Spider-Man needs no introduction. He stands with Batman and Superman as the three most well-known superheroes in the world, and hell, one of the most recognizable fictional characters in general. Alongside Batman, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Transformers, his merchandise never leaves the shelves of stores for very long. It simply metamorphoses from iteration to iteration of the franchise. It’s easy to understand why.
Children enjoy the superhero action and a masked costume they can imagine themselves under, while older viewers/readers enjoy the personal struggles of a hero that’s “just like us,” wrestling with financial woes and a chaotic personal life in between fighting grenade-throwing imps on sky-gliders and salivating living clothing. As much as we identify with him, we can also learn from him.
Before we go any further, no, this is not a post about great responsibility as a required attachment to great power. That moral nugget has been repeated again and again and again through every iteration and adaptation of the webcrawler. Instead, we’re here to focus on the practical application of that platitude. It’s easy to proclaim a credo, much more difficult to live by it. Aside from occasional assistance from other Marvel heroes, Spider-Man has to weather the punches life throws by himself. He’s renowned for his difficult life after all. Yet despite incredible hardship, he always perseveres, because he has a higher ideal to guide him along.
A Bug’s Life
The Dark Age of Comics may have given us the heroes and antiheroes with really messed up personal lives, but Spider-Man (along with the Fantastic Four premiering the year before) pioneered the idea of the superhero with real life problems outside of the pyrotechnics and spandex. Uncle Ben’s Death by Origin Story was nothing new (Batman made that his schtick decades earlier), his early comics dealt with bullying and rejection as a high school student, and after graduation, he was beset by those pesky financial woes that DC superheroes never had to worry about but his readers knew them all too well. The theme of being a troubled outsider was Stan Lee’s intention from the very beginning:
“The idea I had, the underlying theme, was that just because somebody is different doesn’t make them better. … That seems to be the worst thing in human nature: We tend to dislike people who are different than we are.”
Peter’s misery collection was pumped up significantly as time went on, and grew to include being unable to pay for his own medical bills after sustaining injuries in fights, failing to save his girlfriend (kicking off the Bronze Age of Comics in the process), being buried alive, finding himself stalked by an alien monster that exceeds his powers in every way, mutating into a weird human/spider hybrid, finding out his dead girlfriend cheated on him with his archenemy and had twins, having to take part in the Clone Saga in general, getting his marriage erased by the devil, dying for real (in an alternate universe), and having his own body stolen by a different archenemy. Plus, of course, we’ll add in whatever misfortunes the comic writers think of in the future.
The point is, Spider-Man seems to have been designated as the Marvel Universe’s cosmic chewtoy. Uncanny misfortune is just as much of a power of his as the wall-crawling and spider-sense.
Spider-Man No More!
And yet, despite all of the weird and angsty shit that happens in his life, he keeps on fighting, and though he has quit on several occasions, he never stays gone for long. The most famous “I quit!” story is undoubtedly issue #50 of The Amazing Spider-Man, “Spider-Man No More!” It wasn’t the first time Peter considered hanging up the tights, a previous issue depicted a resignation that lasted about five minutes. In the issue, a combination of J. Jonah Jameson’s ceaseless smear campaign, slumping grades, and inability to attend to his family push Peter to dumping his costume in an alley trashcan, renouncing his life as a hero. Even if every reader know he wouldn’t really quit spinning webs for good, it was shocking to see the proclaimed amazing hero break.
A rapidly improving social and academic life fosters indifference towards a spiking crime rate and rise of a mysterious new foe claiming the criminal underworld (the first appearance of Wilson “YOU EMBARRASSED ME IN FRONT OF HER!” Fisk), an in-person encounter with a night watchman being mugged reminds him of his purpose in life. He once again dons the red and blue underoos after comically stealing them from Jameson.
Yes, Spider-Man 2 ripped off the plot of “Spider-Man No More!” wholesale, with the swap of Kingpin for Doc Ock.
It wasn’t the last time Parker would quit either. He would later attempt to create a serum to remove his powers so he could be with Gwen Stacy (good thing it didn’t stick since she died twenty issues later anyway). Years later he would hand off the mantle of Spider-Man to Ben Reilly because he believed he was a mere clone (Reilly was the real clone). Peter attempted using the “great power/responsibility” line to justify quitting in Amazing Spider-Man #275 , but Mary Jane just as quickly turned that mantra back around on him to get his mopey ass back in the superhero game.
Swinging Back In
Outside of some alternate universe stories where he really did quit for good (usually to make way for someone else to be the main character), Peter Parker’s resignations never last long. Something or someone always reminds him of the responsibility he accepted years ago. As Batman once said, “It’s a good tonic, altruism. Nothing helps one put problems in perspective like allegiance to a higher cause.” Whether it be a supervillain attack, a disaster, or witnessing a violent crime committed by common thugs, he will always be pulled back into the game. His trials and tragedies may be a strong foe, but his dedication to helping his fellow man is stronger.
So what lesson is there to take away from Spider-Man, other than the overdone power and responsibility line? Parker himself said it best in All-New Captain America Special Vol. 11:
We’re not just our failures. As much as they hurt, we learn from them. Then we go out there and do our best to make up for them– Even though we never will. We save people. We save as many as we can to make up for the ones we couldn’t. That’s all we do.
Dedication to a cause greater than ourselves can give us strength when everything else in life seems to crumble around us. Personal motivation may be fleeting and subject to sabotage, but a higher calling will remain. It will remain steadfast, hovering above us like the sun and moon above. So long as Spider-Man still draws breath (or as long as the character and franchise remain profitable), his altruism will compel him to keep fighting the good fight. When life seems to be giving you a tragic superhero origin story of your own, try looking to a higher purpose in life. It may just be the shot of web you need to swing out of a bad situation.