Look Within: You’ll Find a Spidey There

Danny Fingeroth, former editorial director of Marvel Comics' Spider-Man line and a consultant on the first Spider-Man movie, is author of the book "Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society" (Continuum, 2004). E-mail:

There are other superheroes, to be sure, and they all have their appeal. Everyone knows Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman. Even people who have never read a comic know Superman’s “Up, up and away” and the catchphrases of the other heroes. But no superhero has ever captured our hearts like Spider-Man.

What magic did Stan Lee and Steve Ditko unearth when they created the web-spinner in 1962, and why does it still touch us so deeply today? Why, to put it another way, did the first Spider-Man movie make close to a billion dollars -- and why is the next one, which opened Wednesday, poised to make even more?

When I was editorial director of Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man line, we used to refer to Spidey as “the regular-guy superhero.” He really could be any one of us. To be Superman, you had to come from another planet. To be Wonder Woman you had to be born a mythological Amazon princess. But to be Spider-Man, you just had to be bitten by a radioactive spider. (Hey, it could happen.) You didn’t have to be from a superhuman race. You just had to have it happen to you, and we all have things happen to us.


And when the spider gave Peter Parker his superpowers, he did what any of us would have done. He didn’t go out and fight crime right away. He set out to make some money to help his kindly aunt and uncle, and also to have a few bucks to enjoy life. He was just a teenager. But when his uncle was murdered, things suddenly got a lot more serious. Peter captured the killer and realized that “with great power there must also come great responsibility.” End of fun, time to be serious forever, right?


Because no matter how bad things became for Peter/Spidey, he always approached his responsibilities the way we all do -- ambivalent and complaining all the way. Sure, he felt a responsibility to use his powers for good. He was brought up right. But he wanted to have fun -- because, really, how could swinging through the canyons of New York not be fun? Sometimes he loved being Spider-Man, sometimes he hated it. Sometimes he turned his back on it for a while. But his sense of responsibility always brought him back. And that’s what we’d all like to think we’d do in his place. To paraphrase Walt Kelly’s Pogo: We have met the Spider-Man and he is us.

Does Spider-Man operate out of a Fortress of Solitude or a Batcave? No. His “headquarters” was his room in his aunt’s house. Later, he moved to an apartment that, to afford, he had to share with a roommate. Wonder Woman and Green Lantern never seemed to have to worry about where they’d clean their dirty costumes after a night of crime-fighting. Peter had to figure out how to make sure no one would take his spider suit out of the dryer at the laundromat when he wasn’t looking.

In the 40 years since his creation, Spider-Man changed the landscape of superheroes. They still had to be pure of heart, but they were allowed to slip from perfection. They could save the day but still feel unloved and unappreciated, even by themselves. The glib thing is to say that he opened the door for the neurotic superhero. I prefer to say that he showed us we could all be pure of heart if we just tried hard enough.

If the Hulk represents rage, Superman optimism and Batman revenge, Spider-Man, more than any other superhero, represents heart. And that’s the key, I think, to his ever-growing popularity. He’s not embarrassed by it or ashamed of it, nor should we be of our own striving to be better than we are, to get up again and again no matter how many times we get knocked down. It’s Spider-Man’s greatest superpower. And ours.