Stan Lee on His 'Spider-Man' Inspiration Moment and Peter Parker's Enduring Popularity (Flashback)

Lee chatted with ET about creating the web-slinging superhero. Plus, he references James Cameron's never-made adaptation!

At the end of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Miles Morales says, 'Anyone can wear the mask.' His proclamation speaks to Morales and Peter Parker's average nature that, along with radioactive arachnoid genetics, has been embedded in the character's DNA since Stan Lee created the superhero in 1962.

Even before the Spider-Verse, the MCUThe Amazing Spider-Man and the upside-down kiss, Spider-Man was already held up as one of Marvel’s biggest success stories. When speaking with ET in 1992, Lee shared details about his pivotal moment of inspiration for the character, whose latest appearance brought together multiple generations of Spidey fandom into the crossover event of the century.

“It may sound silly, but we were looking for a new superhero and I was wondering what to do next,” Lee recalled. “The most important thing about a superhero is: what superpower will he have? And it seemed to me we had already done everything. We have the strongest character in the world, who [is] The Hulk. We had characters who could fly [and] who were invisible. And I was sitting wondering what to do when I saw a fly flying, [or rather] walking on the wall. And I thought to myself, ‘Gee. What if a person had the power of just being able to walk on the wall or cling to a ceiling. And I guess that was the start of it.” 

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Lee's story about the origin of Spider-Man may sound apocryphal -- and several more comprehensive accounts can fill in the missing creative stages and absent nuances -- but it should be noted that he and his contemporaries were ushering in the Marvel Age of Comics at the time. While comic books were already decades into their lifespan, this particular era in the industry was a hit factory for the likes of Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and other contemporaries.

In 2002’s Spider-Man, there’s a funny moment when Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) reveals he’s named his alter ego ‘The Human Spider.’ Bruce Campbell’s amateur wrestling announcer quickly recognizes a punch-up is needed and ultimately coins the titular namesake off the cuff. According to Lee’s account, there was a similar brainstorming session on his end when trying to name his latest character. “I thought, ‘What do I call him?’ It seemed to me that ‘Fly-Man’ wasn't good. ‘Insect-Man’ didn't sound good. And ‘Mosquito-Man’ was awful. And then it hit me: ‘Spider-Man.’ And it was an epiphany,” he said.

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For comic book fans, imagining what one would do with fantastical abilities has always been part of the fun. And for Lee, it was also an essential practice in crafting his superheroes from the ground up. 

“I never have any special model in mind when I write something. What you do is you try to imagine the character himself and then your biggest problem is staying true to the character you’ve imagined all the time that you're writing him,” Lee explained. “And the only model I had was a sort of generic average man. Maybe a little bit like me, because in school I wasn't exactly the captain of the football team and the most popular guy. [Peter Parker] was an average guy in school and so I was able to sort of figure, ‘Well, what would happen to me if I was in those situations?’”

“But, of course, I do that with every character I write,” Lee continued. “When I'm writing about a villain, I'm the villain at the moment. When I write about Thor, the God of Thunder, I'm a god at that moment."

Spider-Man has proven to be one of pop culture’s most versatile characters on the page and across the big screen. In addition to the superhero’s many critically acclaimed and best-selling comic book runs, there’s also been four cinematic series, animated TV shows and a Broadway musical. As Lee surmised, the day-to-day struggles of his superheroes were always a key ingredient. And Peter Parker was no different.

“It's easy for people to empathize with Spider-Man. He has the same worries as most people,” Lee suggested. “How does he make a living?... He worries about his health. He's as apt to get an allergy attack… or an ingrown toenail as anybody else. I guess if we have a formula, the formula really is to say even if a person does have some super ability, what would his life be like if he really existed in the real world?” 

He added, “His popularity just seems to endure. I guess nobody really knows the actual reason why, but it certainly is really gratifying to us.”

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Lee stopped writing comics full time in the early ‘70s. By that point, alongside the aforementioned Kirby and Ditko, they had created Iron Man, Doctor Strange and The Fantastic Four, to name just a few notable heroes. One of his later duties was facilitating the translation of his creations to feature films, which ended up requiring some patience on Lee’s part, as it would be nearly a decade before his creations became mainstream at cineplexes. (For context: Blade was released in 1998 and X-Men in 2000.)

But The Daily Bugle’s favorite photographer would take a little longer to cook before his big-screen debut, leaving behind several false-starts along the way. The most famous of these attempts is James Cameron’s Spider-Man adaptation that was consistently in development throughout the ‘90s, which the Titanic director recently called "the greatest movie I never made." “I think we'll be seeing [Spider-Man] in motion pictures pretty soon. A very spectacular movie done by Jim Cameron,” Lee said at the time of the project. 

Cut to 10 years later, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man shattered opening weekend box office records when it finally swung into theaters. The Evil Dead director’s take went all in on what Lee estimated was Peter Parker’s most vital dimension, which even the film’s leading star connected with. “I feel like this character is so relatable and I identify with the struggles that he has,” Maguire told ET in 2002. “The theme of the movie is ‘with great power comes great responsibility’... And I think that can [resonate] for anybody who's growing up and taking responsibility for their life and for their actions.”

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If he wasn’t already, Lee ended up becoming the face of Marvel Comics following cameo after cameo in film adaptations throughout the ‘00s and later more prominently in the MCU era. These fun appearances, which became something for audiences to look forward to with each successive movie, came to a tragic halt when Lee died in 2018. He was 95. 

“I feel guilty for getting paid for what I do,” Lee admitted to ET in 1992. “Because, as you can imagine, working with comic strip characters, working with artists, with writers, with people in movies, being able to use your imagination and see the things you think of actually come to life in various ways... What could be more gratifying?”

Spider-Man: Now Way Home is in theaters now. 


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