What is it about superheroes that makes them endure the tedium of normal life? And why do we, as readers, allow it? If we had the powers of our heroes, would we stand for the petty meanness of the average people who bully us? If we knew our friends had such powers, would we allow them to do nothing for us or for themselves?
There’s an unspoken rule among superheroes that powers are to be used only in critical situations. We’re not often told why, but the origin of one superhero gives us a look at what could happen without such self-restraint.
Spider-Man wasn’t always Spider-Man. For most of his childhood he was mild-mannered Peter Parker, an orphaned genius being raised by his elderly aunt and uncle. He was a bookish, withdrawn kid, regularly used and abused by his classmates. . . .
Then one day on a field trip to a laboratory, Peter was bitten by a spider exposed to radiation. Over time Peter discovered that he had appropriated the physical characteristics of a spider—the ability to stick to walls and ceilings; greatly enhanced strength, speed and agility; and (we’re told much later in the 2002 film) the capacity to spin his own webbing. He had always been smarter than anyone in his class; now he was stronger, faster, more talented and quickly more confident as well.
So Peter did what you might expect the butt of everyone’s jokes to do: he started showing off. He picked fights with schoolmates and got quick revenge on the people who had abused him for so long, and he started making lots of money by exploiting his newfound talents as an unbeatable mystery wrestler. He alienated everyone he encountered—his employer, his classmates, eventually even the press—with his rash, defiant attitude. And when he could have stopped a burglary without even exerting himself, he didn’t bother. All the average, immature high-school students got their comeuppance from Peter, but no bad guys met justice through Spider-Man.
Peter learned a painful lesson though. His uncle, who had raised him since his parents’ death, lost his life at the hands of the very burglar Peter had let escape. Peter quickly realized that by his inaction he was complicit in his uncle’s death. And by the end of his first adventure, as he meditated on his uncle’s advice—"With great power comes great responsibility"— he grew up a bit and discovered the proper channel for his abilities.
Of course, this passage is looking at the origin of Spider-Man, and he's grown up quite a bit since then. The adult Peter Parker we'll meet in 3 faces problems progressively more complex and more grave. This third movie should once again do what the first two have already done: demanded more aesthetically, psychologically, relationally and even morally from the genre. Let me know what you think of the previews you've seen; as for me and my house, we will buy I-Max tickets in advance.
Peter Parker added an adolescent humanness to superheroes that until his debut in the comic Amazing Fantasy had played a minor role, and he resonated with his readers. We learned that to fantasize about having special powers was all well and good, but there was a corresponding ethic to having such powers, and our fantasies would not play out as we might like if we intended to remain the hero of our own stories. We can hope that someday we will be stronger than we are, better equipped to handle the hardships we inevitably face, but we must also hope that we will use that strength with wisdom and humility.
For Peter, that humility meant returning day after day to school and eventually to work, enduring humiliation as well as he could, and seeking the appropriate balance of power and responsibility that his uncle had pointed him toward. He used his powers only against those whose passions could not be controlled by the ordinary safeguards of law, common decency and moral impulse. He alternately used and hid his powers so that he and the people around him could live as normal and happy a life as possible. Such was his gift, and such was the greatest use of his strength.