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Spider-Man Borrowed His Most Famous Motto From Another Superhero

If you were to explain who Spider-Man is, you might talk about his secret identity as Peter Parker; you would certainly mention his superpowers (the onomatopoeia "thwip" would feature heavily); and you'd most definitely mention his various nemeses like Venom, the Green Goblin, or the Vulture. But before the costume, the web-slinging, or anything else, the most widely accepted, definitive sentence to explain Spider-Man as a characteris: "With great power comes great responsibility." 

In case you were unaware, prior to becoming one of the most beloved superheroes in Marvel Comics, Peter Parker was a scrawny, nobody nerd living with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Even before he became Spider-Man, Peter was a good guy defined by the lessons instilled in him by his pseudo-parents. However, getting superpowers from a radioactive spider briefly left Peter vulnerable to the corruption of power. And, unfortunately, after spitefully letting a thief get away, that same thief winds up killing Peter's uncle. Uncle Ben's one commandment to Peter in his final moments is that "with great power comes great responsibility," and, from that moment forward, everything Parker does as Spider-Man is defined by that statement. Every innocent life saved, every scientific innovation innovated, every villain vanquished — all of it is done because his Uncle Ben taught him that his abilities should be used for the benefit of mankind.

So imagine the surprise of many when, in a behind-the-scenes look at the new CW series Superman & Lois, long-time artist and Chief Creative Officer-Publisher at DC Comics Jim Lee attributed the quote to Superman. It turns out, there's quite a story behind that crazy — it also turns out, he's not wrong.

With great Superman serials, comes great responsibility

To set the stage: as with so many stories involving public call-outs and accidental self-owns, our journey begins on Twitter, where YouTuber Captain Midnight tweeted, "In this BTS of Superman & Lois thing, Jim Lee says 'There's this famous phrase 'With great power comes great responsibility' and when I think of Superman that is his essence.' Funny, bc when I think of Superman, I usually think about his iconic catchphrase, 'It's clobberin' time'" — (snarkily borrowed from Benjamin Grimm, The Thing).  

Not to be caught with his comic book pants down, Lee responded with a tweet of his own, writing, "Allow me to enlighten you so you can praise Superman & Lois guilt free. Here's a clip from the 1948 film serial of Superman. Yes, Stan made the phrase I quoted popular but this summation of Superman predates Spider-Man by 14 years." The clip is from the first episode of the serial, "Superman Comes to Earth," in which Eben Kent (Edward Cassidy) imparts to his stepson, Clark Kent (Kirk Alyn), the phrase, "Because of these great powers, your speed and strength, your x-ray vision and super-sensitive hearing, you have a great responsibility." The 15-part Columbia Pictures film serial is especially notable because it represents Superman's first ever live-action appearance.

For clarity, and by comparison, Uncle Ben first utters the words, "With great power comes great responsibility" in the pages of Amazing Fantasy #15 (Spider-Man's first appearance) in 1962. Amiably, Captain Midnight took the loss on the chin, retweeting Lee with the words, "I have been thoroughly owned by Jim Lee."

Historical origins of great responsibility coming with great power

Is it possible that Spider-Man creator Stan Lee lifted the character's famous mantra from Superman? Sure, it's possible. However, it's equally likely that Stan Lee, like so many creators, lifted the phrase from the annals of history. You didn't think that "power" and "responsibility" hadn't been linked prior to 1948, did you? The phrase bears a conceptual likeness to a Biblical verse in Luke 12:48, which reads, "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."

However, there are other, far likelier historical figures from which Stan Lee — and the Superman serial writers — likely pulled: United States presidents William McKinley and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill. In an 1899 State of the Union address, McKinley said (via TIME), "Presented to this Congress are great opportunities, with them come great responsibilities." In fact, a number of U.S. presidents said similar things. Closer to both Superman and Spider-Man's famous line comes Roosevelt, who said, "We cannot deny that power is a factor in world politics any more than we can deny its existence as a factor in national politics. But in a democratic world, as in a democratic Nation, power must be linked with responsibility, and obliged to defend and justify itself within the framework of the general good." And, while he was still Under-Secretary of the Colonial Office in 1906, Churchill uttered much more succinctly (via "The Wisdom of Winston Churchill"), "Where there is great power there is great responsibility."

In short, variations of the phrase have been a part of recorded human history for well over a century at least, before the Golden Age of American comic books began.