What Makes Spider-Man Amazing
In a world where entire superhero cinematic universes exist, it is easy to forget that even incredibly well-known characters like Batman and Superman were not always beloved by all. Moviegoers hoot and holler when Iron Man or Captain America appear on-screen for the first time in an Avengers film nowadays, but there was a time when many wondered why Marvel was releasing a standalone Iron Man film at all. In short, comics, for quite some time, catered to a very specific demographic and were not always the money-printing machine that they are today. In many ways, Spider-Man comics helped change that by placing a greater emphasis on Peter Parker himself: the man behind the mask.
Originally introduced in “Amazing Fantasy #15” in August, 1962, Spider-Man was clearly different from the other caped crusaders who had come before him. Never before had a superheroes alter-ego been given so much of the spotlight. In Superman comics, Clark Kent popped up just frequently enough to give readers the opportunity to wonder whether or not the big baddie of the week would discover his true identity. Having a full page dedicated to Kent running down an alleyway, tossing away his glasses, and ripping open his shirt to reveal Superman’s signature “S” logo was a cool visual and all, but it was also a relief to see that the real star of the show had arrived. In Spider-Man comics, though, Peter Parker was the star, whether or not he was sporting the iconic red and blue suit.
Parker himself was a far cry away from someone like Bruce Wayne, the charismatic billionaire orphan audiences have come to know and love from the Batman comics throughout time. Peter Parker was an unpopular, nerdy high school student. He was a loser. He got picked on by bullies, turned in homework assignments late, and awkwardly tried and failed to flirt with his female classmates. In short, he was human. Anyone who has ever had a rough day at school, a hard day at work, or has shown up late somewhere because they missed their bus can relate to Peter Parker, and that was not unintentional.
In a Rolling Stone article published in 2014 titled “How Spider-Man Conquered the World”, Stan Lee, a prominent writer, editor, and publisher in the comic book realm and a co-creator of Spider-Man, had this to say: “I just wanted to do what I thought would be the first real superhero. I wanted to write a character who worried about money – just like I did. I liked the idea of him having a sick aunt. I also thought it would be interesting if he wasn’t popular in school.” In fact, when the idea of a high school superhero was originally pitched by both Lee and Steve Ditko, another co-creator of the much beloved web slinging hero, many people had doubts about whether or not it would work. That same article points out that even Martin Goodman, owner of Marvel comics, did not believe that a teenage hero would sell well, as teenagers in comics at the time were typically either featured in humor comics, like “Archie”, or were relegated to sidekick roles, like the character of Robin in Batman comics. From the very first panel of Spider-Man’s debut, however, readers were hooked.
As superhero origin stories go, Batman’s is more or less par for the course. A young Bruce Wayne walks through a dark alleyway – conspicuously named Crime Alley, it just so happens – at night with his mother and father when a mugger shows up and shoots his parents dead. From that day forth, he dedicates his life to stopping crime by becoming the greatest detective the world has ever known. The origin itself exists solely to justify the existence of this hero, as do most superhero origin tales, particularly of that era. In the case of Spider-Man, however, a bit more goes into it.
When Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider during a science experiment that grants him the proportionate strength and agility of a spider, he decides he can use his newfound abilities to make money as a professional wrestler. He chooses neither to fight crime nor put his powers to use for anything other than personal gain, even choosing to ignore a burglar that he easily could have restrained. “From now on, I’m through being pushed around,” Spider-Man replies to a police officer and then continues, “From now on, I just look out for number one. That means me!” A few days later, though, that same burglar breaks into the home of Peter Parker’s aunt and uncle and fatally shoots his uncle Ben. Orphaned at a young age, Peter’s aunt May and uncle Ben are the only family he has, and when he learns that the man he could have stopped but chose not to is responsible for the death of his loved one, he is consumed by guilt. That guilt is what informs his decision to fight crime. Peter was not unselfish with his powers from the beginning. He had to learn the hard way that with great power comes great responsibility. Guilt is a theme that continually pops up throughout Spider-Man tales, and it is a theme that many people can grasp onto. Everyone wishes they could turn back the clock and do things differently, and unfortunately for Spidey, that would not be the last time he wished that.
For a long time, comic books were generally a villain-of-the-week story and not much else. The hero beats the bad guy, saves the day, and everything essentially resets next issue. It was a shock, then, when Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy met her untimely demise at the hands of one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes, the Green Goblin, in issues #121 and #122 of “The Amazing Spider-Man.” When the Green Goblin drops Stacy from the Washington Bridge, Peter is confident in his abilities to save her. He attaches his webbing to her and catches her before she plummets down to the water below, even cracking wise as he does so. He quickly learns, though, that the sudden stop broke the girl’s neck and killed her.
Many were up in arms about the decision to kill off Parker’s lover, and it is easy to imagine why. Up to that point, prominent characters such as Gwen Stacy did not die in comics. The hero is supposed to save the day and win the girl, but Spider-Man had no such luck. It was a harsh lesson to learn, but it spoke to readers and sent a clear message: everyone loses people and everyone makes mistakes, but what is important is that one learns from those mistakes. It is likely no coincidence either that a similar fate would befall Bruce Wayne in director Christopher Nolan’s second installment of his critically-acclaimed Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight, when Bruce would fail to save his on-again-off-again girlfriend Rachel Dawes from a sinister trap set up by Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker. And while that film would release in 2008, firmly grounding itself in reality and establishing itself as one of the most iconic superhero films to date, it too would be playing catch up to Spider-Man.
To this day, one cannot discuss the evolution of superhero films without bringing up director Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy. Spider-Man 2, in particular, is still widely considered one of the best comic book films to date, despite originally releasing in 2004. In the first fifteen minutes alone, viewers see Peter Parker lose one job, almost lose another, miss a college class, argue with his best friend, and struggle to pay his rent. Throughout the film, Peter continually struggles with trying to maintain balance between his two personas – his own real life one and his superhero alter-ego one – until, ultimately, he decides to stop being Spider-Man altogether. It is worth noting, too, that Peter Parker ceases crime fighting for an entire thirty-four minutes of screen time, a whole one quarter of the film’s runtime. Conversely, the second Marc Webb directed reboot of the Spidey film franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which currently boasts an overall review score of 53/100 on aggregate film review site Metacritic, sees Peter hang up the mask for an entire eight minutes. Not only that, but viewers rarely get to see Parker’s time spent off from his superhero career. Crazy script rewrites, poor plot pacing, and silly Andrew Garfield faces aside, these numbers clearly show just what a difference a grounded, personable hero can make, and prove just how integral Peter Parker is to Spider-Man stories.
Originally released in July, 2017, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Sony Pictures’ third attempt at rebooting the hero and Spidey’s debut into Marvel Studios’ larger cinematic universe, leans heavily on Raimi’s original films for inspiration by sending Peter back to high school and treating audiences to a story that feels less like a superhero slugfest, and more like a coming-of-age story. When Parker goes to pick up his date for the big dance, only to find that the film’s main antagonist, The Vulture, is the girl’s father, it is meant to be a big reveal, but one cannot help but smile the first time that moment plays out on-screen, because of course that would happen. Spider-Man is at his best when he is down on his luck – when his secret crime fighting life and his civilian one inevitably cross paths – and this scene knocks that out of the park. The scene itself is a rollercoaster of emotions. It is both gleefully ironic and tense. “Haven’t I seen you around before?” the villain asks Peter, who has already squared off against him three times prior. By the end of the encounter, when both men know the truth about each other, the father pulls a gun on Parker, having already told his daughter that he wants to have a quick word with the boy. “Now you go in there, forget about all of this, and you show my daughter a good time,” Michael Keaton’s Vulture tells him. “Just not too good,” he then adds. While this scene does ultimately serve as a way for the villain to discover the hero’s identity, it presents it to its audience by still making it about Peter at its core, in a way that is inherently relatable to many. Everyone has had to go through the awkward dad talk on prom night.
For a long time following the introduction of Spider-Man into the world of comics, many writers would focus on humanizing their heroes more, fleshing them out to make them a bit less larger-than-life. Inevitably, even DC Comics would drastically change up the way they presented even their star players. One issue of “Superman” in the 1970’s would see Lois Lane transformed into a black woman for twenty-four hours where she would become aware of racism. Superman himself would be revamped in the 1980’s to place Clark Kent more at the center of the tales. Spider-Man, however, did not need to change. Spider-Man has remained a lasting icon in popular culture, not because he has the best powers nor because he is the coolest, but because people see themselves in Peter Parker, an inherently relatable hero.