We’re not going to talk about the movie.
These columns are all about sharing the fun of stories. If you know Spider-Man through the movies, then you haven’t been let in on the fun.
Comic-book writer Stan Lee made his name by turning superheroes into people and showing their human side and their frailties. Of all the popular comic-book superheroes he had created, no one is more human and more fragile than Spider-Man.
While Superman was an all-powerful god who could turn back time, lift entire continents on his shoulders and could not die (until, just to keep the stories alive, he had to be given Kryptonite as a weakness), Spider-Man was the eternal underdog.
Peter Parker was a thin, wiry geek, whose parents were dead, and who had to live with his aunt and uncle. He was picked on at school by the bigger bullies, and his social life was pretty bleak. When he unexpectedly turned into Spider-Man, he suddenly became stronger than anyone else in school. Still, to keep his secret and his family safe, he let the bullies kick him around. The villains he was fighting at night haunted his mind, so much so that the girls thought he was a snob and shunned him. With only his aunt to support them, and her health being rocky, he was constantly worried about money.
When he did get dates, frequent dangers forced him to run off and be Spider-Man. Which meant that he kept standing up the girls he liked, disappearing in the middle of a date, or appearing to run away when faced with danger.
And when fighting the bad guys, he was, more often than not, outmatched by superheroes a lot more powerful than he was.
Spider-Man was the ultimate underdog, in real life and with the villains. But he had chutzpah and guts and a brain. He beat superior villains with a superior wit and a superior mind. He used his abilities as Spider-Man not to defeat the bad guys, but to keep out of harm’s way while he thought of a way to defeat the bad guys. And all that time, he cracked jokes.
Spider-Man was human, and every high-school kid wanted to be like him: The underdog that won the day, who proved smarter and funnier than the bullies; the guy who got kicked around in school but knew what no one else did, that deep inside he was a superhero and better than any of them.
Over the decades, two writers wrote Spider-Man the best because they understood him the best. The first was Stan Lee, who had created him, and the second was Chris Claremont, more famous for reinventing the X-Men and making them what they are today. (Again, nothing to do with the movies.)
Stan Lee initiated Underdog Man, and concentrated more on Peter Parker’s social dilemmas with girls, bullies, lack of money, and protecting his Aunt May. Spider-Man always interfered in Peter’s life.
Chris Claremont concentrated on Spider-Man’s heroic nature. One time, Claremont had Spider-Man chase an all-powerful, unstoppable living god, knowing he can’t win, knowing he’s fighting an unbeatable foe, knowing there was nothing he could do about it but ultimately die, but also knowing that there was no one else to do the job.
Another time, Claremont had Spider-Man kidnapped by an evil sorcerer from the dawn of humanity that he had defeated once before. Now, the sorcerer was back, more powerful than ever, and he was out for revenge. The sorcerer turned New York City into a barbaric nation, wiped everyone’s memories (including all the big superheroes like the Avengers or the X-men) and replaced their identities. Everyone’s memories, that is, but Spider-Man’s, whom he nailed to a cross and tortured.
While the other heroes, whose memories and identities were replaced, found their true heroic nature again, Spider-Man had to watch his friends fight each other and die, as he was being tortured by the sorcerer. And all that time, Spider-Man cracked jokes in the sorcerer’s ears.
Nothing Spider-Man said to anyone who was around mattered, since they all spoke a different language now thanks to the sorcerer's spell. Only the sorcerer understood him.
But it was Spider-Man who saved the day. Fighting the nails that had torn holes in his body, he managed to show the other heroes the sorcerer’s new source of power (a thing he had deduced while watching the events). He did that with his last breath, and then the sorcerer gestured and killed him.
The heroes, of course, saved the day, now that they had a way to defeat the sorcerer. And with his source of power gone, everything he had done, including everyone’s deaths, was now reversed.
Spider-Man is a hero because he overcomes adversity. Superman is not a hero, he’s just a god.