Spider-Man is about disappointment.
That’s the main idea behind many of the stories based on the character. The people around him want real things. They have needs and desires. Mary Jane Watson needs Peter Parker to see her play. This is her life’s work, her passion. Those stakes are real, and they matter to these characters.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming.]
Disappointment is a running theme. Spider-Man: Homecoming makes it clear that the academic decathlon is important to Liz, Peter’s high school crush. She reads books on how to be a captain. She studies and cares about the rest of the team. Going to Washington, D.C. was a big deal, and Peter Parker was a part of that. Those are real stakes, and it’s a very big deal, especially at that age. These are children trying to be great, because it matters to them. The film does a very good job making this clear without bashing your head in with it.
The tension comes from the fact that Spider-Man’s stakes are always much, much higher than those of the people around him. When someone is late to your wedding, it can mean they don’t really value your time. If Peter Parker is late to your wedding, it’s because he saved a bus filled with children. We may know what he was doing, or we may not, but the end result is the same. Peter Parker was not there when you needed him, and he made the right decision when de-prioritizing us.
Being in a relationship with Peter Parker means that you will be disappointed. Whatever we want from him, no matter how fair it is, will never be able to compete with a building that is on fire. He will always let us down, even as he arriving in the nick of time for everyone else.
To love Peter Parker is to realize that you will suffer in his shadow as the world adores him. Your needs are real, and you need him to be there for you. But he will always have a good reason not to be. The most devastating part of this dynamic is that, if you know his secret, you will never be able to complain.
Why this is so messed up
The trick of introducing stakes for one character, and then dramatically raising the hero’s own stakes so that they have to choose the world over their friends and family, is a pretty good one.
For example, Captain America is ostensibly still a virgin in his movies; he chose the world because he can dedicate himself to the world without letting someone else down, and he’s comfortable with that. Tony Stark’s relationship with Pepper Potts, and their ups and downs, is one of the sadder subplots happening in the background of all the Marvel movies. The Sokovia Accords were partially meant to allow Stark to be Iron Man while also being in a relationship. But Spider-Man has always struggled with these decisions more than most heroes.
The dissonance between the people Spider-Man saves and those he disappoints has provided tension to his stories for a very long time. Many of us can relate to the idea that we are very good at helping one group of people, while those we care about the most feel as if we don’t care, or that they’re not worth our time. Almost all of us can relate to being left hanging as the person whose attention we crave is off doing something they consider much more pressing.
The issue is that these stories give us cover to allow them to continue that behavior. Spider-Man gets away with disappointing everyone in our eyes because saving the lives of others is legitimately more important than Aunt May’s birthday. Spider-Man is punished for doing the right thing by people who don’t understand what he’s going through. Been there, right?
But very few of us are Spider-Man. We are not Elon Musk, changing the world of energy and transportation while also being kind of late for dinner. We ourselves are balancing books, and we are writing stories about superheroes, and we are making sure the lights stay on. We can always convince ourselves that by focusing on our work now, by sacrificing our families and friends now, we are building a better future.
It’s not that the needs of our family and friends aren’t important. It’s just that the stakes for what we’re doing are so much higher. Spider-Man knows exactly what we’re talking about, am I right?
Spider-Man gives us a constant excuse for our own behavior, or the behavior of those who let us down, through the hyperbole of his struggles. He’s hurting, the people around him are hurting, but at least the real work he’s doing makes him a hero to the people whose literal lives he’s saving. He’s a mess in his personal life because he’s so good in his public life.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever struggled with doing your job well while your intimate relationships burn down around you. Keep them up; this exercise only works if you do it so long that your muscles start burning. It’s time to really start to hurt, because holy shit are you hurting everyone else.
It doesn’t help that being Spider-Man is fun. It creates a behavior loop: If we have one part of our lives figured out and can do it well, it’s much easier to focus on that instead of spending time on the complicated relationships we can’t solve with our fists. So the cycle continues as everything gets worse.
Peter Parker cracks jokes because finding a quiet corner in which to sob for a few days isn’t much of an option when someone is running around out there running guns based on alien technology. This is why Andrew Garfield made such a terrible Spider-Man in the Amazing Spider-Man films; the role has to be carried by someone who is vulnerable, determined and yet very much in over his head. If his disappointments aren’t felt by the viewer, the stories don’t resonate.
But the reality is that our stakes are rarely that high. The thing that keeps us from showing up — the real work that if they only understood, they would know why we aren’t able to show up — can actually wait an hour or a day or a week. We can learn how to show up on time. We can be there for other people. Sometimes the other stuff can’t wait, but there are many, many circumstances in which it can.
The ability to see that distinction, to actually put time into balancing who we’re trying to be and who we are while taking care of the people who need us ... that’s a rare quality in people in general, and even more so in the year of our Stan Lee 2017.
We need to stop watching Spider-Man movies to help justify our bad habits, and realize that the point of the character is his pain at disappointing everyone he cares about. He has to choose between those he loves and a world that needs him, but he’s not forced to look at the world in the eyes when he’s done. Peter Parker knows exactly who he is letting down, and he’s the one who shows up to explain himself, not Spider-Man. Other people clean up the rubble from the battle, but Parker is stuck cleaning up what remains of his relationships.
Think about this small detail from Homecoming: Vulture is in the car after driving Peter Parker and his daughter, Liz, to the prom. Vulture knows he’s talking to Spider-Man, and says to drop the superhero act. To just enjoy the dance. No one has to die.
Parker runs in and tells Liz he can’t be there, and of course she’s crushed. We learn a scene later that Spider-Man’s tracking Vulture through the phone Peter dropped in the car the moment the conversation began. There wasn’t a struggle between the two ways the evening could go; Peter Parker chose saving the world without hesitation. Liz became collateral damage the moment her father pulled that gun out on Spider-Man. Parker knew there was no way he could just enjoy the dance and leave the hero business on the side for an evening.
Our decisions are rarely that cut and dry.
Homecoming isn’t an excuse for disappointing others; it’s a long look at the pain and struggle of being great in a world that often seems designed to punish greatness. But most of us are good, and we are trying just as hard to do the right thing. We should walk out of these movies with a newfound desire to go to birthday parties, to see plays and to be on time for dinners. Spider-Man is a character who wishes he had the option to show up more often, and that’s a power the rest of us definitely possess. Let’s try to take advantage of it more often.
Spider-Man is a disappointment, after all. But you don’t have to be.