This is the third in my series taking about superhero characters. In my kickoff post I explained how in some ways they are the modern Gods – created in our image to put into stories to help us understand ourselves better. This time I’m looking at Spider-Man, the wall clinging misfit who has bigger struggles outside his mask than inside it.
Young, unpopular, picked-on science student Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider while on a field-trip. He discovers he has gained incredible strength, lightning reflexes, and the power to climb walls. He basically does whatever a spider can. He even builds web-shooters so he can spin a web, any size. Hiding under a mask, he enters a local wrestling show where he easily wins the cash prize. Cocky and no longer wanting to be pushed around, he doesn’t intervene when a robber rushes past him. The robber then kills Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben, the man who raised him. Stricken with grief, Peter vows to use his power to help people and dons the mask of Spider-Man.
Why we love him
Spider-Man is every geeky, awkward student who struggled to fit in and pay his bills, forever knowing he had something more amazing and wonderful inside him than anyone realized.
Peter Parker is a great character apart from his powers. He is brilliant, designing web shooters (in the comics, anyway) that fill in a missing power, and working with some leading scientists and researchers (even thought they have an odd habit of turning into Spider-Man’s enemies). He is also a talented photographer, selling pictures to one of the largest newspapers in New York. Count the number of pages where you see Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent versus their spandex alter-egos, then compare it to how often you see Peter Parker. He is an honest, interesting character by himself and as a result can get more page time than Spider-Man.
Going further, Spider-Man’s powers are almost irrelevant to what makes him such a compelling character. There are no spider traits that infuse his personality. It’s not his ability to stick to walls that makes him special, it’s that he has an incredible secret and it’s hard for him to handle. If he could fly or shoot fire out of his eyes, he would still be the quiet nerd, never quite winning the battle but always struggling.
As A Character
Spider-Man is every kid who felt out of place or picked on in school, but knew deep inside that he was something better than everyone else suspected. Which is probably almost every kid at one time or another. It is this combination of awkwardness and amazing that Sam Raimi captured so well in his movie. Spider-Man broke open superhero movies to the mainstream exactly because it focused on the character, and made Peter so personable, so human.
In some ways Peter Parker was every comic book loving fanboy as they were growing up – quasi-loners peeking into this amazing world of heroes and battles that they couldn’t share with others. It gave those young nerds a connection that they we shared this inner struggle and self-doubt, and that it was only a chance encounter with a radioactive arachnid that separated them from their friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.
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