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What’s different about Spiderman?

Spiderman is one of the “usual suspects”, the crop of ultra-famous superheroes created between the 1940s and 1960s by the old guard of comic books. Everyone knows who he is and plenty of people wear spider-man t shirts. He may not have the sheer star power of Batman or Superman, but he is definitely one of the most popular superheroes. Have you ever heard someone use the phrase “My spider sense is tingling” when they think that they sense something bad? That alone should tell you about the cultural influence of superheroes in general and Spiderman in particular. But what makes him different from the others?

At first glance, he appears to have all of the aspects that popular superheroes do: a good origin story, a rogues gallery full of unique adversaries, an arch nemesis who presents a moral as well as a physical challenge, a distinctive costume, and a set of powers with a consistent and recognizable theme (those resembling a spider). And yes, all of those things help make Spiderman who he is. But there’s more to it than that. It’s not just the memorable villains like Venom and the Green Goblin or his costume or powers. There’s something else very distinctive about Spiderman.

That “something else” is how relatable the character is. And when you think about it, Spiderman is very unique in this respect. Heroes like Superman and Batman have their origin stories, and even have psychological traumas in their pasts. But their actual stories, their appearances in comic books, are just about all the shenanigans where they defeat the bad guys. Batman has his mental issues and Superman has his origin story, but mostly what they do is beat up mooks and take down the Big Bad. The day-to-day lives of Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are never really discussed.

Spiderman is different because he’s not just a superhero. He’s also a person. Batman is a towering superhero and even his secret identity is a billionaire; Superman is the very archetype of a superhero and Clark Kent is a little banal. The difference is that Peter Parker is a regular joe, but he’s a regular joe with realistic problems. Spiderman’s story involves lots of the usual comic book fare of fighting bad guys and taking down evil corporations. But his stories are often intertwined with Peter Parker’s everyday life. He comes to terms with the death of a relative; he experiences unrequited love; he struggles to make ends meet; he has a host of personal issues. Bruce Wayne is just a backdrop for Batman and Clark Kent is just a way to explain what Superman does the rest of the time. The Spiderman comics are unique because they’re as much about Peter Parker as they are about Spiderman.

This, in turn, explains his peculiar popularity. Why would a hero who displays those kinds of weaknesses be so popular? But of course, that’s why he’s popular. Nobody expects superheroes to be well-developed Dostoyevsky characters, but it’s nice to occasionally see one with a little depth.


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