With great power comes great responsibility. It’s a mantra that can be applied to your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, yes, but also those who stand up in courts of law and argue whether what we’ve done is right or wrong. Not us. Just a turn of phrase. We’ve done nothing wrong. We haven’t! You’ll never take us alive!
It’s a tricky business this superhero lark – vigilantes walk a fine line between hero and zero. And it’s a destructive one too. Look at any superhero profile on LinkedIn and they’ll claim they do what they do to save us, but time and again they leave chaos and destruction in their wake. J. Jonah Jameson knows this. “He was a… thief! A criminal! He’s a menace to the entire city! I want that crawling arachnid prosecuted! I want him strung up by his web! I want Spider-Man!” he roars in Sam Raimi’s Spidey trilogy, with some degree of justification.
Take Spider-Man’s actions in 2017’s Homecoming, whereupon the web-slinger hijacks an arms deal between Vulture‘s gang and buyer, Mac Gargan, using what some might describe as excessive force, imprisoning some bad guys in webs and throwing others around. Spidey even says by way of an insincere apology to the criminals, “My bad, that was a little hard” at one point, acknowledging precisely this.
Then, during a fight with Vulture and his thugs in which it is revealed Spidey has put himself in the way of an FBI sting operation, he almost destroys a ferry, endangering the lives of all on board. It takes an intervention by Iron Man to minimise the damage Spider-Man would have caused. Later, Stark seriously scolds him, and says, “What if somebody had died tonight?! Different story, right?” underlining the severity of what just went down. The upshot is that Stark confiscates his Spider-Man suit to prevent further dangerous misuse.
It’s a scene that’s lingered long in our minds (and we imagine the aforementioned Daily Bugle boss) and so, on the eve of the Web-head’s return to big-screen action in the forthcoming No Way Home, we thought we’d dig deep into the legalities of the said situation.
Spider-Man. Sinner or saint? We got two of the profession’s finest legal minds to duke it out… First, the defence!
The Defence: Proportionate Response and a Clean Record
“What the prosecution would be going after Spider-Man for is a failed citizen’s arrest,” says Carl Newman, UK Head of White-Collar Defence and Investigations at Withers Worldwide. “Legally, a person has the power to detain someone if they think that person has committed a crime. And you can defend yourself, and you can defend others, and you can defend property. In doing all those things, you could potentially be a vigilante, but the law can cover you to a certain extent on what’s reasonable and necessary. When the ferry in the film is cut in half and that causes the endangerment of life, there’s an argument that Spider-Man went beyond what was necessary.”
Even if he was trying to do the right thing?
“From a prosecutor’s point of view, there’s a few offences that could potentially be applied,” continues Newman. “In defending Spider-Man, I’d make a general defence of defending yourself, defending others, and defending property — and making a citizen’s arrest. That would be my defence. The thing with a citizen’s arrest is that it needs to be a proportionate response, so if the thug is pointing a gun at you, and you break his bones, that’s proportionate. If the thug is using harsh language against you, it’s not proportionate. Same with self-defence. The law accepts that you can’t measure exactly how much danger you’re in or how much force someone’s going to use. But you should have a general view on whether you can use extreme force depending on whether you’re facing extreme force.”
So you think Spidey would be okay in this instance? He was trying to save people from a flying maniac with snappy wings!
Newman laughs. “Spider-Man’s definitely got a clean record. That would work in his favour. If you have good character or you’ve got no previous convictions or cautions, that works in your favour. And again, the courts take everything into consideration. If I cause huge amounts of damage because I’m being mischievous, that’s one thing. If I cause huge amounts of damage while trying to save people, that’s another.”
He adds: “I should say that with that level of damage, custody is possible. It’s not impossible. It has to be really significant — let’s say monuments and statues being damaged. We’ve all seen this recently. People don’t normally get custody for criminal damage, but if it’s something of that magnitude you can. And so a huge ferry? It’s possible.”
So while it seems like an easy win for Spider-Man, it’s certainly not an open-and-shut case. Let’s see what the prosecution has to say…
The Prosecution: Criminal Damage, Assault, and Reckless Endangerment
“I’ll be honest, prosecuting Spider-Man isn’t a job I would like to take on,” says Lyndon Harris, Prosecutor in the Crown Court and Court of Appeal at 6KBW College Hill. “But if I did? I think, partly you’ve got an issue about criminal damage here. Spider-Man is trying to help, but there’s damage being done. There’s also, I suspect, some form of assault because of his actions — people have been thrown around, there are cars going into the river. There is probably some form of reckless endangerment type offence about boats on waterways. I’d argue that he is endangering the occupants of a vessel or something like that. But it’s a tough sell.”
“It’s a tricky one because he is doing the right thing, but in doing the right thing he’s doing the wrong thing.” — Spider-Man star, Tom Holland
Harris continues, with trepidation. “If you were defending him, what you would end up saying is, ‘Well, actually, I’ve got a lawful excuse for this’. For criminal damage, you’ve got to show the damage was caused either intentionally or recklessly, meaning having some foresight that the damage might be caused. But you’ve also got to show that there’s no lawful excuse. Part of that lawful excuse defence… it’s essentially a sort of self-defence type argument because self-defence extends to the defence of another. He’s trying to save the people on the boat from drowning.
“In reality, you wouldn’t prosecute him at all, because you would expect that he’d have a pretty good run at that self-defence argument. That’s the sort of issue I’d face here — you would struggle, I think, to demonstrate that he didn’t have a lawful excuse, either as I say, in defence of another, or as sort of a related defence to that of necessity. They’d argue that the circumstances were such that this was the only thing Spider-Man could do. Really, as a prosecutor, you wouldn’t be very confident.”
Harris isn’t sure that a jury would convict Spider-Man either (unless, perhaps, they were DC Comics people, then maybe).
“I think they’d just think, well, Spider-Man’s a decent guy, and he’s doing his best’. You’ve always got to consider how the jury are going to view someone. I think they’d think that, even though the law might say, technically, he’s wrong, we’re not going to convict him because morally we think he’s on the right side of things. Think about home invasions. Say a burglar breaks into some chap’s house, and the homeowner gives him a bit of a thrashing and he’s gone a bit over the top. Put that in front of a jury… if you prosecute the homeowner for an assault, GBH or something, it’s not a particularly attractive prosecution. I think Spider-Man is fine in this instance.”
But, you’re likely wondering, what does Spider-Man actor Tom Holland think? We asked him to put loyalties aside and answer objectively which side he would fall on.
“It’s a tricky one,” says Holland. “Because [Spider-Man] is doing the right thing — but in doing the right thing, he’s doing the wrong thing. Sometimes you have to leave this sort of stuff to the authorities but I guess in the film the authorities weren’t listening to him so he took it into his own hands to kind of save the day. I think if I was his lawyer I could make a pretty good case as to why he was innocent and only trying to help.”
Sounds like everyone’s mostly in agreement that Spidey would get off. But could one of the thugs have a case against Spider-Man for injuries caused during the scene? Mac Gargan — aka Scorpion — for instance, who is knocked overboard during the tussle and whose severe face and arm injuries we see in a post-credits sequence.
“Well, firstly, on the criminal side of things, I suppose they could make a complaint to the police and the police could investigate him for the assault,” says Harris. “You’d have false imprisonment if he’s pinned against the wall with Spider-Man’s webs [too]. So, on the face of things, again, offences are committed there. Civil law isn’t an area that I practice in, but, certainly, one of the injured thugs could bring a civil claim against Spider-Man for damages, just like if I hit you in my car, you could bring a civil claim against me for personal injury and the emotional suffering as a result of that incident. They could do it that way.”
Newman interjects. “Forget Spider-Man,” he says. “If you really want to look at vigilantes on the ragged edge of law enforcement, it’s Batman always. His equipment, his conduct… everything he does, really, could face criminal charges.”
All of which makes nice reading for Spidey. Less nice for Jonah. Meanwhile, a certain B. Wayne of Gotham City should really be getting his affairs in order forthwith…
Additional reporting by Kim Taylor-Foster
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Tens Rings fight coordinator Andy Cheng pits Shang-Chi against Spider-Man and other pop culture heroes — check out the outcome in the article below.