In celebration of everyone’s favorite web-head, July is Spectacular Spider-Month at AiPT! We have a series of amazing articles in store for the month. Movies, television, gaming, and of course comics will all be covered with great responsibility as we honor one of comics’ greatest heroes.
If you asked my girlfriend, she’d say I have daddy issues. But if you asked me, I’d just say that I have a complicated relationship with the archetypes of manliness. Then I’d do a giant raspberry.
Not only is this idea wildly nebulous — how does one make the distinction between male and female values, and should you in the first place? — but I’ve always had issues maintaining role models. My father and I have a mostly uncertain dynamic; my mother’s married several times, which has introduced and later rescinded several male figures into my life; and I’m generally a worrisome and neurotic sort to begin with, which isn’t always deemed “masculine.”
All of that context has forced me, like so many other men of my age, to seek out male approval in pop culture. Whether it’s The Punisher, Liam Neeson’s entire CV, or Raylan Givens, these men provided some kind of patchwork code for behaving decently in an indecent world. But none more so than Batman, the singular influence on my young, impressionable mind. It’s the Caped Crusader who taught me about emotional maturity, loyalty and duty, the healing strength of family, ingenuity and creativity, and the value of a DIY approach.
But where I thought I’d always be Bruce Wayne, turns out I’ve become Peter Parker.
I suppose it’s not uncommon for boys to latch firmly onto Batman. He’s a crime-fighting badass, with a tool or a plan to counter any sort nemesis. But my appreciation went so much deeper. Here was a man who, despite losing his parents, still had pretty much everything: a sick house, a fat bank account, total personal freedom, and, hey now, a loving and nurturing father figure in Alfred Pennyworth (and also Jim Gordon). Batman is a lesson in that pain doesn’t come from absolute loss, but in how we frame this emotional rot. That it’s entirely possible to focus on a singular aspect of your life and make that the focus — a powerful lesson on both obsession and the power in which we give to our emotions and suffering.
But eventually you find that singular ember of despair losses some of its power. Even decades into a globe-trotting career in superheroics, Batman’s motivation isn’t all that pain, but the millions of steps he’s taken based on that, a life built perpetuating something that becomes increasingly unfamiliar as you inch away from it, claws dug deep in its smokey facade. As you might guess, that kind of devotion doesn’t work if you’re not a billionaire playboy, and so you have to find other ways to cope with all this psychic baggage.
And that’s where you slowly start to become more and more like Spider-Man. Mr. Parker arguably has a more traumatic backstory depending upon the medium and canon, but basically he’s got one loving aunt, a bunch of dead parental figures, and years of resulting grief and trauma. So, how does Parker decide to deal with this pain? Like Batman, it’s become a holy mission of sorts, this driving force that colors every thwip of his web. But there is a distance, a buffer between Parker and his pain. He convinces himself he can have a life with MJ, or that he holds value as a scientist or a photographer outside his Spider-Man-ing. It’s the young fool who thinks that pain can live on eternal like Batman.
But it’s the man whose lived with that trauma like Spidey that hopes and wishes he can one day push the pain into the background. Batman’s not any more realistic — he’s a rich kid who has the power to hold on to his emotions as long as he pleases. It’s Parker who has errands and rent to pay, working to make space for something in his life beyond the pain and his sense of duty. We want to think there’s a payoff for all of our suffering, and that’s not the case if you’re trying to be Batman. It is, however, admirable of Parker to move beyond his pain, even if it does only make room for more dark and nasty creatures to pour into the frame.
Someone once told me that they like Batman because he answers the question, “How far would you go for justice?” And when you’re a young, dumb kid, that kind of commitment can be deeply appealing. Without revealing too much, I had some issues with my mother’s second husband, and he and I bashed heads over his destructive temper and complete lack of respect or decency in keeping our home afloat. When you’re dealing with a picture-perfect villain, it’s easy to want to be like Batman, to have the strength of being and steel-plated gauntlets to dole out justice as you see fit.
And here’s where anyone could once more make the “he’s super rich” argument, but the fact of the matter is, even if he lived on $50 a week, Batman would still be the type of person willing to forego health and happiness to hurt his foes. It’s not that you needed $1 billion to become Batman — sure does help, though — you just have to be willing to delve into the darkest parts of yourself and of the world to find the drive for lasting jsutic. Batman doesn’t kill, and that could be seen as a limit, but really, it’s just another manifestation of his neurosis. Batman is really the answer to, “How much would you give up for your own desires?”
That’s not to say Spidey doesn’t have the same kind of commitment as ol’ Bats. Nor is it that he cares more about his pretty wife and generally cool life to slow down on the superheroics. Instead, Spidey never seems to ask how far he’d go because he sort of knows already. There’s never been a lot of moral back-and-forth with the character — sure, he’s gone overboard a few times, and done things he may have regretted (mostly stuff with the symbiotes), but that’s not central to the Spidey canon. What is central, however, is that he’s mostly settled in who he is as a hero, which is to say, the dude who’s totes cool with being “The Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.” Or the eternal jokester, even if such a label might somehow “lessen” his credibility as a hero.
For Spidey, justice is important, but there’s costs that just aren’t worth it, a price too high too pay if you’re left isolated or burning with rage or perpetually questioning if there’s more depths to fall from your moral perch. If anything, Spider-Man embraces his status as a “lower” tier hero, which is to say someone who isn’t a beloved anti-hero or mega badass. And in doing so, he elevates himself as among the greatest of all heroes, a true paladin who knows himself and his limits and makes the world a better place from within that framework.
There’s a central thread moving through these issues: a sense of awkwardness. Anyone who’s paid attention over the last 80-plus years will know that Batman is the antithesis of awkwardness. He’s grace personified, a back-up plan for his back-up plan, expertly controlling every element of his universe to maximize results. Because if Bats doesn’t, his mostly mortal self will get eaten by giant crocodiles or trounced by demi-gods. Yet his inclination toward planning is so much more than that — Bats is a control freak. Without exerting that level of influence on the world, he feels powerless, as helpless as he did all those years ago in Crime Alley. By reducing the risk for error, predicting and shaping the outcome of every battle or confrontation, Batman can literally change the world into whatever he needs it to be.
Because to let the unpredictable happen wouldn’t just wreck Bats psychically, but betray every promise he made about “never again.” Awkwardness is the death of his singular advantage — a level of preparedness bordering on the celestial. So much of who Batman is as a character stems from that struggle against weakness and ineffectiveness. And, again, young dudes are always going to be drawn to that ideal, this chance to transcend one’s own shortcomings and master your universe via grit and determination. To think our brain alone can conquer entropy and chaos and place us on a path to some destiny.
It’s Spidey, then, who reminds us that even with the best of intentions, Batman’s level of commitment to anti-awkwardness isn’t always feasible. Some fans might argue that Parker is a guy who either A) depends on his awesome powers to guide him through heroics or B) he’s the epitome of the Everyman, and thus has no ability or even need to plot like a Batman. Perhaps some of that’s true, but with his genius mind, Parker could be as skilled a tactician as any hero (and there’s clearly evidence of just such expertise during heated battles).
Instead, I think Parker willfully embraces awkwardness, or at least a sense that the chaos and uncertainty are generally good things. It’s not just about going with the flowing and hoping for the best; Parker opens himself up to the unknown machinations of the universe, eschewing plans and tactics for the skill and speed he knows he has to battle whatever odds may pop up. That’s an important lesson that some folks learn far too late in life, and that the best-laid plans don’t just go awry but blow up directly in your face. To embrace that “awkwardness” is to accept a sense of powerlessness within the world, and through that slightly underdog approach, Parker has always found some kind of courage to act courageously.
Ultimately, both Bats and Spidey are striking at two sides of the same coin: the role of the hero. Not the hero as smasher of supervillains or saver of planets, but the value these icons have to us as fans who rely on their existence to enforce our own. Batman represents transcendence, overcoming parts of life to achieve some greater goal (often to the detriment of an actual life), while Spider-Man is about accepting one’s place and making the most of it. The best superhero, then, would be some kind of middle ground (Bat-Spider? Spider-Bat Guy?), a brave warrior who blends obsession with earnestness to save the world and still come home to watch Los Espookys.
But then that’s the rub — there are no perfect heroes or role models, and anyone you look up to will eventually let you down one way or another. That doesn’t mean to forego heroes; it just means you’ll never get exactly what you need from these pillars. It also means knowing the value of one hero and when it may be time to transition to another for insights and understandings. I may always love Batman, and seek that character’s “perfection,” but being Spider-Man ain’t half bad after all.
Thank you for joining AiPT! during Spectacular Spider-Month! Be sure to check back in every day for more Spider-Man content including interviews, features, opinions, and more!