Given the influx of superhero movies over the last two decades, it’s easy to see how our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man can get lost in the shuffle. Not to mention the character has been rebooted at a faster rate than any other superhero in history (three separate series in under two decades). So what makes him so special? After all, this is just a kid from Queens, New York. To understand the character’s enduring traits, we need to look back at the character’s comic roots before touching on the cinematic legacy.
Peter Parker is a geek from a lower-class family in New York City. He’s a quality student, never breaks the rules, and is the definition of awkward. How modern movies adopted this trait of adorkable (adorable + dorky) protagonists, characters like Parker practically invented the trope. But most importantly, even as people push him around or degrade him, Parker cares about people. That’s not always easy to do when the world constantly barrages you with inconvenient circumstances.
Naturally, when a radioactive spider imbues young Parker with confidence and untold power, who can blame him for wanting to treat himself to some easy money in a wrestling competition?
Even with a great power thrust upon him, Peter Parker is not a star pupil or reliable friend. Through both faults of his own and the new responsibility he finds himself wrapped up in, time management is far from Parker’s strong suit. What is referred to as “Parker luck” in the character’s broad history, is
essentially another way of looking at Murphy’s law. Anything that can go wrong for Peter Parker/Spider-Man will go wrong. And boy, do things ever go wrong for the kid.
After trying out his newfound powers for personal gain, Parker’s selfishness inadvertently leads to his uncle getting gunned down in the streets of New York. Sometimes the most important lessons are the hardest ones to learn. We all get knocked down. It’s how we react in these situations that shows us who we really are. Instead of seeking vengeance, the character follows one simple mantra: with great power, comes great responsibility.
Perhaps no movie moment in Spider-Man history understands the mantra better than the ending of Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man. After stopping the Green Goblin but failing to save the man behind the mask, his surrogate father Norman Osborn, Parker realizes the people in his life will always be in harm’s way. The power and responsibility are his gift, his curse. Parker takes it upon himself to stay away from the people he cares about, owning up to his newfound responsibility. He cuts out ordinary relationships in an attempt to keep people safe, including the most significant relationship he’ll ever have with the love of his life, Mary Jane-Watson.
Lo and behold, in true Parker fashion, he still has to learn from his own
mistakes. In “Spider-Man 2” the film upends the original film’s ending by putting Peter in the same position to have an avenue of happiness, only to reject it to protect the people he cares about; i.e, Mary Jane. But a real relationship between two people is about communicating and understanding. It’s about facing obstacles together as one whole. MJ lovingly confronts Parker, asking, “Isn’t it time someone saved your life?” embracing the gifted and cursed identity of our friendly neighborhood hero.
That is love and that is the beating heart of the character’s evolution onscreen. Love, platonic and romantic, between the people Spider-Man comes across is what drives the character.
It’s why any number of reboots will always find some inkling of success. Whether the character is fighting ninjas from the 1970’s (don’t ask), retelling a darker and grittier origin, or joining alongside Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, it’s the empathy of Peter Parker that draws people to them character.
In a world with gods, monsters, and billionaire-play-boy-philanthropists, Spider-Man is the every-man. His struggles aren’t world-ending. The lessons he learns aren’t inherently about saving the universe, stopping city-wide destruction, or swinging alongside other superheroes.
All of these things can take place in a Spider-Man story, but the core of them revolves around the identity of a lower-working class kid from Queens, New York and what it means to be responsible. Responsibility is helping your fellow citizens. It’s doing good not because there’s a reward in it, but because it’s the right thing to do. More often than not, doing the right thing doesn’t lead to any semblance of immediate understanding. Doing good is its own reward, even when it doesn’t feel like it.
So why does Spider-Man endure? Because he’s the most human superhero of them all.
Obviously not in terms of powers but rather in his stories and the purpose behind them. He fails, he learns, he goes on to fight the good fight. That fight doesn’t always involve caped goblins or mind-swapping mad scientists. The good fight is in living, picking yourself up to do the right thing even when it’s least convenient for you.
Spider-Man stands the test of time because he is one of us, flaws and all. That is a hero and one worth celebrating.
Originally published in La Cima‘s 2017 Summer Magazine