Spider-Man is basically the story of a working class kid from Queens who was raised by a non-traditional family. Despite his superheroics and academic striving, he has endless beef with the cops, a ballbusting boss who cheats him out of his rightful pay, an elderly aunt to take care of and at non-negotiable financial commitments to meet at the age of 16. Anyone who has ever lived in a working class neighborhood in New York, regardless of ethnic background, knows this kid.
One of the important things about Spider-Man is he never really makes it comfortably into the middle class. I suppose it’s understandable that a comic-book movie is going to want to cater to a teenage audience, but Peter Parker’s teenage years end pretty early in the comic. What lasts a long time is Peter’s college and grad school years, and they’re followed by 30 to 40 years of being 23-34. All that time, he’s got student loans to pay off, but the Daily Bugle never puts him properly on staff, so he’s stuck as a freelance photographer, despite being a brilliant scientist. His wife is an underemployed actress. New York City is expensive, so between him and MJ, they’re going to keep renting apartments just this side of seedy. He’s world-famous as a superhero, but one of his major enemies is the Con Ed bill.
And it’s important. Heroes like the teenage Spider-Man or the Thing or Jean Grey or the Falcon taught low-income and minority kids in urban environments that they should be just as proud as themselves as the kids who resembled Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne or Steve Rogers. Spider-Man went further. It added the reality that your twenties won’t necessarily be a time when you resolve your financial situation. The opportunities you get might force you to choose between how you want to live your life and how you need to pay bills. Or you might not get the opportunities you want — or deserve — at all.
I don’t think I was mature enough as a teenager to really grasp the message that the late-20s Peter Parker was trying to teach me back then. But it sunk in on me very quickly as a post-collegiate journalist making in the low $20,000s while living in an expensive city. The answer isn’t to stop doing what you want in life. That’s the challenge. There’s no answer. And it won’t get easier. (That realization also explains why Angel is a better show than Buffy.)