Once upon a time, a radioactive spider bites high school nerd Peter Parker, giving him the sensational, spectacular, and amazing powers of a spider. Once Parker discovered his powers, he sees it as an opportunity for profit, fame, and glory. Self-absorbed, Peter deliberately ignores a thievery in progress, simply claiming that ‘it wasn’t his job’. On his way home, Parker finds red & blue lights flashing near his house. A police officer reports the murder of his Uncle Ben by a runaway burglar. In Parker’s anger and frustration, he chases after the burglar as Spider-Man, only to discover that it was the same thief he claimed not to be his problem. After handing over the burglar to the police, Spider-Man swings into the gathering darkness. While many slept soundly in the presence of family, a silent and lonely figure trudges through the blue night, aware of both his power and the weight of responsibility.
No superhero origin is as perfectly summarized and as iconic as this line from Spider-Man’s origin story back in Amazing Fantasy #15. Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962, Spider-Man was the first among other teenaged heroes to be a hero of his own making, not as a sidekick. Spider-Man wasn’t also born out of a noble purpose: he was created out of a selfish choice to gain money. And even when Peter Parker learned his lesson, he had a hard time being like every other hero. Spider-Man served more as a catharsis for Peter Parker, channeling his teen angst while directed by his own sense of responsibility, justice, and remorse.
The birth of Spider-Man is almost reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy. Superheroes are often not responsible for the major tragedies in their lives: Superman was merely a baby when Krypton exploded; Batman had no power to stop the death of his parents; Daredevil was not aware of his father’s business with gangsters. But it were Peter Parker’s selfish, shortsighted choices that led to the death of his Uncle Ben; a death he had a direct role in preventing.
And while not everyone has experienced the tragedy Parker suffered from, Spider-Man was meant to reflect most of the audience that read comics: youth like children and adolescents. Like his audience, he was struggling with desiring fame, love, and respect. He knew that the right thing to do usually meant sacrificing what he wanted to do.
Getting bit by a spider was more of a curse than a blessing for Peter Parker. His wall-crawling, super strength, and web-shooting abilities only enhanced Peter’s problems and complicated his life. His identity as Spider-Man is so tightly intertwined with being Peter Parker, that to upset one aspect of his life can dramatically affect the other. Stress from relationships or paying rent would affect his focus in fights; sewing his costume back together again was always an issue; and one way or another, he always forgets to buyeggs for Aunt May. In summary, Spider-Man had problems; something that was, back in the day, unheard of for superheroes.
But it’s been years now, and many superheroes since then have had problems. So for Spider-Man to remain a reflection of his audience, his problems needed to get more complicated: he needed tragedies. Doing the right thing never meant the best will happen to him—Spider-Man’s life is always filled with more losses than wins. No matter how hard he tries, the people closest to him face the consequences of his own actions. The backbone of Spider-Man’s stories heavily depend upon mistakes…most often his own. Nothing else reflects the average human more than having the superpower to make bad choices.
So what makes Peter Parker put on the mask each and every day of his life, knowing that being Spider-Man brings trouble to not just himself, but to the people around him? Actually, he didn’t always wear the mask. Peter Parker became ‘Spider-Man No More’ for several times. He’s asked himself why the Bugle hates him; why he can’t always save the people he loves; why he can’t seem to do anything right; whether or not he actually craves the action; wondering if he really makes a difference. Because sometimes to understand why we do something, we need to take a step back—and reflect on what our motivations were when we first started.
Yet on the other hand, Spider-Man’s stories are just as much about renewal as it is about tragedies: to find a reason for putting that mask on every day of his existence. I think the movie Spider-Man 2 portrayed this very well. Confused by everything going on in his life, Peter Parker has lost focus on the things that mattered the most. And when he begins to slowly but surely lose his powers, he sees it as an opportunity to go back to the normal life he once lived. And he does exactly that, thinking everything was getting better. That is until he gets a message that Aunt May’s moving out of their old home, which brings him to visit her. In this scene, Aunt May gives the most important reason why Spider-Man needs to exist:
“People line up for him. Cheer him. Scream their names and years later tell how they stood in the rain for hours, just to get a glimpse of the one that told them to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us…that keeps us honest; gives us strength; makes us noble; and finally allows us to die with pride. Even though sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most…even our dreams. Spider-Man did that for Henry and he wonders where he’s gone. He needs him.”
The truth as to why Spider-Man stops world-level threats and picks up cats from trees is simply because it’s the right thing to do. There’s no underlying motivation to what he does other than honoring the life of his Uncle Ben. It doesn’t matter if there’s already plenty other superheroes doing the job; someone needs to look out for the little guy. Spider-Man fights for a cause beyond himself—he fights for the greater good, knowing that people can always come back up from a tragic experience.
In Amazing Spider-Man #33, Spider-Man is stuck under the machinations and pillars of a collapsing villain’s base. Tired, scared, and stretched thin, he reminisces about his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, thinking he could die any moment. He remembers their best moments together and finally gains the strength—not from himself, but from the people who he loves—to get himself out all in one piece. Because Spider-Man’s greatest ability isn’t to crawl walls, shoot webs, or even his spider sense. His greatest strength has always come from the people around him. The truth is, we can never fly solo: we need people to lean on, to catch our back. Some problems we just can’t conquer on our own.
WE ARE SPIDER-MAN
I believe the reason why Spider-Man has remained so relevant is because we don’t already have to try being like him. He’s the hotdog vendor on our street; he’s the single mother of 3 children; he’s the student working the night shift; he’s the waitress in a small cafe; he’s the surgeon who’s been awake for over 24 hours on the operating table; he’s the little girl aspiring to be a superhero; he’s the teenager noticing the friendless kid. Spider-Man is the walking memorial of all of us. He is the best of us when hit with the worst. He is what happens when we decide to no longer cater to our selfish ways but step out of our comfort zone to give a helping hand.
Spider-Man’s mask is the most human disguise out there because anyone can put that mask on. We are one another’s heroes. We rely on each other just as much as others depend on us. Whether we like it or not, each of us has the power and responsibility to make an impact in people’s lives. We may not swing from building to building; we may not stop a speeding bullet; we may not do whatever a spider can. But we can always decide to be better; to do more than what we ought to do; to prove ourselves equal to the two-fold task of power and responsibility. Because no matter how many mistakes we make, no matter how many times tragedy may strike, we should always get back up stronger and united.
It isn’t the red and blue spandex that makes anyone Spider-Man. It isn’t the dramatic name nor the superpowers. I believe it’s the conscious and proactive choice to die to self, so we can help others find a reason to live. Then and only then can we truly feel like swinging from building to building; stopping speeding bullets; to doing whatever a spider can.
Who are we?