If you accept the possibility that the marriage was a problem for the Spider‑Man books in some way, there is the legitimate question of why a magic retcon of any sorts was necessary at all. In a society where the majority of marriages end in divorce, why not have Peter and Mary Jane’s marriage come to an end that way? There’s also likely an excellent story to be told in the death of Mary Jane and the aftermath, so why not do that?
Either way, the stories fans have read since Amazing Spider‑Man Annual 21 still happened the same way. This avoids the current continuity problems and questions about how such a significant event could have no discernible impact whatsoever on other events in the Marvel Universe. And the character of Spider‑Man can grow and evolve, as can Mary Jane (in one of the two scenarios) while new readers won’t be confused when forced to reconcile the never married Spider‑Man of the new books with the married Spider‑Man in some reprints.
The Problems With Killing Mary Jane
When the initial rumors about “One More Day” began to circulate, there was some concern amongst fans that Mary Jane would be killed. This intensified thanks to the the cliffhanger of the penultimate chapter of the Amazing Spider Man’s Civil War tie in, which showed Mary Jane in the cross-hairs of a sniper rifle. I was never concerned that Joe Quesada would kill off the character for a few reasons, namely that making Peter Parker a widower is not the way to make him more accessible or “younger” which is one of Joe Quesada’s chief goals in undoing the marriage. I was also convinced that Marvel had a big plan to undo the unmasking, and could not imagine how killing Mary Jane would solve that problem.
Because it would exist in a world where the dead can return, it just makes the story far too emotionally complicated to be taken seriously. Most readers understand that major and minor deaths can—and likely will—be undone, and that would be difficult to address this in the actual story. It was essentially done before (see Howard Mackie’s last year and a half on Amazing Spider‑Man) and any future story would have to acknowledge that, which will limit and obscure Peter’s grief while maximizing the disbelief of the readers.
The story would also have inevitable comparisons to “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.” Odds are that it would fall short of that standard, and would lack the impact of the original.
With Mary Jane’s death, too many bad things would have happened to Peter for him to be relateble to anyone aside from the survivors of genocides. Consider what the guy had already been through, before One More Day began. He lost his parents, uncle/ foster‑father, another father figure (Capt Stacy), the love of his life (Gwen Stacy), his best friend (Harry Osborn), his next best friend/ brother‑figure (Ben Reilly) and his child, in addition to the loved ones who came back from the dead (Aunt May, Mary Jane) or recovered from severe comas (Flash Thompson) and broken backs (Robbie Robertson.)
If the second love of his life were to be killed as a result of his Spider‑Man hobby, it would also become irresponsible and morally reprehensible for Peter Parker to ever date any woman, or have any sort of social life, as this risks the lives of any acquaintance. The only people he could socialize with in any way would have superpowers, which would hurt Spider‑Man’s everyman appeal and prevent him from interacting with one of the best supporting casts in comics. Anything else would make him unlikable as a character.
The Problems With Divorce
Marvel also had the option of divorcing the couple, which I don’t believe is a viable alternative. Although there are young divorced guys, a generic divorced man seems older than a generic bachelor, or a generic married man, due to the added experience.
A divorce would also contradict every story about how Spider‑Man and Mary Jane’s marriage is strong, and there were many of those. Millar’s twelve issue run, Reign, Web of Romance, Sensational Spider‑Man Annual One and even Sins Past serve as recent examples. Given all they’ve faced in the past, it’ll take a hell of an offense to convincingly write the story in which they get divorced.
Granted, if there was a severe enough infraction, most fans would probably approve of an ending to the marriage. From the Post-Civil War vitriol against Iron Man on many message boards, I am convinced that if someone wrote a story in which Mary Jane cheated on Peter, the majority of fans on message boards would have demanded a divorce (especially if Mary Jane cheated on Peter with Tony Stark). Although this would completely contradict the portrayal of the character for the last twenty years, far more than One More Day, or most other retcons.
While readers would likely hate MJ with a passion if she cheated on their favorite comic book character (and one many identify with) I also doubt they would accept of a scenario in which Peter cheats on her. They would likely blame the writer, as male readers tend to identify with Peter, and I doubt they believe they’re the types of guys who would cheat on a nice girl, so therefore they would conclude that Peter wouldn’t do the same.
The inevitable bad publicity a divorce would bring would be more damaging than ending the marriage in a less believable manner, although in a world with Thor, the Sentry, “No More Mutants,” Galactus and radioactive spiders granting superpowers the question of what is less believable is open to interpretation. Divorcing Peter and Mary Jane will become a news item for various reasons, in a way that much maligned events in “The Other” and “Sins Past” were not. The media didn’t report on “The Other” because superheroes killing isn’t seen as unusual, given how many heroes in movies and TV shows kill. The media didn’t report on “Sins Past” because the majority of the general public didn’t know who Gwen Stacy was, or her relationship to Spider‑Man, and the appeal of a story for newscasters is limited if they have to spend a lot of time putting a story into some context.
But if some newscaster on Fox News reports that “Spider‑Man got divorced from Mary Jane” that’s going to poison the opinions of potential buyers for all sorts of Spider-Man merchandise. Given how convoluted it was, One More Day wasn’t something a newscaster can sum up in a five second sound bite as easily as a divorce story (which would make for a nice two minute fluff piece, with a few clips from the movies, and brief interviews with concerned parents, and religious leaders.) The comic book events that got media attention: Civil War, Spider‑Man’s unmasking, Captain America’s death, the lesbian Batwoman and even the electric Superman suit all could be summed up easily, before some media personalities spend a few minutes discussing what it means. Likewise, who thinks younger kids with divorced parents want to read about that as the major subplot in Amazing Spider-Man for some time?
There is the probability that some kid who just started reading the new issues of Amazing Spider‑Man five years from now will also buy some Spider‑Man Trade Paperbacks or back issues in which Peter and Mary Jane were married, and assume that they got divorced. This would not have the same level of negative impact as an actual divorce. Even if the kid assumes that the couple broke up, the magic retcon still avoided the initial bad press of a divorce, and had a limited impact on whether new readers are interested in the books. Eventually some comic book would probably reference the exact nature of the magic retcon, or a website (wikipedia, Spiderfan, Newsarama, message boards, etc) will set the kid straight. An actual divorce would make it less likely that the kid will pick up an issue of Spider‑Man in the first place.
Problems With Either Solution
Sure, that would have been a very easy solution. However, how would a parent feel when they had to explain to their kid that Spider Man just got divorced from his wife? How would that headline read across the AP or on USA today? The same can be said with an annulment. Sure, divorce is a reality of life, but Peter Parker and Spider Man are not the types of characters that would do that. Spider Man is a worldwide icon and is considered one of the good guys, like Superman. There’s always the option of killing off MJ, but over the years way too many key characters in Spider Man mythology have been killed off. Much like the marriage, those deaths hurt the book. The Spider Man books were better with Harry in them, as well as Norman. Also, how much older would Peter seem as a widower yikes!
Death and divorce both have the disadvantages of being milestones for the character, something that marks the passage of time. With a magic retcon, the strangeness of the break‑up made Peter appearing physically older less of a concern, especially as it’s something that would rarely impact future storylines, or Peter’s interactions with others. Supporting cast members are expected to reference a divorce or death every now and then, along with Peter’s new marital status. In both cases he’ll seem older (and less identifiable to younger readers) and it’ll be obvious how much time has passed since the end of his marriage. Even if Peter (or Mary Jane) becomes aware of the magic retcon, it’s not expected to come up often in conversation, which would ensure that it gets referenced less.