It's probably the most repeated line from the movie Spider-Man: Peter Parker's ailing Aunt May asks her doting nephew not to work so hard. After all, she reminds him, "you're not Superman." The joke is on her, because we know that her nephew is in fact a superhero; but it's also on us, because she has pinpointed what we like about not only Spider-Man and his geeky-sweet alter ego Peter, but most of the masked marvels we've followed from the comics to the screen. We don't want our superheroes to be invulnerable Supermen--Clark Kent's sad-sack persona is as essential to fans as Superman's ability to turn steel girders into pasta ribbons. It's not enough that superheroes fight our battles. We need them to suffer our heartbreaks, reflect our anxieties, embody our weaknesses.
Superman began life as a kind of populist statement. Created in 1938 by two Jewish colleagues, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, he offered justice for the little guy at the tail end of the Depression and upended the Nazi concept of the Ubermensch. "There was an enormous desire to see social justice, a rectifying of corruption," says DC Comics president Paul Levitz. "Superman was a fulfillment of a pent-up passion for the heroic solution." Batman, a morally ambiguous, revenge-driven crusader, emerged in 1939, at the outset of World War II, as the darker side of the heroic solution. Then when America entered the war, straightforwardly patriotic heroes like Captain America and Wonder Woman hit Hitler where he lived.
But by the early 1960s, when Marvel Comics was introducing Spider-Man, X-Men and The Fantastic Four, the cold war had complicated America's optimism. Marvel's characters embodied the atom angst of the day: the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the Hulk owed their powers to radiation. (In the movie, the radioactive spider that bit Peter Parker is now bioengineered, perfect for the age of anthrax and cloning.) More important, Marvel characters had psychology. They were conflicted and were driven, like Peter Parker, by guilt (Peter is haunted by having inadvertently caused his uncle's death) rather than simple revenge or honor. They didn't always like themselves and didn't always feel like being superheroes.
"The other superheroes at other companies didn't seem to have too much vulnerability," says Stan Lee, who created Spider-Man at Marvel with artist Steve Ditko. "Peter had money troubles. He wasn't that popular with girls. Getting a date was a big deal with him." If Superman is a hero who dresses up as one of us, Spider-Man is one of us, dressed up as a hero. Says Jeff Ayers, manager of New York City's Forbidden Planet comics store: "Batman's a millionaire, Superman's an alien, and Wonder Woman's an Amazon goddess. Most superheroes are foreign to us, but Spider-Man is normal and flawed."