April 28 marks National Superhero Day – and what’s a better way to observe the occasion than to celebrate the world’s most popular superhero?
If you go by at least one analysis of the past year’s Google search data, that hero is Spider-Man. According to online entertainment retailer Zavvi, the web slinger is the world’s most popular superhero with more than 5 million average searches per month.
But how has he earned that coveted spot in a heavily saturated market?
Talking to CNN, writer-performer and comic fan Reece Connolly describes Spider-Man – his favorite superhero – as “a hero in its simplest form of just using what he has been given to help people.”
“He’s normal. He’s a young guy whose silliness and awkwardness make him one of the most relatable superheroes to exist. He isn’t anything special, he’s just normal.”
Connolly says that unlike Batman, his second favorite superhero, Spider-Man doesn’t have “billions of dollars in the bank. He’s just more relatable than a billionaire who lives in a mansion on his own.”
He notes that Spider-Man’s life – full of issues at school and with his family – features scenarios that many fans have experienced in their own lives.
“But it’s more than that. He has a difficult, tragic life and yet still maintains that puppy-dog enthusiasm for life and keeps bouncing back,” which is inspiring, Connolly says. The “life lessons of being kind to others and taking responsibility,” taught to him by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, are very present in the Peter Parker side of the character – multiverse and all, Connolly observes.
Dr. Ilham Sebah, a psychologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, says the idea of “bouncing back” is synonymous with resilience – “the ability to adapt and cope with the stresses and adversities” experienced in life.
“I like to think of it as ‘bouncing forward,'” Sebah tells CNN, noting that Spider-Man’s adversities have equipped him with the skills and strategies to cope better in future predicaments.
Louise Phull, a fan of the Spider-Man movies, believes the superhero’s “vulnerability” and “character development” to make him more human and likable, especially when he sacrifices so much for the “greater good.”
Positive psychology theorizes that quality of life can be bettered by subjective experiences (eg happiness and hope) and traits (eg love and perseverance), which is seen in how Spider-Man deals with whatever swings his way.
“He’s constantly vulnerable, but manages to pull through it and never hit rock bottom” and that’s admirable especially for children who see him as a role model, Phull tells CNN, adding that the character’s “strong moral compass” also plays a large role in his appeal.
This moral compass is epitomized in a phrase all Spidey fans know: “With great power comes great responsibility,” which is said to him by his uncle in most versions of Spider-Man’s story, and by his aunt most recently in the 2021 blockbuster “ Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
“It’s a very potent life lesson for everyone because whatever you’ve been given in life, it’s your responsibility to literally use it to help better the world around you,” Connolly says.
Spider-Man often has trouble balancing his web-slinging heroes with his non-superhero Peter Parker identity. As Parker he is often vulnerable and bullied by Flash Thompson, but occasionally the strength he shows in his alter ego rises to his defense. In “The Amazing Spider-Man #2” comic book, Parker calls out Thompson, saying “At least my brain isn’t muscle-bound, like that fat head of yours!”
Connolly says his superpowers aren’t the only thing “special” about Spider-Man because both Parker and the superhero are known for smarts and wit.
“Even when he’s in the middle of a battle with the Rhino or the Lizard, he’s still cracking jokes – bad jokes a lot of the time, but they’re often the best kind.”
In the “Ultimate Spider-Man #1” comic book, when the Green Goblin attacks his high school, Spider-Man quips: “You wouldn’t happen to be the new home ec teacher, would you?”
Sebah, who specializes in studying resilience, notes that humor is a common – and effective – coping mechanism, particularly when someone is experiencing grief.
During a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on lives across the world, it may be especially important for fans to see such resilience in an affable, well-loved character on the big screen.
“You find hope in these characters,” Connolly says.
“When they are so well written and realized, they almost feel real. And they’ve been there for a lot of us for a long time, be it through comic books, movies, games,” he says. “And in dark times, it’s good to go back to them and take heed of their lessons and take inspiration from them.”