Debate Club: Who's the best Marvel character: Spider-Man or Iron Man?

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Jan 11, 2018

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle both sides of the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this week's installment, we're saluting Marvel by determining which one of this legendary company's comic-book creations is the all-time best. So who you got: Spider-Man or Iron Man?

THE CASE FOR SPIDER-MAN

So, let's get this straight: a superhero who's just some random dorky teenager who got his powers from being bitten by a radioactive spider? That hardly sounds like the makings of an iconic character, does it? No — and that's exactly the point. If anything, it's Peter Parker's awkward ordinariness—and the oddness of the path that led him to become Spider-Man — that's made him such a relatable, heroic figure for the last 56 years.

Spider-Man has always tapped into the insecurities of adolescence — the weird changes that happen to your body, the strange and scary new feelings triggered by raging hormones — and shown how they can be secret strengths. Anybody can be a hero if he doesn't have any personal drama or raging insecurity, but Spidey is inspiring precisely because Parker is riddled with self-doubt and trauma. (Uncle Ben's death is Marvel's equivalent of DC Comics' slaying of Bruce Wayne's parents.)

Because of that personal baggage, it would be totally understandable if Spider-Man were a whiny, brooding, emo-y punk. Except, happily, he's not: Peter Parker is instead a lovable smartass, tackling his romantic woes and colossal battles with foes such as Doctor Octopus with equal good humor. Climbing walls, swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper, delivering quips to and fro: Spider-Man is the high-school loser we all wish we were cool enough to be.

 

THE CASE FOR IRON MAN

You know what Iron Man understands? Iron Man understands that it's really cool to be Iron Man. There is no brooding Batman here. Why would Tony Stark hide himself away in a cave and torture himself? He has so many toys, and so many ways to enjoy them. Tony Stark has always represented America in a much more honest way than Spider-Man or many of his DC contemporaries. He's a little crass and a little skeezy, but more than anything, he's filthy rich and always eager to get richer. And show it all off.

Tony Stark ultimately plays for the good guys – it's why he's a superhero, after all – but he's always skittering on the edge: Like America, he often is so convinced he's on the side of the angels that he's boorish and damaging in his pursuit of what he wants. He always comes around, though, a man with all of our vices and excesses but who never fails to stand up for justice in the end. He is the best of us and the worst of us.

THE CASE AGAINST SPIDER-MAN

An inherent problem with Spider-Man is, of course, that he isn't a man at all. (Is Marvel even what it is today if he had been given the more accurate, but much dopier, moniker of "Spider-Boy?") Spider-Man is perpetually a work in progress, someone forever stuck in adolescence: If you think about it, he's trapped in the same loop as Lisa Simpson, never able to become the man – and thus the true superhero – he could someday be.

This also leads to a tiring repetition of Spider-Man stories: The reason we were so sick of all the Spider-Man reboots is that there are only so many ways you can tell the same story of a kid in high school figuring himself out. Eventually, you want him to just get on with it already. Spider-Man could end up being the greatest superhero of the Marvel universe ... when he grows up. But we'll never end up knowing.

THE CASE AGAINST IRON MAN

Tony Stark's a great guy — just ask him. What's so fun about Iron Man — and, ultimately, what's kinda annoying, too — is the titanic amount of self-regard that the guy has for himself. Right, sure, it's all a way to hide his personal demons behind mountains of bluster, but for that to really work, you have to find Stark's demons really compelling. Well, sorry, that's a tough ask: They don't have the grand drama of, say, Batman's, and Iron Man's chronic smugness sometimes makes him the equivalent of the high-school jock who was also the richest kid in your class. Like, who cares what problems he has? Isn't he basically a dick?

 

DECISION

One of the things that was great about Spider-Man: Homecoming was its introduction of a father-son dynamic between Iron Man and the Webslinger. In a way, each superhero provides the missing piece to the other character's mental makeup: Tony sees the son he never had, while Peter gets a sense of the type of person he could become.

Ultimately, though, we're choosing the son in this relationship. From the suit to the powers to the teen-hormones ethos, Spider-Man has become synonymous with the very relatable feeling of being a brilliant, misunderstood outsider — it's a sentiment that's crucial to our whole culture's fascination with superheroes. We want good guys who are like us — flawed, insecure, struggling — but find a way to transcend their limits. Spidey will never, ever be perfect, but he keeps going out there and trying. That's why we love 'im.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.