Spider-Man films have consistently set Peter Parker up as a tremendous example for young boys. Popular culture has long seemed to see a willingness to express emotion as somehow unmanly, with men encouraged to repress their emotions rather than freely display them. Tears in particular are usually seen as a sign of weakness, and psychiatrists and counselors unanimously agree this is unhealthy. Unfortunately, that pattern of behavior is often learned in childhood.
The only real way to change this is through popular culture, by giving young boys role models who are conflicted and emotional, willing to display their feelings. Unfortunately many superhero films fall far short of such expressions, presenting stoic and confident heroes who seem unbreakable in the face of relentless opposition. There are precious few superhero films that explore the emotional cost of heroism, and there are especially few aimed at younger viewers. That makes the various Spider-Man movies quite remarkable.
Spider-Man has been rebooted three times in the last 20 years, and each portrayal has been a conflicted and complex person who openly wrestles with their emotions. A major recurring theme is the exploration of grief, with the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield versions of Spider-Man both wrestling with the guilt they felt after Uncle Ben's death. Tom Holland's latest Spider-Man movie, Spider-Man: Far From Home, was set in the aftermath of Tony Stark's death and saw a grief-stricken Peter Parker feeling lost in his hero's shadow. All incarnations of Spider-Man have been open with their emotions, and none of them have been strangers to tears.
It may seem like such a small thing, but Spider-Man's example helps normalize emotions. Counselor Ashley Davis (via Third Wave Therapy) recounted a conversation with her toddler son when he was taken aback to notice Spider-Man crying on the screen. "So if he gets sad I can get sad too? And I can cry if I’m sad? Just like Spider-Man?" This one boy had learned an important life-lesson, one taught to far too few boys, simply by paying close attention to a Spider-Man film.
No doubt Spider-Man creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko would have been delighted to hear accounts like that. Spider-Man was originally created to be a hero who felt like a real person, who was identifiable to the kind of people who were picking up comic books. His struggles were their struggles, his battles were their own, just dialed up to 11. Spider-Man's best stories are those in which he struggles against personal stakes rather than battling to save the world; in which he wrestles with problems in his love-life, fear of loss, financial hardship, or any of a thousand so very familiar problems.
Spider-Man helps set an example for how audiences deal with conflict in their own lives - not the typical exaggerated conflict of superhero films, where the entire world is at stake, but the personal conflicts where it feels as though viewers' personal worlds are at stake. He tells viewers - especially young boys - that in a time of crisis, it is OK to feel emotion, to sometimes feel overwhelmed by the storms of life, and that there is nothing wrong with expressing those feelings. Spider-Man really does set a tremendously valuable example.