Science Gone Wrong Showdown, Round One: Spider-Man vs. Daredevil
Origin Story: Gawky, geeky New York high schooler Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider (altered to a genetically modified spider in later reboots of the character), and overnight becomes imbued with the arachnid’s heightened strength, agility, perception, and velcro-like grip on practically any surface. But he’s still just a hot-headed kid: When Peter blithely neglects to stop a thief, the lowlife winds up murdering Peter’s Uncle Ben — the only father figure he’s known. Peter’s grief propels him into a life of crime fighting, driven by the principle that with great power comes great responsibility.
Costume: A red-and-blue unitard covered in webbing and with a stylized spider on the chest. Unlike almost every other A-list superhero costume, Spider-Man’s head (and therefore his identity) is completely covered, with two large arachnid-like eyes the only things delineating a face. It is simultaneously one of the silliest and most realistic superhero costumes ever, in so far as it actually protects Spidey’s secret identity.
Coolest Power/Ability: Hanging out on the ceiling is damn cool, and that hyper-sensitive “spidey sense” sure comes in handy. But what makes Peter more than just your average teenager is his keen engineering acumen, which enables him to conceive and fabricate the web shooters that allow Spider-Man to sling himself through the high-rise canyons of New York. (The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies made the web-shooters an innate function of Peter’s powers, a fanboy heresy rectified in this summer’s franchise reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man.)
Defining Stories: There have been so many variations on Spider-Man over the years, it’s hard to know where to begin. But “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” — the Green Goblin drops Spidey’s girlfriend from a Manhattan bridge; Spidey shoots his web to save her; but the whiplash from the sudden stop snaps her neck — remains one of the most shocking arcs in comic book history.
Cultural Legacy: As Superman defines the DC Comics universe, Spider-Man is at the center of the Marvel Comics ethos: A flawed, human-scaled hero, constantly struggling just to keep his head above water, let alone save the world. He remains one of the most recognizable superheroes on the planet, spawning several animated and live-action TV series and now two bazillion-dollar movie franchises. In fact, 2002’s Spider-Man — the first comic book movie in 13 years to top the box office for the year — arguably launched superhero cinema into its current cultural dominance. (Sorry, X-Men.) —Adam B. Vary
Origin Story: One day, Manhattan law student Matt Murdock tries to help save a man from an onrushing truck when, wouldn’t you know it, the truck’s payload is radioactive. (New York in the 1960s was a minefield of radioactivity, which explains all the heavy drinking on Mad Men.) The ensuing accident blinds Murdock, but expands his other four senses to superhuman strength, allowing him to “see” via a sophisticated form of echolocation. Then his father, a professional boxer and Matt’s only parent, is killed for refusing to throw a fight. Matt’s grief propels him into a life of crime fighting (sensing a pattern?), both within the system as Matt Murdock, the lawyer, and outside the system as Daredevil, “the man without fear!”
Costume: Based on his father’s boxing robes, it was at first a gaudy mess, more bumblebee than Beezlebub: a black-and-red torso with bright yellow sleeves, pants, and mask. Thankfully, Murdock quickly realized that “devil” was in his alter-ego’s name, and he switched things up into an all-red get up with small horns on his forehead and a double-D on his chest.
Coolest Power/Ability: Thanks to training by Stick, a blind martial arts master, Daredevil is a master at hand-to-hand combat, aided by a handy billy club that doubles as a grappling hook. None of that, however, comes close to his ability to hear a heart beat from 20 feet away.
Defining Stories: Frank Miller’s Bullseye/Elektra storyline in the early 1980s, in which the assassin Bullseye murder’s Daredevil’s love interest, Elektra. (More dead girlfriends!)
Cultural Legacy: The character has maintained a relatively robust life in comic-books for nearly five decades. He especially came to life when a young, eager artist named Frank Miller took on the title, reinvigorating the character and launching the career of one most influential comic maestros of the last 30 years. But the hero has had (pardon the pun) a devil of a time crossing over from the printed page: The 2003 feature film, starring Ben Affleck as Daredevil, Jennifer Garner as Elektra, and Colin Farrell as Bullseye, barely crossed the $100 million mark at the U.S. box office. An Elektra spin-off movie was an outright disaster, pulling in a pitiable $24 million. The franchise went no further. —ABV
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