By Tyler Pietras
Like many other comic book readers and Marvel fans across the world, I was shocked to hear about Stan Lee passing away. For those who are not aware, Stan Lee was one of Marvel’s most prolific writers and personalities; if you love Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, X-Men, Black Panther, or any other famous superheroes from the Marvel pantheon, then there is a good chance that you too have been touched by the work of Stan Lee.
Obviously, he did not do this alone, and the many artists he’s worked with deserve a lot of credit for the life they gave these characters as well, but the impact Stan Lee had, and still has, on popular culture is undeniable. He was a man whose work has touched many of us and whose larger than life personality was befitting of a man who was essentially the father of the modern superhero. And now, at the age of 95, he is gone. A living legend has become a legend.
I’ve thought long and hard about how to process this. While I am shocked and saddened by the news, it is also a fact that Stan Lee led one of the most accomplished lives any writer can hope for. His characters can simply be described as icons. As a child who grew up with superheroes in comic books and television shows in the 90s, it warms my heart to think that his characters have become more prolific than ever through Marvel’s cinematic universe.
So, I wanted to write this small reflection on one of my favorite of Stan Lee’s characters and what they have meant to me over the years. That character, surprising no one, is Peter Parker, better known as Spider-Man.
Spider-Man’s story has been retold countless times in several different mediums and through the eyes of several different writers, but the core elements remain the same: teenager is bitten by radioactive spider and is faced with the difficult question of what to do with his powers. At first, Peter uses his powers as many of us would. He uses it to make money, stand up to his bullies in school, and even try to win over the girl he has a crush on. But in the midst of abusing his powers, Peter allows a criminal to go free when he could have stopped him, and that same criminal winds up killing his uncle and father figure, Ben. It is at this moment when Uncle Ben gives Peter a character defining message: with great power, comes great responsibility. From there, Peter is forced to deal with the fact that he not only has great power, but actually has amazing power, the likes of which allow him to outshine many of the other superheroes around the Marvel universe.
That story has changed very little over time in Marvel Studios. While new additions have been made to it (see how Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, becomes a father figure for Peter in more recent films) the main point of the story remains the same. Peter Parker, at the time, was not the sort of character who fit superheroes. He was small, nerdy, unpopular, and frankly an outcast at his school, which many kids can relate to. Even as he acquires superpowers, his identity doesn’t change overnight, as he is still subjected to bullying even though he could easily knock out any of his classmates without even trying. Furthermore, as a character, he feels human. He has flaws and often uses his powers for his own selfish desires. And that, in my view, is the truly special part of Peter Parker as a character. The only thing that separates him from many of us is the fact that he got bitten by a radioactive spider.
And that really is the biggest thing that separates Peter Parker from other superheroes. Superman, for instance, is an alien being who is virtually indestructible with a wide variety of superpowers. He pretends to be more human by becoming Clark Kent in order to live among humans. Superman is a godlike being who is always occupied with alien invasions and supervillains who could destroy the world with ease if left unopposed. Unlike Spider-Man, Superman doesn’t have to worry about finding a part-time job to support his aunt, passing his classes, or working up the courage to ask his high school crush on a date. He is above such things. Spider-Man, meanwhile, has to deal with both the problems typically encountered by superheroes as well as the many problems that come from being a teenager. His problems and emotions feel human, making the tale of Spider-Man far more relatable than those of superheroes who came before him.
Nowadays, we are spoiled by a lot of superheroes who are meant to feel like fairly normal people. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage deal with fairly mundane criminals on their respective shows on Netflix. Characters such as the Punisher further break the stereotype of the “perfect hero” by going out of their way to cross a line many others do not: killing criminals as an antihero.
For Marvel, the list goes on, and the same can be said for their rival company, DC, who has since struggled to make their own characters feel more relatable to a modern audience (see their many changes to Superman over the years for a perfect example). All of these things that we now take for granted started with Stan Lee’s Spider-Man, who shows that heroes should feel like regular people who just happened to also have superpowers.
And that’s important, because the line between regular people and superheroes has become further blurred over the years. More superheroes have been created who don’t have superpowers, and Marvel themselves often acknowledge that the real heroes in our world don’t wear capes. Stan Lee made us feel as though anyone, even ourselves, could be a hero under the right circumstances. And while it may seem cheesy, to me that is a very hopeful message that we need in this day and age: that one person can always make a difference.
So thank you Stan Lee, for reminding us that sometimes extraordinary things can come from the ordinary.