“With great power comes great responsibility.” Everybody’s heard this quote and its many variations many times before. While it does belong to our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, it is a saying that every hero—whether in comic books or real life—embody. It is a simple quote that speaks to a big part of what it is to be a hero.
It captures a sense of noble martyrdom that transcends awesome spider powers and can be found in anybody standing up for what they think is right. To suffer greatly in an effort to fight for justice and their beliefs are something many great heroes in real life endure. In comic books, our heroes sacrifice so much to ensure that they continue fighting for what is right and they truly believe that their actions will better the world. Unfortunately, criminals and other notorious people can have that same sense of martyrdom, more accurately they have a martyr complex. For them, their goals and actions make sense and they are able to justify it by believing themselves to be heroes in their own stories.
In this piece we are going to look at three hero/villain dynamics that speak to this theme.
Peter Parker/Adrian Toomes
Tom Holland’s Spider-Man doesn’t say the exact quote and never even mentions Uncle Ben, but we do see the words echo in his motivations and actions. When we first see him in Civil War, he tells Tony that he feels responsible whenever something bad happens because he has the power to stop it and as Spider-Man, he’s “just looking out for the little guy”. Despite the lack of the famous quote, this Spider-Man is motivated by it and we can see his sense of nobility and moral strength.
The film’s villain, Adrian Toomes, can also be seen using the same motivation to justify him being the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming. In his eyes, he is sticking up for the little guy by stealing illegal weapons and selling them to the those who got laid off or were indirectly harmed by The Avengers. He believes what he is fighting for is right, and believes himself to be fighting for justice. Of course, he doesn’t realize that his actions have negative consequences, but he sees himself as a hero, a hero like Spider-Man. And, is willing to die on the proverbial hill, hence be a martyr for his cause.
If Bruce Wayne ain’t the poster boy for martyrdom, then I don’t know who is. The man is a billionaire bachelor with women swooning over him from left and right, but he still feels the need to risk it all to save Gotham. He could’ve had a comfortable existence with his excessive wealth and privilege, but he has a profound sense of justice he can’t ignore. He trained hard, confronted his fear of bats, and sacrificed meaningful relationships because he thought it was his responsibility too. To be a hero he has to sacrifice his body, personal life, and even sanity to fight so no other child will be orphaned due to petty crime like he was. He can’t sit idly by while the cops do their best because he believes he can do it better.
The Joker is not Batman, but they do compliment each other. No villain has ever been able to get under Batman’s skin like the Joker, and this is because they are so alike. He is the only one that can get to Batman because he sees Batman for what he truly is and he is the only one with guts to go after him in the way that he does. He also feels the need to sacrifice his body—his sanity is already out the window and for all we know, he has no personal life—to be the one to bring chaos to Gotham and challenge Batman. Chaos and madness is a part of humanity and the Joker does everything he can to remind the people of Gotham that. That is what drives him. Just as justice drives Batman, madness drives the Joker. Just like Bruce, he can’t sit idly by while other criminals do their best because he believes he can do it better. Unlike the rest, he is not afraid of dying.
Martyrdom is normally associated with those who suffer persecution and death for their religious beliefs. And there is no comic book hero more accurately defined than Matt Murdock. Unlike other heroes, Matt Murdock is largely motivated by his faith, often reciting scripture or turning to God in his time of need. This is a man who is constantly fighting for justice; by day he helps the people of Hell’s Kitchen as a lawyer and by night he fights for them as Daredevil. Both acts stem from the goodness of his character and his faith. However, one persona is responsible for giving him bruises, scars, and injuries that require medical attention. He may have heightened senses or not, but he’s still only human. This doesn’t stop him from fighting to save others, though. No matter how many times he falls, he always gets right back up to fight for what he believes in. He’s stubborn and self-righteous, he will die before giving up on his beliefs.
Wilson Fisk is stubborn and self-righteous too. He’s not nearly as noble or fair as Matt, but he believes he is right. He wants to save Hell’s Kitchen, but his way is corrupt and cruel. However, he sees it as necessary. He is not overly tempted to risk everything for his cause, but there is certainly shadings of his determination to follow through with his vision.
Have you seen Daredevil season three yet? You should! Check out the trailer here. And, our spoiler-free review here. This season really does show how strikingly similar Murdock and Fisk are. They both think they’re the only people who can save Hell’s Kitchen and will do whatever it takes to do so.
Maybe I’m not cracking at anything new. But it is fascinating to see these elements in our favorite heroes and villains. Not all good guys and bad guys are cut from the same cloth. There are many that don’t share this dynamic and don’t have the same proximity to martyrdom.
Next time you watch any of these movies/TV shows or pick up a comic be sure to think about the deeper themes. You will certainly appreciate it a bit more.
Nothing but love.