Who Is the Most Important Marvel Character?

Leigh Singer
TV Movies
TV Movies Games Comics Spider-Man

Talk about a loaded question. Judging Marvel’s most significant figure, in an era where the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is the gold standard for synergised development of a brand’s all-conquering power, might not be as straightforward as it appears. The MCU and über-helmer Kevin Feige’s ability to take even its formerly least-known or specialised properties and make them bona fide pop-culture phenomena (Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther) is the envy of every movie studio or producer.

By that token, one could argue that Iron Man, whose 2008 gamble kicked off the entire MCU project, with actor Robert Downey Jr. as figurehead for an integrated serial-style run of blockbuster hits, is in pole position. Yes, that guy in a metal suit that few non-comics fans could have picked out of a robot line-up just over a decade ago. That puts things into perspective. Marvel’s most important character is not Iron Man, in case that needs clarifying. Indeed, Marvel’s history is long, deep and complex, making the whole notion of a most important character rather a tangled web — but one we’re determined to unweave.

Marvel’s Timely Debut

Of course, Marvel, and even films starring the comic book giant’s patented characters, existed long before the MCU. A full appreciation of the question posited in the title of this article needs to factor in history — both on the page and IRL — and cultural impact as much as current popularity, reflected in appearances throughout pop culture and dollars made through merchandise and beyond. It also needs to take into account the opinions of the fans — which is why we’ve asked Fandom’s network of Marvel communities to share their thoughts too.

Cap smacks Adolf Hitler.

But let’s start with Marvel’s origins. The debut Marvel print appearance dates back to 1939’s Timely Publications, the same year that World War II began. In 1941, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America emerged as a patriotic focal point to fight the Nazis, right around the middle of the war. Marvel clearly set out its stall to address real-life culture and politics early.

However, many fans would point to 1961’s arrival of the Fantastic Four and the revolutionary creativity of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Kirby and others in reshaping the comic-book world, adding a more humanised, grounded, modern feel to superheroics. So can Marvel’s most important character be drawn from the Fantastic Four ensemble, because of their impact on comics, their relatability and in turn their significance within popular culture? Or is the prime candidate, indeed, the MCU’s most straightforward symbol of truth, justice and the American way, and true real-life crossover hero, Steve Rogers aka Cap? It’s neither, as it happens.

Who’s the Daddy?

Dive deeper into the talent pool, and there are numerous characters vying for status as Marvel’s most important. How about the physically intimidating Hulk, who wowed global audiences in live-action form on the small screen in the late 1970s, or Captain (formerly Ms.) Marvel, the most cosmically powerful according to Marvel’s own criteria?

What about the X-Men, Marvel’s most symbolically flexible, socially progressive outsiders? Or how about the coolest of them all, Wolverine — who has had the most solo movie outings among Fox’s stable of Marvel characters, with Hugh Jackman inhabiting the role for a (joint) record-breaking 16 years and 228 days? And then of course there’s trash-talking merc Deadpool coming up fast on the outside, credited with reinvigorating the superhero genre on the big screen.

In the end, however, there’s simply no real contest. Taking into account the decades of comics dedicated to the guy, the numerous screen incarnations across TV, film and games, not to mention cultural relevance and overall popularity, Marvel’s most important character is your friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man.

The Spider-Man in the Mirror

From his 11-page debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, on August 10th, 1962, Spider-Man signalled something fresh and exciting in the superhero world, his arrival facilitated, of course, by the groundbreaking Fantastic Four a year earlier.

Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive arachnid that gave him freakishly spider-like powers – climbing walls, spinning webs, etc – wasn’t royalty; neither was he alien nor brooding billionaire (adjusted for inflation) as personified by rival comic producer DC’s Wonder Woman, Superman or Batman. He was an ordinary teenager. An excitable, confused, wisecracking, impulsive, naive kid. He was, in a very real and identifiable way, the comic book reader himself. And that right there is what kickstarted his journey towards claiming the crown for Marvel’s most important character ever.

Amazing Fantasy 15
Spider-Man's debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, 1962.

Where Bruce Wayne is a disguise, a diversion, for Batman, and even Clark Kent is a persona that Superman hides behind (albeit one that reflects Supe’s core beliefs), Peter Parker is Spider-Man, with all his strengths and flaws. His real life – his family, friends, school, job – feeds his adventures as much as any super-villain smackdowns. As developed by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, even under a full-body (and quickly iconic) costume and mask, Peter Parker shines through, where Kent and Wayne are deliberately concealed by their alter-egos.

You look up in awe at Superman and Batman. You smile in recognition at Spider-Man, and this goes some way towards explaining the webslinger’s immense popularity and significance. If superheroes exist to tackle all that’s wrong in the world, and Superman and Batman are unattainable — much the same as another alien, Thor, and another wealthy do-gooder, Iron Man — Spider-Man is the one we can all aspire to be.

“Everyone who reads Spider-Man will find something in common with him! We can easily relate to this teenage superhero who has to balance his normal life and superhero life. Spider-Man is all of us!” — Bahubully, Spider-Man community.

A Friendly Neighborhood… and Not So Friendly Neighbors

Marvel’s 1960s’ run was a staggering outpouring of imagination, with Daredevil, Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men and more joining the ranks in quick succession. All have their distinctive traits and devoted fans. But overall, Spider-Man keeps the edge. He has the most relatable and lovable supporting cast, with Aunt May, Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane Watson, Flash Thompson, J. Jonah Jameson and more providing regular doses of heart and humour. He even, at various points, became a member of both the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. Everybody wanted him.

Spider-Man villain Venom is so memorable, he even has his own big-budget standalone movie.

Spider-Man also has the best villains of all the Marvel creations: not necessarily the most galactically powerful but an unmatchable rogues’ gallery headed by the Green Goblin, with Doctor Octopus, Lizard, Mysterio, Electro, Sandman, Rhino, Vulture and later Venom and Carnage amongst the most memorable superhero nemeses. Don’t take our word for it — this list makes it official. Even Kingpin, latterly associated much more with Daredevil, started out fighting the web-slinger (in Amazing Spider-Man #50, July 1967), a point recognised in the recent Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse which pitted the rotund criminal mastermind against Spidey.

“He has a Spider-verse, a theme song and an excellent rogues’ gallery… Spider-Man is someone who doesn’t often deal with cosmic entities or universal threats (unless it’s Thanos with the Avengers). What makes Spider-Man unique is that his story is on a small scale.” — Captainjacksparrowgmail.com, Marvel Cinematic Universe community.

A 2018 poll of the Top 100 Marvel Villains lined up 12 of Spider-Man’s foes, more than any solo hero; and five villains (Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, Kingpin, Doctor Octopus, Venom and Carnage)  in the top 20, more than any Marvel character or group. That they regularly embroiled Peter Parker’s loved ones in their nefarious schemes (Doc Ock decided to marry Aunt May for her — unusual — inheritance) only raised the personal stakes.

With Great Tragedy Comes Great Relatability

And how. While many superheroes have dealt with the death of loved ones, Spider-Man is very much defined by his losses. Obviously, the guilt at his role in the murder of his beloved Uncle Ben jump starts the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” mantra; but that was in keeping with the deaths that often define superhero origin stories, like the sacrifice of Kal-El/Superman’s parents, or the murder of Bruce Wayne’s.

Not so the subsequent killing of Peter Parker’s love, Gwen Stacy, by the Green Goblin (and perhaps, inadvertently, by Spider-Man himself) in 1973’s iconic ‘The Night Gwen Stacy Died’. This storyline signalled a descent into personal tragedy that comic books had never really plumbed before. Still cited as one of the greatest Spider-Man stories of all time, to this day it packs a raw emotional punch. Comics expert Arnold T Blumberg declared it responsible for ushering in the grittier Bronze Age of comics, while a Marvel fan poll saw the story arc’s two issues come in at numbers six and 19 in The 100 Greatest Marvels of All Time. Comics did not subject its heroes to such pain. Now, they did.

Spider-Man Night Gwen Stacy Died
Panels from 'The Night Gwen Stacey Died'.

Spidey Sense: Tingling

In general, though, Spidey fans were drawn to his lighter, humour-filled adventures, a welcome contrast to the largely more sober outings of other heroes. If you only know Marvel superheroes through the later MCU movies, where practically every character’s special powers, from Tony Stark to Doctor Strange, seem to include an obligatory smart one-liner, it’s easy to forget how Spidey’s web ‘thwips’ went hand-in-hand with his quips; and how refreshing it was. Spider-Man was funny. And Spider-Man comics (often) meant fun.

And they are legion. Spider-Man comes in at number four in the heroes featured in the most individual comic book titles list, behind DC’s Batman and Superman and, perhaps surprisingly, Marvel’s own Wolverine. Though only just. Amazing, Spectacular, Sensational, Avenging, Superior are just some of the series he’s featured in, and that’s alongside individual team-ups, standalone issues and graphic novels.

And if you’re wondering why this doesn’t make Wolverine more important, the same source lists Spider-Man as number one on the list of Top Marvel Comics Superheroes, number two on the Best Comic Book Superheroes of All Time list and number two on the Best Characters in the MCU list — and that’s despite him being a relative newcomer. Spidey beats Wolverine every other time, and it’s arguably just a matter of time before the wallcrawler overtakes his adamantium-enhanced stablemate in the comic book appearances tally, too…

Spins a Web, Any Size

It’s not all simple fun and games either. We touched on ‘The Night Gwen Stacy Died’, but there are other examples. The variations in subject matter, approach and tone across Spider-Man titles is highly impressive: from the flat-out thrills of 1964’s multi-villain platform ‘The Sinister Six’, to the introspective villain-centric tragedy of 1987’s ‘Kraven’s Last Hunt’. From the fish-out-of-water suburban comedy of 1985’s ‘The Commuter Cometh’ to the previous year’s tear-wringing tale of a terminally ill fan in ‘The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man’. From 2007’s Dark Knight-esque vengeance-driven ‘Back in Black’ to the bittersweet, lost love reminiscence of 2002’s ‘Spider-Man: Blue’… you get the picture.

Spider-Man is a flexible character who lends himself perfectly to any number of story arcs and genres. Further incontrovertible evidence to support his claim for most important Marvel character.

“Peter isn’t simply a character, he’s a life companion, a friend, he’s one of the very few characters in comics who did grow, and readers grew with him… Reading Amazing Spider-Man was like talking with a friend about anything. If I had a fight with my girlfriend I’d read Peter and MJ and know what to do, if I had a problem with a friend or a classmate I’d read ‘Best of Enemies’ and know that friendship could survive minor problems like those.” — TomLudo00, Marvel community.

Page to Screen (Small)

Such popularity inevitably swung Spidey from the comic-book page and onto the screen. To date, there have been 12 separate Spider-Man TV series, mostly animated (including a 1967 initiator whose catchy theme tune — and its lyrics — is rivalled only by the 1960s’ Batman show’s “na-na-na-na” theme). By contrast, closest Marvel rivals Hulk, Fantastic Four and Wolverine notch up four, five and seven TV series respectively — although we’re being generous as some of those qualify as DVD releases of digital motion comics.

Two late-1970s live-action entries for the wallcrawler included a Japanese version in which Spidey-san piloted a giant robot. But it’s fair to say none of them had the global impact of the first big-budget live-action movie, Sony Pictures and director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002).

Page to Screen (Big)

Hindsight is always convenient. But even when Raimi’s film opened, less than a year after 9/11 – an early teaser in which bad guys in a helicopter were webbed between the now-fallen Twin Towers was quickly removed – its sense of youthful innocence and optimism were a welcome counterbalance to a general mood that hardly fostered such qualities.

Raimi’s kinetic action, allied to ever-improving CG effects, made Spidey’s web-swinging between skyscrapers a visual feast; and the casting of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as young leads Peter and Mary Jane sparked with real chemistry (today, their upside-down peeled-back masked kiss would be a go-to GIF). Spider-Man achieved the then-largest opening weekend in history, and became the year’s biggest commercial hit, besting Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter sequels. Alongside Fox’s first ­X-Men films, it showed that, after a Batman and Robin-inflicted lull, superhero movies were back in business.

Raimi’s series peaked with Spider-Man 2 (2004’s second-highest-grosser), with Alfred Molina’s terrific metal-tentacled Doctor Octopus a worthy adversary. And even the lacklustre Spider-Man 3, overstuffed with villains and burdened with an evil emo-Peter, topped 2006’s box-office charts.

“[Spider-Man] is the best because he actually cares about the people in the city. He once tutored a boy after helping him not go to jail for mistakenly helping robbers at a corner store. After the kid was killed in the robbers’ revenge, he brought them to the police, and cried over the loss. He is the best of what humanity offers: he cares for the people, and works to see the good in them grow.” — Jonmor93, Marvel community.

Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan was already busy re-inventing Batman as a Dark Knight with a more serious superhero movie tone. But it was Sam Raimi’s trilogy that paved the way for 2008’s Iron Man, and the debut of the MCU, which would see Spidey welcomed into the fold in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War ahead of solo outing Spider-Man: Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War and the upcoming Far From Home after years belonging to Sony’s roster of Marvel superheroes. Indeed, Spider-Man has only belonged to the MCU for less than three years, and already he’s coming in at number two on that best characters in the MCU list.

From Reboot to MCU

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s rewind a little. Before entering the MCU, Spider-Man underwent a Sony reboot. The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012, and its 2014 sequel, largely underwhelmed, despite charismatic leads in Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Even the innate power of ‘The Night Gwen Stacy Died’ storyline couldn’t overcome convoluted plotting and yet another origin/Uncle Ben version. The films were only the seventh and ninth-highest-grossing films globally of their respective years, which seems on the surface a massive underachievement for such a popular superhero.

But each pocketed $757.9m and $709m respectively, which compares to the $714.3m 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier made and the $773.3m Guardians of the Galaxy bagged the same year. 2012 was a bumper year for cinema, with a record-breaking four movies smashing the $1bn barrier; the MCU’s first Avengers team-up movie sitting at the very top of that tree.

Integrating Spider-Man into the MCU was critical to Kevin Feige, and Marvel Studios — and from the figures, it’s not hard to see why. And that Spider-Man has been so warmly received into the MCU is testament to the enduring power and significance of the character, a fact not lost on Marvel. It’s no coincidence that pre-MCU Marvel hero movies featured the heavy hitters Marvel had touted around to other film studios before it had its own outlet: Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men and Fantastic Four. Now that the MCU was the place to be, the fact that Feige and co made their biggest efforts to bring Spider-Man back into the fold, agreeing on a unique joint deal with Sony, showed his importance to their brand.

“The way in which his character was developed was so different and so new that other writers from many different companies took him as an inspiration and tried to create their own version of the character. Peter Parker’s story has rocked the entire world and influenced the billions of people in it… A person — even if he’s a fictional one — who has inspired, influenced and changed the world is definitely, ultimately important and precious.” — Thomeus Skywalker, Spider-Man community.

World Wide Web

Financially, it was a no-brainer. The last in-depth analysis, from 2014, estimated that Spider-Man sold a staggering $1.3 billion of merchandise. Everything from the obvious action figures, toys and clothes, to, err, the Spider-Man Fishing Rod (catches fish/just like flies?).To put that into context, it’s more than the next three top-sellers, the Avengers ($325 million) and D.C.’s Batman ($494 million) and Superman ($277 million) combined. And this off the back of his least-loved feature films.

But there was a strong emotional argument for welcoming him into the MCU too. Spider-Man is the heart of Marvel’s line-up. A Spidey-less Cinematic Universe was truly less to marvel at.

Back in the Fold

Spider-Man made his triumphant MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War, an Avengers movie by any other name, and his extended cameo, with young Tom Holland as an enthusiastic, likeable Peter Parker, was a breath of fresh air. His solo follow-up, the appropriately titled Spider-Man: Homecoming, doubled down on this return, recasting the film as more of a John Hughes-like high school saga, and bolstered by Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark as Peter’s mentor and guide.

The film smartly avoided repeating the hero’s now-tired origin story. Instead, it delivered a genuinely surprising personal twist to Michael Keaton’s Vulture bad guy, and its youthful energy and feel saw it beat all other superhero movies released in 2017 to take sixth spot at the global box office. Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Justice League and Hugh Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine, Logan all took home less worldwide than Spidey’s debut MCU solo outing. The film also garnered great reviews, notching up an impressive 92% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer despite it being the third live-action Peter Parker we’d seen on screen in the past 15 years.

MCU fans might well cite Iron Man as the movies’ most important Marvel hero. But Downey Jr.’s nine screen appearances as Tony Stark (not including his cameo at the end of The Incredible Hulk) is equalled by Spider-Man, including the upcoming Spider-Man: Far From Home, across all his movie outings – and that’s before we know if he will re-materialize in Avengers: Endgame. On top of that, online marketplace eBay tells us that between January 1st, 2018 and March 28, 2019, there was four times more Spider-Man merchandise sold via eBay than closest Marvel rival, Iron Man.

Miles to Go

So far, so Peter Parker. Yet, what seals Spider-Man’s place at the pinnacle of the superhero pantheon, is his versatility. Various heroes have had different people behind the mask at certain points in their stories. But almost all are still primarily known for their initial alter ego, be it Bruce Wayne or Bruce Banner. For some Spider-fans, however, it’s not Peter Parker at all to whom they pledge their allegiance. It’s Miles Morales.

Miles Morales Spider-Man
Miles Morales as Spider-Man.

2000’s Ultimate Spider-Man (Marvel’s Ultimate series’ being alternate and reimagined timelines for various characters) eventually killed off Peter Parker. And in 2011, artist Sara Pichelli and writer Brian Michael Bendis introduced an Afro-Latino teenager to take on the mantle.

Miles was so well developed that he became more than a stand-in, and a character in his own right, with his own anxieties and issues, and family dramas, that connected to his web-slinging heroics. And though some reactionary critics had initially branded him a politically correct panacea, when Marvel merged the Ultimate universe with its own in 2015’s ‘Secret Wars’ storyline, Miles stayed on a character his own right, alongside Peter Parker. Now there were Spider-men. Both fully developed characters, both with their own devoted fans.

Into the (Comics) Spider-Verse

You practically need a software-tracking program to keep tabs on the number of Spider-men, women and, er, cartoon pig who have inhabited the role(s) (there are around 100, according to fans), and the timelines that have, at various times, been in play. This compares with the 17 different characters who have adopted the Captain America mantle. Even the 40+ alternate versions of Iron Man don’t come close.

But if you don’t know your Earth-616 (originally Peter Parker) from your Earth-1610 (eventually Miles Morales), let alone your Earth-65 (Spider-Woman or ‘Spider-Gwen’ [Stacy] as she’s affectionately known), Earth-90214 (‘Spider-Noir’) or Earth-8311 (‘Spider-Ham’, the anthropomorphized pig)… don’t worry. Some of these – and numerous others – became popular, chiefly in 2014’s ‘Spider-Verse’ storyline. What it ultimately showed was how flexible and complex Spider-Man mythology could become, and still keep, and even widen, its popularity. For some years, this extended mythology was confined to the page, but then…

Into the (Movie) Spider-Verse

… seemingly out of nowhere, came a surprise. On its February bow, you’d have thought that the excellent, pioneering Black Panther would have taken the honour of Best — and most impactful — Solo Superhero Movie of 2018. Then, in December, came Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse: a multiverse tale that featured Miles Morales, an ageing, out-of-shape Peter Parker and a grab-bag of other Spider-heroes including those listed above.

Developed by the Lego Movie team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, its combination of hand-drawn technique and cutting-edge CG made for an animated superhero film whose comic-book panel and expressionist pop look resembled no other superhero movie out there. It was fast, funny, smart, moving and somehow distilled the essence of a Spider-Man story across an ensemble of heroes, while still relating an intimate introduction to Miles Morales on the big screen. It’s difficult to imagine achieving the same with any other superhero.

The film deservedly won the Best Animated Feature Oscar – beating out Pixar’s Incredibles 2, no less – and is already considered a modern classic. Indeed, it’s hard to think of another superhero whose animated feature has been able to match, and perhaps even surpass, its live-action cohorts (some might cite 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm). And while credit is absolutely due to Lord, Miller and Spider-Verse directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, it’s also testament to Spider-Man’s innate multi-faceted, multiverse appeal.

And if your belief in Spider-Man’s ability to make a significant impact in the real-world has waned, take a look at these responses to Miles Morales’ outing as the webslinger in Into the Spider-Verse:

Now, this is important.

The World of Gaming

Further proof of Spidey’s popularity comes from the gaming world. Since its release in September 2018, Insomniac Games’ Marvel’s Spider-Man has become the fastest, and best-selling superhero game ever, surpassing Batman: Arkham Knight which held the top spot since 2015. With over 3.3 million copies sold it’s also now the biggest Marvel game, outstripping LEGO Marvel Super Heroes – not bad for a game only available on a single platform (PlayStation 4).

With Great Power…

Not even the biggest Spider-fan would claim that its been an untarnished 57-year run in the comics (2007’s retconning, marriage-annulling ‘One More Day’ storyline was infamously panned), or later on screen (the cheesy 1970s TV show, the Andrew Garfield movies). 2011’s Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was a notorious mess — although that’s kind of irrelevant when you stop to ask whether any other superhero has had their own song-and-dance stage spectacular.

There’s also an argument that the recent, increasingly fragmented comic-book series dilutes sales and overall interest in the character. You would, of course, be ignoring the fact that Spidey’s comic-book debut sold at auction for $1.1m, making Amazing Fantasy #15 the second most-valuable comic book ever sold.

Taken as a whole, there should be no doubt that the most culturally ground-breaking, popular and important Marvel superhero, and, arguably, only matched by Batman overall, is Spider-Man. Indeed, the late, great Stan Lee said several times in his career that Spider-Man was his own personal favourite creation: “He’s the best-loved all over the world, and that makes me very happy.” As the man himself often used to write in his ‘Soapbox’ editorial columns, “’Nuff said.”

Leigh Singer
UK-based film journalist, programmer and video essayist. VR avatar probably a combination of Roger Rabbit and Llewyn Davis. But hey, enough of my yakkin'; whaddaya say? Let's boogie!