The Hero In All Of Us
In the early 1960s, the team of a Manhattan comic book company was on a roll. They had just created a slew of characters that quickly became popular among fans. But when they wanted to create yet another hero, they got stuck:
“The thing with a superhero that you have to get is a unique superpower. Well, we already had somebody who was the strongest guy in the world, somebody who could fly, and so forth. I was thinking: ‘What else is left?’”
As they thought about what to do, one of the writers looked up and saw a fly, crawling up the office wall. He thought to himself:
“Wow! Suppose a person had the power to stick to a wall, like an insect…”
The name of that writer was Stan Lee. And then, he created the best superhero Marvel ever made.
Numbers Don’t Lie
When you ask people who their favorite superhero is, most of them will tell you it’s Batman, or Superman, or maybe Wonder Woman. But when it comes to holding a place in our hearts, there is an undisputed #1. No other character is printed on more t-shirts, embossed on more mugs, featured in more video games, or sells more Halloween costumes than him.
When the cards are on the table, Spider-Man is the most popular hero of them all. We might be more curious to see the latest Superman blockbuster, but when we have to vote who we’ll stand for with our money, who we’re proud to side with in the most public of ways, we will choose Spidey every time.
The World Before Spider-Man
On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense for a teenager with the abilities of a spider to be the most beloved by fans. After all, he’s just a kid, and a nerdy one at that. Plus, for a supposed superhero, he sure has the weirdest set of powers. Aren’t our idols meant to be larger than life? Inspiring figures we can look up to?
I think that, until our awkwardly dressed web slinger came around, they were.
With the exception of Captain America, prior names in history’s long chronology of superheroes mostly credited their abilities to supernatural causes. Their back-stories are full of meteor impacts and secret alien societies on planets far, far away. This somewhat isolated them from readers before they even turned the first page. And yet, it made for a great escape. Who wouldn’t want to fly like an eagle, swim like a fish, or see through walls with their eyes? If even just for a few hours and only in their own head.
But when Spider-Man swung along, he did something no magic savior that came before him ever could: he brought the realm of heroes down to earth.
Our Friendly Neighborhood Loser
When you examine the origins of Spider-Man, it’s easy to wonder about the reasoning behind many of the creators’ choices. Why would they make him a teenager? The teenager was usually the sidekick at best. Why even make him human at all? And not a particularly strong specimen either.
While I don’t think Marvel made all these decisions on purpose, they happened to come together in a fascinating way:
Everything that initially made Spider-Man a weaker hero also made him a stronger human being.
He’s not the heir of a billion dollar empire. He’s not an immortal, bulletproof alien. Or born a genetic freak. Peter Parker’s parents died when he was very young, but that aside, he’s a normal kid from a normal family, living a normal life. Like the majority of comic book readers, he goes to school. And his biggest struggle is one most of us are painfully familiar with: being a nobody.
Until, one day, he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and everything changes.
A Familiar Transformation
It’s not just Peter Parker’s life pre-costume that resonates. Even his path to becoming a hero contains elements that speak to us on a subconscious level. His abilities have their roots in scientific experiments, not wizardry. They’re a stretch, sure, but they still feel believable.
What’s more, unlike an exaggeration of existing traits, like superhuman strength or the ability to run at lightning speed, being equipped with an awkward combination of new physical features forces our hero to figure out who he is all over again. Something we all go through in puberty. In that sense, even his strange set of new skills contributes to his relatedness.
To top it all off, even after Peter Parker’s physique has changed, he is still a loser. A teenager in way over his head. If he doesn’t learn fast, he won’t be a very useful guardian. But the more he practices, the more he’s forced to sacrifice his relationships, even his dreams. Sound familiar? That’s the pain of anyone trying to accomplish anything meaningful ever. As a result, Spider-Man is the most relatable superhero of all time.
But there’s something more to the story. A connection that runs even deeper.
The Origins Of Ambition
There’s one more thing that sets Spider-Man apart from his contemporaries: he never wanted to be a hero. He didn’t choose to pick up that cape, to become a symbol, to take the serum. Instead, he’s the victim of an accident
at the science fair.
Like a kid being pushed into a pool, Peter Parker is a guy like us, thrown into exceptionally cold water. Only once the damage is irreversibly done does he decide to take responsibility and tackle the task life’s burdened him with. That’s the most honest explanation of ambition I’ve ever seen.
I think in our own lives, it works just the same. Some day, a vial breaks and the liquid is released. Like the spider venom seeping into Peter Parker’s veins, it permeates slowly, but the switch can never be un-flipped. It’s impossible. You can’t go back. And, as in Spider-Man’s case, a great many variables must simultaneously fall into place to cause this triggering event.
Usually, it’s a mix of trauma, naiveté, regret, fear, anger, and, out of all things, self-love. Before I started writing, I began to fear a conventional desktop career. I regretted not starting anything earlier and I was naive enough to believe I could make a living telling stories. Adversity inspires humans to do great things.
Sometimes, it’s a small crisis, like what character can keep up your winning streak, or wishing desperately for a beautiful stranger’s kiss. Sometimes, it takes an outright catastrophe, like a cheating spouse or a terrible illness. But it always takes some crisis for humans to see they have great power.
And with that power comes great responsibility.
A Calling For All Of Us
People love to split the world into two camps. They think there are the superheroes, and then there’s us. The losers. From day one of his fictional existence, this is the biggest misunderstanding Spider-Man was meant to clarify. He teaches us is that, in reality, the loser and the hero are the same.
Due to his lackluster, mundane life and his accidental, almost traumatic transformation, Spider-Man cannot be a hero defined by his feats or even his features. He must be a hero defined by his character. And we all have one of those. If some heroes are nothing but the random result of their environment, then what’s to stop us?
For if the only thing that really sets Spider-Man apart is his courage in the face of adversity, then he’s the first to send a message all superheroes were actually meant to send. A message one of his masked colleagues put so eloquently:
A hero can be anyone.
It’s not just that we, as individuals, feel we could be Spider-Man. It’s that we collectively realize any one of us could be Spider-Man. Because all he did, despite struggling with the hand he was dealt, is give his best to do good in this world. I think this is incredibly empowering.
It is also a good reminder to never belittle those with less ambition. Because no one never knows if your switch has already been flipped. You might not notice it today, or even tomorrow, but in time, you will show us all. For all we know, you’re just like Spider-Man. Or all of us, really.
A superhero in the making.