When Peter Parker first meets brilliant scientist Otto Octavius in Spider-Man 2, a movie from 2004, Octavius is already familiar with the young whiz kid catching every college professor’s attention:
“You’re Dr. Connor’s student. He tells me you’re brilliant. He also tells me you’re lazy.”
Peter’s response is as simple as it is necessary: “Trying to do better.”
Octavius reminds Peter that “being brilliant is not enough.” That he must work hard. “Intelligence is not a privilege. It is a gift,” Octavius says – a gift we’re supposed to use for the good of mankind.
Ultimately, it is Octavius’s intelligence run amok that will need (and eat) a slice of humble pie in the movie, but the exchange is memorable nonetheless. Case in point? Nearly 20 years later, the two meet again, this time in Spider-Man: No Way Home. “You’re all grown up,” Octavius notes. “How are you?”
“Trying to do better,” Peter says.
Separated by an entire baby-to-young-adult life, by almost two decades of mistakes, regrets, and still not quite saving the world, the motive that unites these two scientists-turned-heroes remains the same: Still trying to do better.
For the audience witnessing both encounters in the theater, the line hits home for much more than just nostalgia: They too have grown up. They too have spent 17 years, no matter where their time went. The scene offers a chance to reflect. Am I happy? What have I done with my time? Can I still try to do better?
The scene is powerful because it happens on more than just the character-level. It is Octavius talking to Parker, actor Alfred Molina talking to Tobey Maguire, and both of them talking to us. Are you still a kid? What did you use your intelligence for? Have you gotten lazy? Then try to do better.
More so than a moral check-in, however, the iconic big screen moment provides an important reminder: “Trying to do better” is a theme that’ll be with us for the entirety of our lives. It’s the golden thread running beneath our every day, and that ball of wool will never run out.
You don’t need to have all the answers today. You don’t need to be perfect. But you have to make a sincere attempt at better. That’s all this line begs us to do – and even superheroes don’t ask more of themselves.