Most modern bookshops seem to group Super-Hero books over in the same set of shelves with "Fantasy and Sci-Fi". But why? Firstly, some might argue that Fantasy and Sci-Fi are two separate genres. I would agree, but perhaps not for the reasons others might suggest.
The commonly percieved (and superficial) difference is that Fantasy involves magic, and Sci-Fi revolves around science. However, as Asimov pointed out, any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. In any case, I suggest that this is no real difference at all.
However, I agree that Fantasy and Sci-Fi do separate clearly into two distinct parts... which I will call "Let's Pretend" and "What If". The difference here is significant.
Nearly all of what is classically called Fantasy, and much of modern Sci-Fi falls into the "Let's Pretend" category. Some alternate world or strange situation is used to provide the glamorous backdrop for an amusing diversion from our mundane and generally unsatisfactory real world lives. In recent days, these tend to consist of trilogies of trilogies. Some are well-written and truly worthy forms of entertainment. Others are not.
By contrast, a part of Sci-Fi and a fraction of Fantasy writing is characterised by "What If". This category of writing is often termed speculative literature, and its goal is to ask questions about human society and culture. To this end, it uses alternate realities and scenarios to more clearly expose the specific aspect of our current world that is being examined.
So that's my point. Entertainment vs. Exploration. I confess to being a fan of speculative Sci-Fi, and to considering it a fairly "high-brow" form. But clearly, when the shelf-stockers at Barnes & Noble wedge Spider-Man in with Hugh Cook and Phillip K. Dick, they do so on the basis of the fantastical world which Marvel creates purely for our enjoyment. Or do they?
Costumed villains and hyper-powered saviours. Hi-tech worlds and mystical forces, combatting in a world which is like, yet unalike our own. Is a Spider-Man novel (or graphic novel, or movie, or comic) merely a work of fantasy, created to do no more than titilate our jaded senses? Or is our erstwhile hero a postulate, a question mark, a skillfullly wielded scalpel in a subtle quest to discover the answer to worthy questions, such as: "what would we do with great personal power", or "how do we deal with great power in others"?
Spider-Man fights. He suffers. He reads lines and plays a part in a patchwork play, written over forty years by hundreds of script-writers... some skilled and some not. As a whole, do they present a cohesive story worthy of being judged for some over-riding merit above the level of popular entertainment?
Peter Parker gains powers. He abuses them, and pays a price at the hands of the fates. He is humbled, and vows to work for the good of mankind, even at great personal cost. Stan and Steve created this story. Forty years on, the Spider-Man movie extracted these elements in a dextrous fashion, and crafted a slick and entertaining film. Does this premise form a "what if" lesson?
Perhaps it does. It portrays a simple moral lesson, assuming that you allow the role of fate and cruel coincidence to be part of your world. In order for this story to become a moral lesson, you must agree that Peter's inaction in allowing the burgler to escape was morally wrong, and that his subsequent loss of his Uncle Ben was a reasonable consequence.
But what of the "super-real" aspect of the story? Is the super-powered aspect of the Spider-Man and the Marvel world a significant aspect of the "What If" question.
We all have power of some kind, at various times. Anybody could be placed in a situation where they have the power to choose to act out of selfishness or pique, or to act out of a sense of responsibility. However, in this case, Spider-Man had just completed a clear demonstration of his powers. The burgler was armed, and a normal person could not have acted with impunity, as Peter could have.
I claim Spider-Man's powers did place him clearly in a special position, in a scenario which would have been significantly more difficult to create without the "fantasy" part of the story. The super-hero aspect of Spider-Man is more than just window-dressing.
Sadly, that was my one real case study for the speculative merit of Spider-Man. In the 3000 or so comics, books, and graphic novels which followed, I challenge you to find more than a handful of stories which used Spider-Man for anything more than B-grade entertainment. Few writers have subsequently dared to use this fantasy world for asking any worthwhile questions. The powers, devices, alien races, and mystical wonders of the Marvel world are rarely used for more than scene-setting for a never-ending pagent which lurches from action-scene to action-scene, with the occasional passage through laughable soap-opera.
Which reminds me, I need to head down to the comic shop and pick up the latest issue...