Spider-Man and Science:

Exactly Who is Responsible Enough for Great Power?

Spider-Man is kind of unique amongst superheroes in his relationship with science. No, not the science of how he actually swings on those webs without dislocating his shoulders or ripping his arms out of their sockets. (Although that’s a fair question.) Nor the science of how he got turned into a superhero in the first place, which I’ll accept as a bit of comic book “magic”. But what place science occupies in his world, particularly with regards to power and villains.

It’s hard to find one example of a “good” scientist in the Marvel universe, when you really think about it. Bruce Banner comes close, but even he went the way of Prometheus eventually, allowing his ambition to consume him with tragic consequences. Tony Stark is more of a technician and engineer than a pure scientist. But all the other scientists in Spider-Man are just plain evil. Doc Ock and The Lizard have, of course, been featured very prominently in the recent movies, so they have a suitably prominent place in the current generation’s understanding of Marvel, particularly Spidey. They’re clearly archetypes but something about their villainy always seems out of place and disturbing to me.

The truth is that I spent more than half of my academic life in the sciences, being around scientists and even training to be one myself. Then I spent another decade as science professor, representing a certain field of science to many classes of students. So, while I might be ambivalent about continuing that work and certainly I greatly prefer my new life in the humanities, I have seen the man behind the curtain, and I still speak the secret language.

Guess what? Other than some kooks and some unquestionably huge egos, scientists are like any other group of people. Some smarter than others, some more well rounded then others, some conservative, some liberal, some tall, some short, etc. The point is that there really isn’t a “scientist” type in my experience. And are kookiness and big egos found only in science? Hardly. Those types are in sports, business, the humanities, and everywhere else. So what makes ambition and ego a virtue, say, in elite sports, and a path to the Dark Side in science?

This is a very old stereotype in western culture, and it’s not my original observation by a long shot, but it’s worth mentioning. Scientists occupy the space in our culture once dominated by Wizards and Priests. There really wasn’t any science as we know it, anyway, until the renaissance. There were scholars of language and (especially) of theology and history and what they would call “natural science” (mainly naming things) but somehow those pursuits were seen as benign and harmless.  But when modern science came around, when western scholars started to re-learn what the Greeks had figured out centuries before with the help of their Muslim neighbours, gradually public opinion turned on them. The difference seemed to be that these guys had a power over the natural world that must have seemed like magic. They could start fires, cause explosions, see ships miles away and even talk about other planets as if they knew them. This is frightening stuff to the illiterate mind, and the category that seemed most appropriate for these puffy-pantalooned gentlemen was “Wizard”. They wrote myths about these guys, about how their flirtation with power would lead to their doom and the doom of everyone else (Faust, anyone?). The forces that they understood were mysterious, and therefore dangerous, as the public saw them.

If there’s one constant in western civilization, it seems to be that lack of knowledge leads to fear. (And for the rest of that syllogism I refer you to Yoda.)

All fine and dandy for the 16th century, but surely we’ve made some progress these days, haven’t we? In the late 19th century we started to see the scientist as an over eager rich hobbyist, driven by obsessive thoughts (just like artists or business people, I hasten to add) that lead them into dangerous places, such as in HG Wells’ The Time Machine. Albert Einstein certainly did quite a bit to rehabilitate the image of science and scientists by creating this character of a shuffling, wise-cracking old kook, which somewhat defanged the supposedly dangerous power of a scientist. The great irony is that the science he brought into the world really was dangerous, and really did lead to a deadly flirtation with almost inconceivable forces of destruction. The response, in the 1950s, seemed to be to wed that scientist type to a military industrial complex (because they MUST be on the side of the angels) and make him the most boring type of person you can possibly imagine. White shirts, black ties, crew cut, home for dinner and wash the car on Saturday. That’s the only scientist we can tolerate, because society has essentially emasculated him, making him so completely harmless in his private life that his government-approved research couldn’t possibly be dangerous.

Certainly by the time Peter Parker got his spider bite in the 1960s, “radioactive” was the code-word for some evil scientist somewhere in a government lab (and trusting the government was rapidly becoming out of fashion, too), messing around with forces beyond our control. Notice how the radioactive spider in question came from legitimate scientific investigation, not, at least originally, some sort of evil “type”. It’s the science itself that the original Stan Lee creation seemed to be accusing.

Because the difference between Spidey and the Hulk, morally, is that Bruce Banner was asking for it and Peter Parker just happened to be wandering by with his camera. Later, She Hulk Jennifer Walters was also one of those “innocent victims” of science and misadventure. The power that those magical science forces conferred on them was no different than what they conferred on a villain, and though Bruce is somewhat morally ambiguous, Peter and Jennifer are innocents. Either way, they’re not so much using science to achieve any sort of goal as much as they wandered into the monster’s field of vision.

The villains, however, always seem to be using science to do something, or at least they SAY they are, namely to “improve the human race”. In the sixties it was about harnessing some sort of radioactive or nuclear power. In the 2000s it was genetic engineering. The modern films, including the one coming out this week, link science to corporate greed, a pairing that makes all too much sense in the public imagination. There’s even a deeper well of fear and resentment towards science that the modern versions hint at.

Take Curt Connors from 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man. Does anyone really have an objection to someone with an amputation re-growing their lost limb? Or for that matter someone who is paralyzed regain the use of their body? Or someone with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s regaining some or all of their lost brain function? So, what exactly was Curt Connors’ crime? Having a British accent? (Using too much question mark-based rhetoric?) For that matter, Otto Octavius wasn’t an inherently evil person, either. By the 2000s films he was doing what all “good” scientists were supposed to be doing in those days, namely finding new energy sources.

With Connors, and with the attempt to create “super soldiers” that appears not only in Oscorp but in the world of Captain America (Hail Hydra), there’s a rather obvious resonance back to the Nazis and eugenics. That deeply flawed and utterly simplistic way of viewing genetics and inheritance was a great example, to quote Eric Idle, of some irresponsible folks with an axe to grind “grabbing the wrong end of the stick and proceeding to beat about the bush with it.” Science, like religion I hasten to add, can be used to justify some pretty awful things. That doesn’t make science the party at fault. Everything about eugenics was really, really bad science (I use it as an example when I teach evolution). But I find it amazing how many people still believe some of those principles (like the idea that a complex trait like sexuality, or eye colour, or temperament, or intelligence, can be traced to the inheritance of one gene). It stands to reason that after that experience and the war that followed from it we would be, as a culture, a little suspicious of anyone who claims that they’re trying to “improve humanity”.

Surely, though, we can agree that regrowing a limb or healing a paralyzed patient is a valid use of science. It might make us feel uncomfortable because of the Nazi connotations, but I don’t see that as a strong enough reason to label someone who does that research “evil”. Curt Connors wasn’t any more evil that Otto Octavius or Bruce Banner. But they’re scientists, and because they’re the cultural descendants of the afore-mentioned puffy pantalooned wizards, society won’t give them a pass. Unless they save the world or something, and even then they’re never above deep suspicion of the uncurious, ignorant or rigid. Just ask Robert Oppenheimer.

Spider-Man, as we mentioned before, gets his power through a scientific accident that was not of his own choosing. Therefore he gets a pass. If Peter Parker had been a keen young science student who was absolutely brilliant and came up with some super strength potion in his bedroom, even if he used the power to do heroic things, he would still be tarnished goods.

Such is the almost anti-intellectual caste of the scientific representation in Spider-Man, and in Marvel products in general. (An exception is Joss Whedon’s Avengers, in which Banner is called upon for both his scientific skills and his “giant green rage monster”. You might say that another exception is Professor Xavier, but he is also a powerful mutant, whose energies are directed to a specific purpose in aid of his community.) The recent Ultimate Spider-Man makes some moves towards a deeper incorporation of the scientific principles but they may as well invoke a “reverse tachyon pulse” or the ratio of unicorns to leprechauns for all the scientific accuracy that stuff has. It’s still just invoked as a form of magic.

The actual take-home message of science in the Spider-Man world is a familiar one, by that classic American philosopher Prof S. Lieber: “With great power, comes great responsibility”. That responsibility, or so Spider-Man teaches us, cannot be put into the hands of a very intelligent and ambitious professional (Otto Ocatvius) or someone with a British accent who wears glasses (Curt Connors), but it’s okay with a relatively naive high school student with a traumatic family past. I look forward to the day when someone other than a goofy, endearing but limited expression of the American identity can be judged worthy of the responsibility.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


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1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed your article and agreed with many points. I just wanted to point out that Peter Parker is not just an involuntary science experiment, but a scientific genius as well. Parker personally invented the wrist-bound cannons that function as his webslingers, created a chemical component which is vastly sticky and cohesive but dissolves over a short duration of time, and designed and built his costume (less sciencey and more wowza) which included a complex web design over a spandex body suit, some kind of lens, and a cartridge belt.

    All of this while in high school. The real tragedy is that Peter Parker never pursued a scientific career, or ever marketed his gadgets to law enforcement agencies. He might have done a lot to advance society on a grander scale.

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