In comics it is a well-known fact that very few characters stay dead. Heroes and villains are regularly revived, even if publishers have made it clear that the character’s demise is permanent, and death is merely a phase or a brief pause in an ongoing journey.
Yet despite a revolving door of resurrections, there are a handful of notable characters who will always stay dead. One of these characters is Ben Parker, the uncle of Peter Parker aka Spider-Man.
Uncle Ben’s death is an important part of the Spider-Man mythology and he is always fated to die. But why? Why did Uncle Ben die in the comics and why does he continue to die in the Spider-Man movies?
Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962)
Amazing Fantasy issue #15 is the comic which launched Spider-Man into the world, introducing the iconic character and establishing his backstory. In this issue, Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, is given extraordinary abilities, and adopts the persona of Spider-Man.
In Amazing Fantasy issue #15, Peter also loses his Uncle Ben. A burglar attempts to rob the Parker household and Ben dies as a result.
But Ben’s death isn’t a footnote in the Spider-Man mythology, it is a key plot point and one that the comics return to again and again. But why?
Well, prior to Ben’s death and unbeknown to him, Peter crosses paths with his uncle’s killer. The soon-to-be murderer steals some money and while Spider-Man has the opportunity to catch him, he chooses not to, believing that it is someone else’s responsibility.
Shortly after Spider-Man brushes off the incident, the criminal attempts to burgle the Parker residence, which leads to Ben’s death. It is only later, when Spider-Man catches up with the burglar, that he realises he could have averted the whole situation had he stepped in when he had the chance.
In this moment, Peter learns an important lesson about power and responsibility. That those who have the power to help others should ensure they do so at every opportunity.
Moving forward, this mantra remains at the core of everything that Spider-Man does and for Peter to learn this lesson, Uncle Ben has to die and remain dead. If the character is ever revived, then Spider-Man’s reason for helping out everyone – no matter what the situation – is lost and he is no longer the same hero.
And this is something which has carried through into the Spider-Man movie series.
In 2002’s Spider-Man, Peter is bitten by a genetically altered spider which gives him a number of unique, superhuman abilities. These abilities provide Peter with a newfound confidence, but this confidence also gives birth to arrogance and the belief that he can do what he wants – with no consequences.
Seeing a change in Peter’s attitude, but chalking it up to adolescence, Uncle Ben steps in to offer his nephew some advice. He makes it clear to Peter that with great power there must also come great responsibility and no matter the choices that Peter makes as he becomes an adult, he must understand this.
Peter does not heed Uncle Ben’s words, and instead continues on a path of self-fulfilment. He enters a wrestling match, in order to win enough money to buy a car, which he hopes will impress his classmate and neighbour, Mary-Jane Watson.
But once the match is over, the promoter refuses to pay Peter in full. In turn, when the promotor is robbed, Peter refuses to step in and stop the thief – seeing it as a justifiable outcome to the situation.
Allowing the thief to escape seems like a trivial matter to Peter, but it has larger ramifications than he could predict. The thief soon crosses paths with Uncle Ben, and Peter’s uncle is shot and killed.
Ben dies because Peter chooses not to take responsibility. He believes the promotor has wronged him, and therefore deserves everything he gets.
Only when Uncle Ben dies, does Peter realise the ramifications of his actions. As he takes his first steps towards becoming a super hero, it is the death of Uncle Ben that motivates him to do better.
And this is lesson that is revisited in The Amazing Spider-Man.
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Following an argument with Uncle Ben, a recently ‘powered up’ Peter decides to blow off some steam and visits a convenience store. When he comes to make a purchase, he is a little short on money and has a disagreement with the store owner who refuses to waive the difference in price.
The store owner is then robbed at gunpoint by a man posing as a customer. Peter witness the robbery, but chooses to do nothing to stop it.
The armed robber leaves the store and heads into the street. Peter has the opportunity to intervene, but chooses not to because the store owner didn’t help Peter when he was short on cash.
As the thief attempts to get away, he runs into Uncle Ben. A shot is fired and Ben is killed.
Ben dies because Peter fails to act. Peter has the ability to take control of the situation, but chooses not to because he doesn’t feel like he should.
The incident mirrors the one played out in Amazing Fantasy issue #15, as well as the one depicted in Spider-Man (2002). The events leading up to Ben’s death are different, but the result is always the same – Ben dies because Peter shrugs off his responsibilities.
As a super human, Peter can do things that ordinary people cannot do. Having power is a privilege and it should not be taken for granted.
In the comics and in two live-action Spider-Man movies, Uncle Ben dies to reinforce the importance of helping those in need. His death changes Peter Parker’s destiny, and puts him on a path towards heroism.
If Uncle Ben’s death doesn’t enter the equation, then Peter remains an arrogant teen with super powers. No moral is injected into the story and he doesn’t become a crimefighter.
For Peter to become a hero, Uncle Ben must die and he must remain dead. This lesson appears time and time again and will continue to be a part of the Spider-Man movie mythology, even if it is not featured in every movie, because it shapes the character.
If you would like to explore this subject further, I have written a post called ‘What is Spider-Man’s mantra?’. The post covers a similar topic as the one featured here, but it highlights the wise words that Peter follows as he maintains his commitment to power and responsibility.
And if you would like more information about the Spider-Man movies, then check out one of the recommended reads below.