The thing is, that’s an erroneous attribution of this quote on a couple levels, and it provides an interesting case study to look at: what are the origins of this famous quote that most now associate with Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben.
Traveling back even further to post-Revolution France, members of the French National Convention in 1793 wrote, “They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.” This seems to be the earliest example of the phrase, although thematically similar verses can be found as far back as The Bible: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Luke 12:48. The phrase has probably turned up in one form or another many other times throughout history that we can’t possibly list or keep track of, but these examples are the best documented.
So what’s the takeaway here? In addition to having a common thread between Ben Parker, the French Revolution, and colonialism to flaunt at a dinner party, we can see the phrase, if not the exact verbiage, has been around a lot longer than our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler.
So does that mean attributing the quote to Spider-Man lore is wrong? No, it’s just complicated. Many people, myself included, heard the quote through exposure to Spider-Man; attributing it to either Roosevelt, Churchill, or the French Revolution in some bid for complete accuracy isn’t really correct. Spider-Man brought a phrase that already existed into the cultural zeitgeist and should be credited with that. Even the Supreme Court invoked it in a ruling, crediting it to Spider-Man as well (though it was a case with Marvel Corporation as a defendant, so dramatically, maybe it made sense).
The Spider-Man quote is a unique example, but fiction in general tends to build upon itself, utilizing pre-established archetypes or tropes to inspire new works. Spider-Man happened to take a notable real-world phrase and re-appropriate it to wonderful use—nothing wrong with that. But, in an age where a quick Google search will easily yield results, it’s important not to be completely oblivious to the many times a phrase or idea has been utilized throughout our history.
And in the name of proper attribution, Bob Garfield of the podcast On The Media first noticed the irony in Josh Ostrovsky’s use of Spider-Man’s quote, leading this writer to extrapolate on it.