"With great power comes great responsibility."
As I've mentioned before, my first major exposure to comics occurred at the age of 18, when I was living in my first apartment with two other guys, Steve Reed and Ed Lord. Steve was the SF book collector of the pair, while Ed Lord was the comic collector. It was in his collection that I first encountered the Amazing Spider-Man.
His basic origin is known to virtually everyone these days, given that there've been two movies in the last decade or so which re-told the origin with only minor changes: Peter Parker, orphan raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, science geek who is otherwise the all-around butt monkey of his generation, is bitten by a radioactive (later "genetically engineered") spider at a lab he is visiting, and discovers he has gained incredible powers from the bite: superhuman strength, speed, toughness, and agility, the ability to stick to walls, and a strange sixth sense that warns him of danger. In the original and one of the movie versions, he also then designs "webshooters" filled with a webbing fluid; in the other movie, he also gains the ability to shoot webs from his wrists. I prefer the original in this case.
Having gained these powers, the cash-strapped young man decides to cash in, going to an exhibition wrestling match and easily defeating the champion and becoming a momentary celebrity. At the scene of a minor crime, he ignores the perpetrator, figuring it's the problem of the police, not him, to stop the criminal.
Then his Uncle Ben is murdered, and upon hunting down the perpetrator, Peter discovers to his horror that the murderer was the man he had failed to stop earlier. Had he acted – had he taken responsibility as a citizen – his uncle would still be alive.
That failure, which cost him the only true father he had known and May her husband, irrevocably changed him. He accepted in his heart the basic truth quoted above: "With great power comes great responsibility", and ever since has fought to live up to the responsibility his fantastic powers have bestowed upon him.
In some ways, Spider-Man is the greatest of Marvel's creations (and one of the murkiest in origin, with Lee, Ditko, and Kirby having various parts of the credit depending on who's telling the story). He is also the most incredibly successful of the solo Marvel heroes, having supported multiple simultaneous books at the height of his career, been adapted into multiple cartoons, two live-action TV series, and two separate motion picture continuities.
To a great extent, I believe Spider-Man's success comes fom being the ultimate heroic wish-fulfillment fantasy for what used to be the primary demographic for superhero works – young men, especially geeky young men, between late teens and early 20s. It combines both the basic power fantasy – weak, nerdy Peter Parker is suddenly a powerhouse almost without equal – but the character fantasy of someone who reacts properly to his loss and becomes someone better than he was to begin with. The latter part, I think, is one of the keys. It's an obvious fantasy to take the weak "reader avatar" and bestow upon him great powers, but it's a more subtle one to take that reader avatar and put him through a process that forges him into a hero. By doing so, Stan Lee and Marvel allowed the reader to, vicariously, go through the process of becoming a hero as well.
Mostly a solo hero – though he has, at one point or another, worked with nearly every notable hero in the Marvel universe – Spider-Man is one of the most experienced superheroes alive. While there are some older than he (Thor, Captain America), there are few, if any, who can boast his obsessive commitment to his avocation. Scarcely a night goes by without him going out to do his part to reduce crime, save a few people, and live up to the responsibility of his power. There are other superhero TEAMS who don't have the combined aggregate experience that he does.
What struck me most in reading Spider-Man during the era that I read him is that Spider-Man's powers aren't actually the thing that makes him one of the most formidable heroes in the Marvel universe. Oh, those powers aren't anything to laugh at; he can move fifteen times faster than an ordinary human being, he can lift ten tons over his head, and he can sense almost any attack coming in time to dodge or otherwise react to it, a combination of abilities that anyone would find impressive.
But it is his combination of genius and bloody-minded stubbornness that truly makes him who he is. Spider-Man, even more than most heroes, simply will… not… stop if he has a job to finish. He's sick with the flu so he can barely stand? No problem, he'll still figure out how to beat the Rhino and get him gift-wrapped for the cops. A demonlord who can literally flood you with complete despair, breaking lesser men to sobbing, inert heaps? He'll fight it off and go utterly berserk on the demonlord until he has literally beat him into the ground. Entire city thinks he's a criminal or worse? He'll still just go straight into the most dangerous situations imaginable to save just one person. Beaten nearly to death, stuck under a piece of machinery too heavy for him to lift, with the cure for his dying aunt in front of him? He'll show you what "heroic resolve" means.
And if being an unstoppable Determinator isn't enough, Peter Parker is a certified genius. This is the man who invented a flexibly mixable web-fluid – and web-shooters – that can spin incredibly complex webs or single strands of multiple characteristics, and dissolve with no noticeable residue as needed. In the 1960s he designed wireless spider-tracers smaller than anything we could practically build for the next 30 years. He has devised cures for poisons and mutations, analyzed alien technology, and performed feats of invention that have left Reed Richards – generally acknowledged to be the smartest man in the Marvel universe – staring and saying he'd really like to meet Spider-Man's "friend" who came up with this.
While the combination of powers, genius, and will makes Peter in some ways one of the most dangerous heroes of the Marvelverse… it's in no way an embarrassment of riches. Because Peter Parker is also the bad-luck king of superheroes. The Fantastic Four have a skyscraper headquarters; the Avengers have a mansion and large paychecks when needed; Professor X makes sure the X-Men are well supported. Peter Parker lives in a one-room efficiency apartment and sometimes has to duck the landlady to avoid rent demands. His secret identity leads to countless misunderstandings, stood-up dates, injuries, illnesses, and potential job loss (even though he has historically managed to make money from pictures of himself in action). If Spider-Man's life seems to take a turn for the better, one can be sure that fate is waiting JUST around the corner with a whole crateful of anvils to drop on him.
His rogue's gallery includes some of the most diabolical and frightening characters in Marvel: the Green Goblin and his various offshoots, super-powered lunatics who sometimes reach Joker levels of psychotic insanity, with superpowers to match; Doctor Octopus, genius of technology with nuclear-powered arms; Electro, living master of electricity; and the alien symbiote-based Venom and Carnage.
Outside of his main rogues gallery, Spidey has also faced a huge number of the major adversaries in the Marvel universe; I'm not sure but what he has the most diverse set of opponents for any individual character, as he has co-starred at one point or another with everyone from the Fantastic Four to the X-Men, Avengers, and Man-Thing, duking it out with enemies of almost every other hero of note – sometimes to startling effect.
Spider-Man's appeal remains the fact that he is so very, very human even after years doing his hero-ing. He can never allow himself to let go of the guilt that drives him, or the uncertainty that his early upbringing and experiences gave him. Even as an adult, he is, inside, the same shy and nervous teenager we first met, who partially dons the Spider-Man mask to become someone else, a wisecracking, confident hero who can drive an opponent to distraction with his words while whipping the tar out of him with his fists. Many of us can empathize with him, and the stories in which we are reminded of this – that behind the mask is a young man who is still, and always, desperately trying to prove himself – are by far the most powerful.
At the same time, he is one of the greatest representations of hero in the comic-book world. He is not rewarded for most of his actions – in fact, is frequently vilified for no reason. He does what he does because he knows it is the right thing to do, and he has seen, first-hand, what happens when a man passes up those responsibilities. He may be sick, injured, weakened. He may even lose his powers. But he will never stop so long as there is someone who needs his help, and more than one villain has discovered the true meaning of terror as he has seen Spider-Man, seemingly beaten, drag himself to his feet and keep coming, through everything that can be thrown at him, to make sure that the bad guys once more lose… no matter what the cost.
There are plenty of things about the long-running Spider-Man franchise I haven't been happy about (the retcon of the death of Aunt May, for instance, or the whole Venom thing, or the Clone saga), but none of them have changed my view of the essential character as one of those who exemplifies what superheroes are supposed to be. My thanks to Stan, Steve, and Jack – in whatever combination – for making one of the most enduring, and inspiring, comic creations of all time.