I’m excited to talk about my personal third favorite superhero today and someone who’s showed up very recently – Tobey Maguire Andrew Garfield Tom Holland Spider-Man. Usually I try to throw in multiple superheroes with the same power, but Spider-Man’s so iconic (and possibly the most printed Marvel superhero of all time) that I think he can stand by himself.
Like many other heroes, Spider-Man was created in the 1960s by Marvel legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He’s starred in a couple of different comic book runs (the most popular of which being The Amazing Spider-Man), five different movies, and one failed musical, so his origin story will vary slightly depending on who you ask.
Generally, though, we meet him as Peter Parker, genius teenager living with his Aunt and Uncle. His uncle gets murdered and Peter gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Initially he becomes a superhero to avenge his Uncle Ben’s death. Eventually becomes a vigilante to dispense justice, operating by his Uncle Ben’s mantra: ‘With great power comes great responsibility’.
Why was Spider-Man created? Or, alternatively, why do I like him so much?
On one side, Spider-Man was created as a fresh breath. This article lists why Spider-Man was so unique for his time. Teenage superheroes simply did not exist. They were sidekicks. Although it’s DC, think Robin. Peter Parker is also, generally speaking, a dork. He doesn’t thrive off of good looks (lookin’ at you, Thor) and he’s generally miserable socially. Lastly, you kind of had to hope people’s arachnophobia didn’t kick in.
So those are a couple of reasons to like him. Spider-Man is a very different side of superhero. And, personally, I really enjoy him because you wouldn’t expect his powers to be on the side of heroes. Villains tend to get themed powers (or, powers based off of a certain theme). Think Dr. Freeze, think Poison Ivy, think Condiment King. And, yeah, Spider-Man has themed powers, but he uses them for good.
What’s more, they’re not only gimmick powers, but they’re spider-themed. Not exactly a typical symbol for justice.
But, I hear you cry, Batman!
To that, I argue that Batman (and bats) in general inspire fear, where spiders generally inspire disgust. Which makes Spider-Man so unique – he’s a superhero who uses creepy crawlies to get things done.
And we’re gonna talk about those creepy crawlies today. We’re going to focus on Spider-Man’s three main powers – his web slinging (of course), his ‘Spidey Sense’, and climbing on walls.
We’ll start with the best known first.
Spider-Man’s primary power, the spider web that he uses to string up bad guys and glide from place to place. He expels it from his wrist, likely because expelling it from his butt like a real spider would cause some issues for that PG-13 rating. Movies have had different interpretations on whether that webbing comes from a mechanical device on his wrist, or if he makes his own like a real spider.
Regardless – what is spider silk, what can it do, how strong is it, could it support a human body, etc.
Think of a spider. Inside the spider’s abdomen, it contains the protein-filled fluid used to make spider silk. It travels alongside a tube where it eventually exits the spider’s body via spinneret (a tiny opening) as a web. There’s a couple of different types of silk that depends on the purpose. Is it for catching a fly? Is it for preserving food? Is it so the spider doesn’t fall off and land in your bathroom sink?
How does it become silk from the liquid inside the abdomen? A scientist called Otzen recently stated that it had something to do with how the silk is more acidic than the liquid inside the spider. What does that mean? Well, if something is more acidic, it has more protons (tiny pieces of an atom with a positive charge). This helps the silk liquid bind together and create silk.
Cool talk, but we want to know if we could hypothetically build a human cocoon.
We can see how far spiderwebs can span already. There’s a species called the Darwin’s Bark Spider, discovered in 2010, that can make a web 25 meters wide. At roughly 82 feet, that’s more than enough to span across some of NYC’s streets. And that’s using a spider’s dimensions – size it up to a man (well, teenager) and Peter should have no problem making a giant web across 5th street.
But how strong are they? Strong enough to hold a person?
They’re noted as the strongest known biomaterial.
Their talent is in their ability to absorb impact, which is, generally, what Peter Parker needs them for. Scientists even tested them by trying to pull the fibers apart — only to find that they’re much tougher than Kevlar. And we’re not even done categorizing all of them yet. There’s 200,000 types of web silk to study, and scientists haven’t even gotten started. The scientific impact of this could be absolutely massive, as scientists are already starting tests to make the spider silk stronger — or, possibly, make our own radioactive spiders.
Although we could dedicate an entire blog post to web-slinging, we’ve only done one out of three. Let’s go next to Spider-Man’s ‘Spidey Sense’ – the little tingle he gets when he knows something is wrong.
Without sounding too much like a pseudoscience conspiracy theorist, this could be known as precognition or sixth sense. Which doesn’t exist. Sorry. There’s just no scientific way for him to know about crimes before they happen, especially if they’re streets away. We’re not Daredevil, here.
However, some people have interpreted Peter’s ‘Spidey Sense’ to simply being hyperaware of danger immediately around him. And that could have an explanation.
While subliminal stimuli as a whole is controversial, there was a French study conducted in which subjects were shown a series of faces ranging from fearful to neutral to angry. To simplify a complicated study, subjects’ brains with a higher level of anxiety experienced a quicker, subconscious ‘fight or flight’ response when seeing the threatening faces than those with lower anxiety. If there was a fight, their brains would already be in ‘fight or flight’ so they’d have a quicker reaction than the other subjects.
So, in the sense of ‘detecting danger from a mile away’, no, that doesn’t exist. But it’s possible to experience that feeling of unease in a bad situation, even if you don’t quite know why it’s bad yet. Spider-Man simply has a finer-tuned, extra-heightened version of that.
And it’s worth mentioning that actual spiders don’t have that. From a human perspective, they’re pretty easy to kill. Sure, spiders get their food by fooling prey and tricking them into their web, but they aren’t the brainiacs of the animal kingdom.
Moving onto the last. Wall-climbing. Peter Parker can climb up the side of a building, on the ceiling, probably make a little comfortable web-hammock, I don’t know.
Well, it looks like we’re going to sandwich some subliminal stimuli between two spiders, because spiders have a reason for that, too. And, uh, geckoes.
There are thousands of little hairs on the claw tufts at the end of spiderlegs called setae. Minus the claw tufts, geckos also have a lot of little hairs called setae at the end of their legs. Both also operate on van der Waals forces. Basically, at the molecular level, all surfaces — even glass — are rough, the setae are so tiny that the hairs and the surface can ‘stick’ together. However, there is one major difference between geckos and spiders, and it’s defined here.
Basically, spiders require some amount of friction on the surface they’re crawling on. That’s why they need two legs attached to glass in order to walk up it, because glass is such a smooth surface that it decreases friction. On the other hand, the geckos’ setae move and bend in such a way that it increases the geckoes’ maneuverability.
In that way, Spider-Man is more like a gecko than a spider. Friction doesn’t seem to play an element in him moving up and down the glass surface of a building, but the hairs bending and moving would help him get up.
Granted, very little of this works at a human level. Like we talked about with insects, humans are simply too big to incorporate the same mechanisms that remarkable insects do.
So, we can see how some of Spider-Man’s powers are reflected in real life, and spiders are actually pretty cool little guys. And I’ve got through this entire post without showing a creepy spider picture.
Except this one. My bad.
Spider-Man, despite being thrown in all of our faces with new movies, musicals, and TV shows, actually has a few unique traits about him. The teenage, socially awkward, and spider-themed superhero wasn’t thought to last but instead became one of the most enduring Marvel characters. While his superhero power set could easily have been those of a villain, he instead taught us that with great power, comes great responsibility.
What are his great powers? We narrowed it down to the three most apparent : web slinging, Spidey sense, and wall-crawling. We talked about how spiders create web and some of the extremes of webs (distance spanned, strength). Moving on, we covered how maybe Peter’s ‘Spidey Sense’ wouldn’t be quite realistic except for a few close encounters. Finally, we ended on how Peter’s wall-crawling might resemble that of a gecko’s more than a spider’s, but honestly, they’re close enough to where it doesn’t really make a difference.
Also, who’s excited to see Spider-Man in Civil War? I am.
World’s Biggest Spider Web, BBC
Toughest Biomaterial, PLOS.org
Width of NY Streets, Stuff that Nobody Cares About
Mutant Super Spiders, Cnet
Stronger than Kevlar, Wired
Itsy Bitsy Spider Web, Live Science
Nanotube Spiders, Tech Review
Spider Sense Like With Actual Spiders, Tech Times
ESP isn’t Real, Harvard Gazette
French Study Lab Report, elifesciences
Facial Recognition Study, Extreme Tech
Subliminal Perception Isn’t Real, csicop.org