|Scene from Spider-Man: Homecoming|
Since the year 2000, there has been a large influx of superhero cinema that has expanded almost annually and monthly. It's a miracle if anyone could keep them all straight. However, there's those lone few whose top billing automatically earns attention, sometimes criticism from online audiences. One could argue that the most popular also headline the most movies. So, excluding brief cameos, what characters have lead the most movies? One could easily and quickly ramble off Batman, Wolverine, and Iron Man, but what about Spider-Man? While he has had adaptations before the turn of millennium, he has predominantly become a household name thanks to Sam Raimi's original trilogy starring Tobey Maguire. Considering how masculine the other big names are, one must ask themselves why someone labeled as a "Friendly neighborhood Spider-Man" has lead enough movies to rival the larger icons. It isn't necessarily because of one iconic acting performance like Wolverine or Iron Man. No, it's more that he's something closer to us. He's a hero of the people.
There's a lot that can be understood about Spider-Man, a.k.a. Peter Parker, based on how he was introduced by Raimi in 2002. As the camera enters his world, it crosses through a bus to Parker's narration. We are about to meet the boy hero, the person who deserves all of our admiration. Where is he? He isn't on the bus with all of these smiling faces, but out on the street trying to get onto that bus. He just wants to get to school. To an extent, Parker is billed immediately as a loser, or someone striving to be respected by his peers. He isn't a character that many would think of as super. He doesn't have Batman's ability to light up a room as Bruce Wayne. He is a teenager who lives with his aunt and uncle, of whom have varying degrees of economic struggles. This is made ironic when it is revealed that he's friends with Harry Osborne, son of a big end businessman.
His powers come accidentally through a radioactive spider. They aren't overwhelming or massive. In fact, the ability to shoot webs is only useful if you don't own a car. There's something measly about his powers, yet he has now lead six movies, including two rebooted series. What makes him so special? He is a hero who has a more complex emotional spectrum. Whatever struggles he has don't just impact him. They impact his relatives, his loved ones, even his relationships to people related to villains. He is a man who can be a self-reliant opportunist, doing his part to make the world a better place. In some ways, he does it to overcome grief of his own mistakes. His mantra "With great power comes great responsibility" reflects the conflict he often faces to do the right thing when using his powers for petty gains would be a lot easier.
The world of Spider-Man is also populated with characters that are far more interesting than the average set. J. Jonah Jameson is an eccentric newsman who likes things his way. He distorts the news so that he can sell newspapers. He is one of the oppressive figures in Parker's life, never taking him seriously unless there is personal gains for him. It's true that Superman famously had a job at the Daily Planet, but his boss never seemed quite so hard-nosed. It could be that Parker's physique and skills make him feel more human, but it's also that he is a mix of an adult growing into his responsibility along with being the angsty young man who wants respect. Considering how generation gaps cause tension in real life, it's hard to not see why Spider-Man should be more frustrated with the world.
Even if they're not the most iconic or familiar, Spider-Man also has fought some of the most interesting foes on screen. At least in the six movie versions, his enemies have all shared a certain and tragic set of values. They are all men of science whose lives took one turn too many in the wrong direction. Some of it was done be their own ego, while others were through economic desperation. Characters like The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, The Sandman, and even Electro all have back stories that seem like warped parallels to Parker. Even in a broad sense, they have drives to fulfill a peace in their lives. The only issue is that paranoia and madness are even more alluring, suggesting that control over the city will control their own insecurities.
The exploration of these themes were done best in Spider-Man 2, where Parker has graduated college and is trying to find a place in the world. He is a failed pizza man whose ex-girlfriend is having a successful acting career. Meanwhile, he must face a mentor of sorts in Doctor Octopus, whose technological dreams lead him into a desire for power. This causes massive destruction, and even puts Parker's family in harm's way. This becomes problematic as his own powers disappear and his enthusiasm is pushed to its limits. It's a dramatic take, and one that puts the hero in incredible danger. How is he going to stop Doctor Octopus and a speeding train heading for disaster? Thankfully Raimi balances it nicely and creates the sense of good overcoming evil no matter what the cost. There were some unfortunate realities to this, and it makes the hero more than a teenager trying to hide a secret.
Over the course of the six films, Spider-Man's universe has thrived where others haven't because they show two sides of the same action, and all through the field of scientists placing themselves into that situation. There have been great villains and terrible ones, but they all embody a struggle to be accepted. For Parker, it is done through believing that his powers can be used to better the world. It's true that this is mostly through an almost bare bones method of slinging webs and using his spidey sense to predict next moves. However, he has a lot of his own physicality and sense when it comes to defeating his foes that have sometimes more extreme powers. Considering how oppressive that weight can be, one can't help but find Spider-Man more courageous for somehow saving the day.
It also helps that, through cultural osmosis, he has one of the most iconic theme songs in superhero history. It helps that his costume has a great design that is immediately recognizable. It helps that even at its moodiest, none of the six Spider-Man movies have fallen into the dour gritty reboot territory entirely. There's always humor and a sense of optimism, for if Spider-Man gives up there isn't a story. He fails to be more than a citizen that could stop chaos. He embodies a can-do attitude that is distinctly American, including an ability to do everything with great quips. He is great because he's young, but also because he fights fear in the face of being destroyed. He is far from the strongest superhero, but he has such a rich personal life that it's easy to overlook. Who wouldn't want to climb on walls and swing from building to building? Batman may have the cooler gadgets, but Spider-Man fights with his own capabilities against those who used theirs for evil. It may seem lame, but it's also the great metaphor of life.