–By Sam Hendrian–
“That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero.” These earnest words said by legendary comic book writer Stan Lee capture the virtuous spirit of the many superhero stories he co-created throughout the years. From Spider-Man to Iron Man and beyond, Stan Lee has blessed the world with richly relatable characters who just happen to have extraordinary abilities. There is timeless wisdom to be found in his stories, beginning with the one that started Marvel’s comic book revolution of the 1960s: The Fantastic Four.
Originating in a 1961 comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, The Fantastic Four is a team of four superheroes named Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the Human Torch, and the Thing. Each hero has his or her own unique abilities: Mister Fantastic is super flexible, the Invisible Girl can hide her appearance, the Human Torch can turn into a flying ball of fire, and the Thing has superhuman strength.
Stan Lee wittily deemed these four characters as “heroes with hangups,” for while they may be skilled at saving the world, they have flaws just like anyone else and sometimes struggle to effectively work together. They paradoxically prove that weaknesses can be just as empowering as strengths, for it is their ability to overcome their “hangups” for the sake of heroism that makes them so inspiring. While heated arguments may abound, they never let them be a stumbling block to fighting evil as a team.
The “heroes with hangups” theme is mirrored in the story of Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, who made his debut in 1963’s Tales of Suspense #39. Stan Lee said about this popular superhero: “I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him.”
Based in part on the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, Tony Stark is an ultimately good-hearted technical genius who occasionally struggles with alcoholism, womanizing, and narcissism. In the end, he makes the decision to rise above his vices and use his supreme intelligence to help other people, even if heroism is not necessarily in his DNA. As we face our own daily struggles against sin, we can imitate Tony’s bold refusal to let his imperfections define him.
Perhaps the most beloved and legendary of all Stan Lee’s superheroes is the Amazing Spider-Man. Co-created with Steve Ditko and first introduced to the world in 1962, he is well-respected for his unforgettable motto: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” While variations of these wise words have been uttered by countless sages throughout the years (including Jesus himself in Luke 12:48), they will be forever associated with the incredible story of a carefree teenaged boy who is suddenly gifted with spider-powers.
In Amazing Fantasy #15, the first Spider-Man comic book ever written, Peter Parker is a nerdy high school outcast with a kind heart but a relatively small grasp of mature responsibility. After he is bitten by a radioactive spider, he initially uses his incredible new abilities to glean fame and fortune as a television sensation. Intoxicated by a newfound sense of power and a euphoric indifference to other people’s problems, he blithely steps aside one night as a dangerous criminal runs right past him. A police officer who is chasing the criminal angrily exclaims, “What’s with you, Mister? All you had to do was trip him, or hold him just for a minute!” Peter apathetically responds, “Sorry, pal! That’s your job! … From now on I just look out for number one!”
A few evenings later, Peter comes home to learn that his loving parental guardian, Uncle Ben, has been murdered by the same criminal he failed to stop. Stricken with guilt and a fresh sense of responsibility, he resolves from that night forward to use his amazing abilities for altruistic endeavors rather than selfish pursuits. While we may not have spider-powers like Peter, we each have talents that can be used either to feed our egos or bring much-needed light into this often dark world. Let us learn from his initial mistake and strive daily to use the gifts God has given us as tools for helping others.
Stan Lee may be famous for creating fictional characters with impossible abilities, but he has emphatically stated that superheroes are not limited to the pages of comic books. Sometimes, all it takes is a sincere smile to uplift a gloomy soul, and that in and of itself is an act of heroism. With great power, comes great responsibility. We all have the power to love, so let us responsibly use this extraordinary ability for the noble goal of showing each person that she or he is precious and purposed.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.