Homecoming indeed: What makes Spider-Man so special?

Anshu Lal

Jul,08 2017 10:45 18 IST

Being a kid is fun because there are many imaginative things you do, which you know will sound foolish when you grow up.

There are many kids who waited with bated breath to get that letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy and flicked a ruler, saying, 'Wingardium Leviosa', just to see if something would happen.

There are kids who wanted to be Pokemon Masters when they grew up. Or some who really tried hard to transform into a Super Saiyan.

Some wanted to be a mermaid like Ariel. Some believed in Shaktimaan while almost all believed in Santa Claus.

And then, there are many, many kids and young adolescents who extended their arms and touched their palm with the middle and ring finger to see if, by some miracle, web would suddenly shoot out of their wrists.

This is the kind of fandom Spider-Man has generated over the years since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the fictional superhero in 1962.

A child in Tokyo wearing a Spider-Man costume. Reuters

A child in Tokyo wearing a Spider-Man costume. Reuters

Spider-Man is as popular as the most iconic and famous superheroes like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. For many people, he is their favourite superhero. He is easily the most recognised Marvel character because even people who do not know much about superheroes probably know of Spider-Man.

So, what makes Spider-Man so special? And if he is indeed so popular, why did his popularity suddenly decline in the middle? After all, ever since Iron Man was released in 2008, superheroes like Iron Man and Captain America have clearly been more popular than the web-slinger in cinema.

Let's begin by answering the first question. The short answer is that Spider-Man was successful in depicting an issue which almost all other mainstream superheroes had largely ignored: Teenage problems.

Enter Peter Parker

Before Spider-Man was created, the role of teenagers in comics was largely limited to that of the sidekick. The main role of the superhero was always portrayed by someone usually a lot older.

Peter Parker broke this rule by not only being a nerdy, awkward teenaged superhero but by also not having any mentor. He, unlike Robin, did not have a Batman figure in his life to train him. He had to learn everything on his own. Of course, Spider-Man: Homecoming did portray Iron Man as a mentor to Spidey but we'll talk about that in a bit.

Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee took a huge risk by choosing a teenager as a superhero. Reuters

Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee took a huge risk by choosing a teenager as a superhero. Reuters

What separates Parker from the rest of the superhero alter-egos is that perhaps no other character allowed himself or herself to be as vulnerable as him.

In many Spider-Man comics, the readers could see pages with panels full of thought bubbles coming from Parker, talking about his feelings and difficulties. This gave the reader a feeling of being inside Parker's head.

This was also portrayed very efficiently in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man series starring Tobey Maguire as Parker. Especially in the first two films, there are many instances when Maguire's Parker breaks the fourth wall and is heard narrating his story. But that narration is more about him just thinking out loud and talking to himself about his feelings for Mary Jane Watson, dealing with Uncle Ben's death and his guilt over it, and the burden of handling his personal life while being a superhero at the same time.

And because Parker is a teenager, Spider-Man brought along the funnier, lighter side of it all successfully. Parker may be nerdy but he has always been a very sharp and witty person. He often uses his wit to take hilarious jibes at his enemies while fighting them to make them angry and more prone to make mistakes, again something which other superheroes don't engage in a lot or are unable to do as well.

For example, in the 2000 video game Spider-Man — parts of which are narrated by Stan Lee himself — there is a boss battle in which Spider-Man has to fight a giant Mysterio who is wearing a green suit and purple cape.

Following are some of the snappy, sharp and hilarious jibes Spidey comes up with:

'Hey, you've finally found a costume the size of your ego.'

'Dude, capes are out this year.'

'What? Are you colour blind? Who mixes green and purple?'

Clearly, nobody does it like your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.

Personal problems part of being a superhero

Unlike the stoic Batman or the righteous Superman — who focus more on the concepts of justice and morality, order and chaos — Spider-Man showed the world that the first problem you will face if you get superpowers is yourself.

Before even thinking about what truly is justice, Spider-Man has to deal with his own life and personal problems. His teenage issues of facing bullying, loneliness, finding love, dealing with the deaths of his loved ones and the guilt because of it, and managing his education and eventually a job do not magically disappear when Peter Parker turns into Spider-Man.

Parker does not have a phone booth which magically appears when he wants to change into his costume. He is not rich and does not have a mansion to himself to which he can retreat.

While most superheroes almost completely forget their alter ego when they wear their costumes, Spider-Man still has to deal with Peter Parker's issues even when he wears his costume. This is the true meaning of 'with great power, comes great responsibility'.

Spider-Man's vulnerability is his strength. Image courtesy: @SpiderMan/Twitter

Spider-Man's vulnerability is his strength. Image courtesy: @SpiderMan/Twitter

And Parker is not perfect at dealing with that responsibility. There have been many times when an emotionally exhausted Parker has quit as Spider-Man.

By showing that teenage problems aren't insignificant issues which will magically disappear once you get superpowers but real difficulties which even a superhero has to deal with, Spider-Man has been able to connect with people in a way which no other superhero has managed till now.

Spider-Man is a recognition and celebration of being a teenager. Marvel's greatest success lies in the fact that they sent out a message with Spider-Man that your idiosyncrasies, weirdness, nerdiness or geekiness are not petty problems. In fact, they are the traits which make you cool.

Peter Parker is witty, charming and sensitive because he is nerdy, awkward and goofy, not despite these traits. By showing how Parker accepts his quirks and eventually overcomes his problems of bullying and loneliness, Spider-Man gives hope to countless teenagers all over the world who face the same issues.

There was finally a superhero who directly appealed to that weird and lonely kid whom nobody talked to. Spider-Man asks us all to stop obsessing over our quirks and instead focus on the unique beauty that lies within.

Redefining masculinity

While most male superheroes are relatively stoic, packed with physical strength, aggressive, rugged or invulnerable, Spider-Man shows that there is much more than that to being a man.

Spider-Man redefines the idea of a male superhero. Image courtesy: @SpiderMan/Twitter

Spider-Man redefines the idea of a male superhero. Image courtesy: @SpiderMan/Twitter

Even Spidey's superpowers are more about his agility and quick reflexes than super strength. Rather than having a 'genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist' image or a Hulk-like body, Spider-Man shows that it is as important, and sometimes more important, for a man to be sensitive, demonstrative and even vulnerable.

The way Spider-Man is portrayed shatters the highly sexist belief that a man should not 'whine' about his 'feelings'.

Spider-Man is one of the relatively few role models in mainstream comics who redefine masculinity and help get rid of the stereotypes associated with it.

Talking about your feelings and openly expressing pain does not make you less of a man. Men are allowed to, and in fact, should be sensitive and caring. And dealing with personal, emotional issues does not make a superhero weak.

Homecoming indeed

Now, to answer the second question, the decline in Spider-Man's popularity since Spider-Man 3 (released in 2007) has a lot to do with the fact that till the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming, the focus on Peter Parker's teenage issues went down. It was either portrayed in a cliched way which was turning into a formula, or not given enough attention.

Tom Holland as Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Coming. Image courtesy: @SpiderMan/Twitter

Tom Holland as Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Coming. Image courtesy: @SpiderMan/Twitter

Homecoming, however, shows a 15-year-old Peter Parker who is once again the goofy but lovable teenager we all admire.

Tom Holland's Parker is a good balance between the recklessness and awkwardness associated with Parker and the 'amazing' superpowers of Spider-Man.

Spidey's latest film is more about a teenager struggling with being a teenager — than a superhero saving the world. And even though Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark aka Iron Man is his mentor, Parker often enters into conflicts with him and does not follow him blindly, indicating that he learns more through self-discovery than through his mentor. Parker's last scene with Stark in the film especially dwells on this fact.

With Homecoming, Spider-Man is back to being more of the troubled and vulnerable teenager than the action hero doing death-defying stunts, which is exactly the way we love Spidey.

Also read on Firstpost — Marvel Cinematic Universe 101: All you need to know about the massive franchise