Insomniac’s Spider-man game releases on Friday, and I am very much feeling the hype. So, in honor of everyone’s friendly neighborhood web-slinger, this week’s post is an ode to Spider-man.
Spider-man was the first character that I loved. I discovered him as a kid when I was dealing with my own sense of identity. He was nerdy, but funny, shy in his personal life, but also a hero in a colorful costume. His conflicts went beyond super villains, and into the mundane. Doing the right thing was hard for Spider-man, not because the moral decision was tough, but because putting on the mask and fighting crime often meant sacrificing something that Pete Parker wanted.
I was bad at time management and expectations as kid. I loved reading and writing and was generally considered a ‘know-it-all’, but I only had okay grades. I would read other subjects in classes that didn’t interest me. Even in the ones that I did like I turned in assignments late or not all. The year I graduated high school the history department didn’t give out an overall achievement award like the other departments. One of my history teachers pulled me aside after the awards to tell me that the history teachers all agreed I showed the most interest and knowledge in the subject, but they couldn’t give me the award because of my grades.
Suffice to say I got a lot of ‘wasting potential’ speeches just like Peter Parker. I felt deeply ashamed after every one. I didn’t have the excuse of great power or great responsibility but seeing a character that I knew was smart and heroic get the same lectures and have the same reaction was powerfully relatable. It gave me hope, maybe I wasn’t a dumb loser, maybe there could be something special about me too, maybe I was more than my disappointments.
And Spider-man knows about disappointment. The character has always been made great by his defeats. Running off to stop the Green Goblin means leaving Mary-Jane alone at the dance. Throwing away his costume to win her back means people die. Self-less or selfish Spider-man loses. It’s super cathartic to read a spider-man story when you’re feeling down. Pete Parker suffers unlike any super hero out there. Yes, he deals with melodramatic trauma, but he also has normal sucky things happen to him like losing his job or disappointing the woman who raised him.
One of the best examples of this is Amazing Spider-man 617. The story is actually focused on the Rhino, meant to reinvent the character from one-note villain to real person and it delivers (seriously, it’s one of my favorite single issues ever, nearly ten years later and the story is still with me). In the issue, absolutely everything goes wrong for Spider-man. He’s not able to keep his promise to the Rhino, he’s not able to protect anyone. He does everything he can, and he still fails, people die. The story ends with Peter Parker in the unemployment line. It’s grim.
And yet despite this constant barrage of failure and depressing situations Peter Parker is one of the most upbeat super heroes around. He doesn’t brood. He copes with humor, he’s hopeful. Unlike Batman who faced similar trauma and obsesses over it, Spider-man focuses on what he still has, not what he lost.
Part of that has to do with his origins. Spider-man is older than Batman when Uncle Ben dies, a teenager rather than a child. He also feels complicit. Guilt motivates him at first rather than vengeance, but it’s more than that. Peter didn’t lose everyone, he still has Aunt May.
Now if written (or drawn) poorly Aunt May comes across as an embarrassingly anachronistic grandmother, or a plot device to pile on guilt and conflict. If done well she’s Peter’s family; someone who he wants to make proud and who loves him. Aunt May humanize Spider-man, her being there doesn’t let him brood over his loss. She lost just as much, they help each other cope, they have to be strong for each other.
Failure and family are what makes Spider-man unique amongst super heroes. People don’t love him because he got bit by a radioactive spider, but because he’s us. He’s balancing a thousand different obligations, needs and responsibilities. He’s trying to make it in a tough city, find love and stay close with family. He does his best, he fails, he jokes about it and he keeps trying. He’s imperfect, but there’s something special about him, something others only get a glimpse of. And when we need him, when we really, really need him. He’ll be there.