgame, in which he helped fight the biggest battle the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever seen. The latter also included him having to witness his mentor and father-figure Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a.k.a. Iron Man, sacrifice his life. When Tony found Peter, he had a profound impact on his life and the choices he made as Spider-Man. He gave him the opportunity to become a part of something greater than himself, The Avengers, and find allies in people who had their own powers and traumatic experiences. 

One of the major differences between this version of the character and those we’ve seen previously is his introduction into the broader world of Marvel characters and their stories. This Peter/Spider-Man is heavily influenced by his relationships with other superheroes, and is arguably better by knowing and receiving guidance from them. He doesn’t have to deal with the weight of Tony’s death or being involved in such a brutal, high-stakes battle on his own. Although he has a family of his own with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and his friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and M.J. (Zendaya), The Avengers become a second family that knows firsthand the burden that’s carried when the fate of the world is your responsibility. 

Image courtesy of Marvel Studios/Sony Pictures

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, similarly delves into what it means to find other people who are like you and understand what you’ve been through. We’re introduced to the character of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) on screen for the first time, and witness his unique journey to becoming a new Spider-Man. After being bit by a radioactive spider and realizing he has unusual abilities, Miles goes back to the abandoned subway station where he was bit, and finds the Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Chris Pine) we’re all familiar with fighting the villain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Peter recognizes that Miles’ has powers with his “Spidey-senses”, and before getting killed by Kingpin, makes him promise that he will keep the key to the particle accelerator safe. 

The entire city mourns Spider-Man’s death in one of the most powerful scenes in the film, featuring a eulogy given by Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz):

“My husband, Peter Parker, was an ordinary person. He always said it could’ve been anyone behind the mask. He was just the kid who happened to get bit. He didn’t ask for his powers, but he chose to be Spider-Man. My favorite thing about Peter is that he made us each feel powerful. We all have powers of one kind or another. But in our own way, we are all Spider-Man. And we’re all counting on you.”

Miles is inspired to honor Peter’s legacy, and become the next hero to step into the suit, leading him to meet an array of different Spider-Man characters from alternate universes, including his new mentor, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), and friend Gwen Stacy/Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld). Each of them embodies what Mary Jane spoke about in her speech; they were all ordinary people who were given an opportunity to choose to do good for the world.

As Carmen Maria Machado writes in her essay collection In the Dream House, “We deserve our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity.” Seeing a cultural icon and important character such as Spider-Man make mistakes and experience grief and trauma time and time again, makes his status as a “hero” feel even more earned. Even through someone so fantastical, we see that it’s possible to grow from the things that hurt you, and find power in that growth even when it seems impossible.