As often seems to happen in my life, a miraculous coincidence with disastrous results has cropped up — and sent me running to the internet. First things first: I have a colossal spider bite on my left arm. Like a Mt. Vesuvius level of spider bite — this spider must have been the size of a small dog. That in and of itself isn’t so remarkable, but I’ve been trained by decades of Saturday morning cartoons and something like a thousand Spider-Man movies that giant spider bite = superpowers. It’s just a matter of time, right?
Nothing in that vein has manifested so far. What has manifested in my veins instead is a minor infection, which is kind of the opposite of super-strength and agility. I’m drafting an angry letter to Stan Lee (and taking a healthy dose of antibiotics, no worries).
The remarkable part here — okay, the sort-of-mildly-interesting part — is that in two weeks, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 hits theaters. Coincidence? Again, decades of Saturday morning cartoons and something like a thousand Spider-Man movies would say obviously not. Regardless, these two things have finally given me the momentum to write what will truly be remembered as my magnum opus: On Spider-Man, or Why the Webhead is the Best Goddamn Superhero Ever.
First of all, let’s compare Spidey to the pantheon of other famous, lantern-jawed, musclebound heroes: Superman? Invincible. Batman? Fear incarnate. Iron Man? Flying tank. The Incredible Hulk? Unstoppable rage monster. Wolverine? Unstoppable rage monster with claws. Thor? God of friggin’ thunder.
Spider-Man? Proportionate strength of a spider. That’s it.
There’s a bit of Cirque du Soleil acrobatics thrown in, and, fine, if you’re getting technical he has some degree of precognitive instinctual plot armor “spider sense” thing, but really, proportional strength of a spider? Face it, tiger, you just hit the jack-shit-pot. Even the coolest part of Spider-Man’s powers — flying through Manhattan on strings of steely silk, like Tarzan brachiating in a concrete jungle — aren’t even a power in most incarnations of the character. The webslinging is made possible by some silly string knockoff Parker aerosolized and whipped up in his garage. Spider-Man lives in a universe where beings exist who can level cities with a breath, fly at supersonic speeds, lift buildings with their minds (and/or robotic limbs and/or normal limbs) — and he can crawl up walls.
I may not seem to be making my point here, so let me reiterate: Spider-Man has the shittiest superpowers ever. He’s sort of strong but not that strong, sort of fast but not that fast. He can’t fly without the aid of decades of civil engineering, city planning, and a graduate degree in bioengineering. He’s not a slab of impervious muscle, but a scrawny kid in glasses.
What makes Spider-Man the greatest hero is that his powers are so impossibly bad, so ludicrously outmatched by the rest of the Marvel catalog, so laughably themed (around arachnids, of all things) that he can’t help but be the most relatable superhero ever created.
Peter Parker is over-worked. He’s neurotic. He can’t keep his work life, personal life, or any other kind of life straight. He’s a slob and a scientist. In a word, he’s me, he’s you, he’s us — with a bit more ambition, a lot more radioactive spider blood, and the safety of New York riding on his slender shoulders.
And then, on top of everything else, Spider-Man realizes this. He’s aware that he’s a failure and a success, a laughingstock and a powerhouse. But he also knows that until Reed Richards shows up he’s the smartest person in the room — and let’s be honest here, that is ultimately always the greatest superpower. So he says stuff like this:
And makes jokes like this:
How can you not like a guy who’s smart enough to insult you as he beats you to a pulp? Batman never cracks one-liners, and I don’t think Kryptons smile. But Spider-Man has made a career out of being so doofy he’s spawned not just a meme but an entire genre of meme.
Spider-Man is good because he is so bad: a hopeless case of neuroses and failure — how many times has Peter Parker been penurious and pining? — who nonetheless finds it in himself and his relatively subpar gifts to save the day, time and time again. He never quits because he can’t bench press Cleveland. He never stops because his powers of flight give out around 116th Street. He soldiers on, in the face of insurmountable odds, and does it not only with a smile but with the joke you wish you had thought of. It’s that characteristic — knowing he’s not the best, not the strongest, not the lightning-bolt-shooting-est but he still keeps going — that make Spider-Man the greatest hero, and maybe the most inspirational to boot. Being a nerd, a scientist, and a tinkerer doesn’t hurt his case, either.
So I may not be getting super-strength or webshooters from this spider bite, but if I can get half of Spidey’s drive and determination, half of his moxie and verve, three-quarters or more of his girlfriend (hellllooooo MJ), I’ll consider the trade a success.