Madame Web Did Exactly One Thing Better Than the MCU

Madame Web is a terrible movie, but it does have one thing the MCU is missing: Uncle Ben.

Dakota Johnson in Madame Web
Photo: Sony Pictures

Adam Scott might have the most thankless part in Madame Web. He exists simply to share the screen with a listless Dakota Johnson and trade expository dialogue about how her character Cassie Webb doesn’t like children or anything related to family—obnoxious signposts to give the movie something like a character arc. Cast to bring the good will he earned playing wholesome snarks in Party Down and Parks and Recreation, Scott delivers his lines with a wry reserve that feels like resignation.

And yet, Scott’s mere presence in the film gives Madame Web an important quality lacking in all of Spider-Man’s MCU appearances. Because Scott isn’t playing any guy who shows way too much concern for his co-worker’s disinterest in being a mother; he’s playing Ben Parker, beloved and ill-fated uncle to Peter Parker.

Save for some monographed luggage in Spider-Man: Far From Home and some multiversal bonding in Spider-Man: No Way Home, Uncle Ben has been absent from the MCU. By giving Uncle Ben even a perfunctory nod, Madame Web edges out the MCU, remembering one of the most important figures in Peter’s development.

Ben Parker first appeared in only a handful of panels in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15, drawn by Steve Ditko and scripted by Stan Lee. He flashed Peter a few paternal smiles and then died off-page. Ben isn’t even the one who delivers the famous Spider-Man maxim, as a closing caption has the phrase, “With great power there must also come — Great responsibility!”

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For over three decades, that’s how Uncle Ben remained: a saintly guy who Spidey sometimes remembered fondly, but lacking any other characteristic. A handful of flashbacks and alternate reality tales added the barest of details, with flashback issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Spectacular Spider-Man released in May 1997 doing the most to turn Ben into an actual character.

Because of that barest of development, the definitive take on Uncle Ben came in 2002’s Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi. Veteran actor Cliff Robertson made Uncle Ben into a believably gruff but loving figure. He’s worried about how to care for his family and takes interest in his young nephew’s life. When Peter (Tobey Maguire) comes bounding down the stairs after recovering from his spider bite, Ben teases with the lad and flashes a playful thumbs up. When Peter blows off a chore to practice his new powers, Ben neither ignores the boy’s behavior nor comes down too harsh. Instead he takes the time to talk with Peter, calling out his lack of responsibility.

Without question the way Robertson delivers the (much cleaner) line of “with great power comes great responsibility” is iconic. His low growl softens as he lets the words fall from his crooked mouth. But the best part of that scene occurs when petulant Peter Parker throws the words back in his face. When Peter cruelly tells Ben to “stop pretending to be” his father, Robertson just pauses, letting the hurt sink into his eyes, trying to hold his expression still. Ben knows that Peter doesn’t mean it, that he’s just a kid lashing out, but it hurts all the same.

That exchange gives real weight to Ben Parker, something missing from all other versions. In every previous telling of Spider-Man’s origin, going all the way back to 1962, it’s Ben’s death that teaches Peter the relationship between power and responsibility. Peter could have done something, could have fought with the burglar, but didn’t, and that is his great regret. But this exchange, especially Robertson’s acting, reverses the meaning of the line. In the same way that Peter used his power to hurt Flash Thompson, he used his power to hurt Uncle Ben. When he told Ben to stop being his father, he proved the opposite of the point that Ben was trying to impress upon him: that having power doesn’t give you the right to use it.

Because of that exchange Spider-Man, and especially Spider-Man 2, avoids being a basic power fantasy. It’s not about a picked on guy who gets to make everyone sorry because he’s the tough one now. It’s about a guy who wants to do what’s best with his abilities, but isn’t sure about what to do next.

Similarly, for all their faults The Amazing Spider-Man movies found a fine successor to Robertson in Martin Sheen. This is all the more striking since the MCU movies have made the strange decision to avoid Ben altogether. Sure, the spritely young Aunt May played by Marisa Tomei takes on some of the Ben role, especially since she delivers the “great responsibility” line before dying in No Way Home. But for the most part, she’s been the normal Aunt May, the lady who takes care of Peter and worries about him. Also in place of Uncle Ben, the MCU has posited Tony Stark as Peter’s best mentor. This shift makes sense from the perspective of Iron Man, who is, after all the guy who launched the MCU. Tony’s story more or less came to an end in Iron Man 3 and his relationship with Peter shows him taking on more responsibility, wrestling with his legacy as Iron Man.

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However, it’s a disastrous decision for Peter. Save for a couple of minutes after he woke up in a cave surround by scraps, Tony has never known anything but power. His story is figuring out how to use it. But traditionally, Peter comes from lack of power, and not just in terms of physical strength. Peter is the hero of freelancers and gig workers everywhere, a guy who tries to do the right thing and live by his morals while holding down several jobs and still dodging bill collectors. Those financial straights are a key aspect to his character, but they go away as soon as Tony Stark becomes Peter’s mentor, even after death.

Recall Ben’s first scene in Spider-Man. After screwing in a lightbulb in his tiny kitchen, the sort of job Stark would have cute robots do, Ben plops down in a chair and worries about his fate. “When the plant’s senior electrician is laid off after 35 years, what else would you call it?” he asks May, an equally wonderful Rosemary Harris. “I am on my ass.”

More than a bit of banter before the real hero shows up, Raimi lets Ben and May continue describing their plight, so viewers truly understand the choices that Peter has to make. “The corporation is downsizing the people and upsizing the profits,” says Ben, something that the MCU would only allow coming from the Vulture, Mysterio, or some other embittered villain with a grudge against Stark. In Spider-Man, Uncle Ben situates Peter as a working-class figure, someone who understands the struggles of the everyday person.

Adam Scott doesn’t get any lines to match those given to Cliff Robertson. But at least he’s present in the movie and, by extension, in Peter Parker’s life. Furthermore, Scott’s Ben is a working man, an EMT who carries the weight of Gulf War service and spends a weekend at a barbecue in a modest neighborhood. For him, life and death stakes are genuine life and death stakes when his sister-in-law goes into labor in his dining room, and it’s up to Ben to get her to the hospital in time. The fact a supervillain complicates these dramatic but everyday concerns is part for the course. Even at his most sardonic, Scott’s Ben has his hands dirty in a way that Tony Stark never did or could.

Is the inclusion of Uncle Ben enough to make Madame Web a worthy addition to the Spider-Man mythos? Of course not. It is a terrible nothing of a movie, worse than any MCU movie in almost every other regard.

But it does have Uncle Ben and not a rich mentor, something the MCU Spider-Man desperately needs.

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Madame Web is now streaming on Netflix.