When I was growing up in the 1990s, there were three super-heroes everyone knew of, regardless of how they felt about super-heroes, comics, and the like. These three were Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. While many others heroes have risen in popularity since, it seems that the big three are still the best known and most marketable super-heroes out there.
While I liked all three, my favorite among them was Spider-Man. When I was a kid, I read the Spider-Man comics when I could (though I rarely had access to them) and used to eagerly watch every episode of the ’90s Spider-Man cartoon that I could catch (they were shown at odd hours of weekdays where I was living, so I never managed to really consistently make them a part of my TV schedule). If you asked me why I liked Spider-Man as a kid, I’m not sure I could have articulated it. “He’s cool” might have been a response from my young self, and it was true. I did think the fact that Spider-Man looked cool (I’m not much of a fan of capes) and the way he moved was different and exciting. But there was something more. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
As I matured, I started reading a lot more comics. I caught up on the ’90s Spider-Man animated series and saw that it was much less exciting to me as an adult. I found great, classic comic book stories to read featuring Superman and (especially) Batman. My appreciation for the medium and its characters grew, as is known to happen when passing through adolescence and entering adulthood. And still, when I asked myself which one of the big three super-heroes I felt connected to the most, Spider-Man was it.
Looking at the subject through my adult eyes, I believe I know a little bit more about why this is. It comes down to relatability.
Superman is a god-like alien. He’s by all means a good and decent person, but it’s difficult to feel close to him when he’s nearly invulnerable and easily capable of doing the seemingly impossible. Superman is a shining light, one that is meant to inspire us and show us how we can do better. He shows us how far we still have to go, but also how high we can rise.
Batman, while mortal, is very distant from regular people in most ways that count. He’s a billionaire, he lives a secret double life, has knowledge and experience (as well as a state of mind) that are nearly without peer in their depth and scope. Batman lives an isolated life, with very few people actually close to him. His psyche is deeply damaged, with the trauma he experienced as a child (when his parents were gunned down before his eyes) changing him forever. While Batman is surely to be admired for his courage and sacrifice, he is an extreme example of how a horrific event can affect someone in an extreme way. People might want to be like Batman, but in the end no-one comes close. In addition, hardly anyone would like to pay the price he’s paid to get there.
Additionally, it has been said about both Superman and Batman that their civilian identity is actually their secret identity, the one they use to hide their true persona from the world. Superman crash-landed on earth as a baby and is now pretending to be a clumsy, nerdy, weakling reporter in order to disguise his abilities. While it seems that Superman does consider Clark Kent to be his true name, much of Clark is an act (when he’s not strictly in the company of those who are in the know, such as his parents). Batman, it has been suggested, is so psychologically damaged that on the fateful night when he lost his parents he was forever changed. That day, the Batman was born, and Bruce Wayne was replaced. These days, the well-adjusted, fun-loving Bruce is a complete facade. Whenever we see Bruce in private, he’s in the Batman mindset.
Spider-Man is different. Peter Parker is just a normal teenager (albeit a genius) when the accident that gives him his super powers happens. At first, Peter’s instincts don’t point him to fight crime, but to do what many of us would do if we were suddenly capable of amazing physical feats: try and make some money.
There is a similarity in how Spider-Man and Batman were pushed into their crime fighting careers, in that both of them experienced tragedy with the loss of a loved one (in Batman’s case it was both of his parents; in Spider-Man’s case it was his uncle Ben, who had been a father to Peter since Peter’s parents died when he was very young). But here lies the difference: Peter’s personality was not changed in any significant way due to the loss. He is, essentially, the same person he was before he got his powers. That’s something that, as mentioned, cannot be said about Bruce Wayne. Spider-Man’s secret Identity is also in stark contrast to his counterparts—Peter’s personality hasn’t changed, as he is truly himself when he is out of his costume. When he puts on his mask he is pretending, and he’s doing so to protect his loved ones. Peter has people close to him who know the real Peter, even though they don’t know his secret.
The problems that plague our heroes also put Spider-Man in contrast with his two caped counterparts. The big problems that Superman and Batman face are mostly related to their superhero lives, as fits two people who’s superhero persona is their true self. But Spider-Man is only Peter Parker’s alter-ego. Peter is the real character beneath, and as such his problems mostly relate to his real life and the people close to him. Even when Peter is adversely affected by his super-hero lifestyle, the effects are usually related to how his crime fighting distracts him from his real life or how it might put his loved ones in harm’s way.
Finally, the three heroes’ motivations show us again why Spider-Man is more relatable than the other two. Superman’s motivation seems to come from his benevolence. Superman is the selfless hero who inspires and leads us by example. He wants to simply make the world better. While some wish they could say they share these motivations, the vast majority of us can’t. As we discussed, the Superman standard is meant to be unattainably high.
Batman seems to be motivated by an almost messianic urge for justice and/or revenge on the criminal element. His actions are helpful and his ends are good, but his motivation comes more from his own obsession than anything else.
Spider-Man’s main motivation to fight crime and save lives seems to be guilt. Peter Parker must forever live with the knowledge that he let the criminal who ended up killing his uncle get away. The guilt he feels over his part in his uncle’s death, as well as his uncle’s words—”With great power comes great responsibility”—are forever embedded in Peter’s mind. He spends his life trying to make up for that one time he acted irresponsibly.
Batman and Superman are both likeable in their own ways. Both have great stories in their catalogs. Both are characters we can admire and respect. But they are both also distant from the reader in many ways, and this makes them harder to relate to in certain, significant ways. It is not to criticize them to say that they are not men of the people; they aren’t meant to be.
Spider-Man is of the people. His problems are mostly our problems, his life is lived among us, as one of us. Peter faces many day-to-day problems that plague many of us, such as financial difficulties, a family member suffering illness, social awkwardness, and romantic troubles. When Spider-Man is fighting crime, Peter Parker is often nervous and scared. Peter Parker is a real, flawed, vulnerable human being who just happens to have extraordinary abilities. His obligation to be a super-hero is a reluctant one. He is person first and a super-hero second, and that is what makes him so relatable. We can feel truly close to Spider-Man, because we feel truly close to Peter Parker.
Asaph Bitner is a staff writer for Capeless Crusader. His other activities include studying for a college degree and dreaming of visiting the Song Of Ice And Fire universe as a future-tech wielding jedi secret agent. You can follow him on twitter at @AsaphBitner.