Spider-Man Homecoming features all the classic element, from Mets paraphernalia to the cool suit to nerdy pratfalls, but not Uncle Ben Parker. This is not an oversight; it’s by design. Marvel intentionally avoided the most depressing part of the web crawler’s origin story in order to avoid yet another rehash of what comes with great power and in service of creating a father figure-shaped hole for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to fill with glib quips. But the decision to excise the best dude in Queens is controversial even within Marvel, where parents tend to die and Uncle Ben is held in high esteem.
“Uncle Ben is a testament to adoptive fathers,” says Nick Lowe, Executive Editor of Marvel Comics. “He helped create the greatest superhero of all time and his words — ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ — those are the words of an adoptive father.”
Peter Parker’s birth parents have wandered into and out of the picture over the years, but mostly been held at a remove. In the original comic, Richard and Mary Parker died when Peter was too young to remember them. That was about the size of it. Unlike Bruce Wayne, Parker didn’t derive personal meaning or a quest from that event. It was simply a bad thing that happened. But fans and writers alike prefer webs to loose ends so, in 1997, Richard and Mary got themselves a fully fleshed backstory in Untold Tales of Spider-Man #1, which outed them as agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and friends of Nick Fury.
“It’s a tragic tale,” says Lowe. “They were typical S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. They went on missions, and they were chosen for a particularly dangerous one that didn’t end well.”
Lowe has had a hand in all things Spidey, including Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker Spider-Man, Spider-Gwen, and Spider-Woman, for the last 15 years. He’s made his peace with the spy parents back story, but he misses Uncle Ben because his decency–more than even his death–comes to define what makes Peter Parker, and by extension Spider-Man great: He never puts himself on a pedestal.
“It’s tough,” says Lowe. “He’s the dad Peter never knew or had. He’s this absent being in his life of what could have been. I think it’s a sticky situation because you don’t want to dive into these things that are not that pertinent to the character. Obviously, parents are important, but the main parental roles in his life are Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Who knows who Peter would have been if his parents had raised him and not his aunt and uncle.”
The simplest argument in favor of Uncle Ben’s importance pivots on the mutability of the Richard and Mary Parker. They died in a plane crash in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5 in 1968. They came back to life as evil clones created by Chameleon in Amazing Spider-Man #365 in 1992. They became spies. But none of that actually had any effect on the character of Peter Parker. As Lowe observes, Peter’s parents’ personas have been, at best, reverse engineered from his own. In a narrative, if not chronological, sense, they have inherited Uncle Ben’s values. His mantra, Lowe argues, “made the greatest superhero of all time. And that’s way cooler than super spy parents.”
So, let’s be clear, without Uncle Ben there is no Spider-Man. His integrity is passed down over time and his vision for Peter is passed down in a tragic moment. He is the prime mover of the Spider-Man story, but he tends not to get his due in large part because of his age. He’s really old in most of the vintage comic books, which begs some questions about Peter’s grandparents, birth control, and also family dynamics. He seems weak because he’s old then he’s killed, but he isn’t. Lowe says that Ben’s original age was a completely understandable misstep.
“The truth is when they launched these books, they didn’t know how long it would run,” argues Lowe. “Everyone thinks of Spider-Man as a high school student, but he was in college by issue #30. That’s just two years. They never planned on these characters being around 50-years later.”
There is a plan to have Holland around for at least two more Spidey films, with July 2019 as the slated release date for the Homecoming sequel and Lowe maintains that there’s still plenty of room for Uncle Ben in a rebooted franchise. But it’s unclear whether a younger, cooler Aunt May will find her younger, cooler partner. It’s unclear what his place would be in the new movies. He’s the guy who made Spider-Man great, but that may not be enough.