As long as the writers and editors go with an illusion of change program, Spider-Man’s story is not going to end. And this is especially disappointing and problematic to readers who were looking forward to some kind of conclusion, or at least a substitution of one story engine (Peter Parker’s difficulty getting a date) for another (Peter Parker’s difficulties as a family man).
The Illusion of Change does ultimately delay the logical ending. And when the editors realize that a story that’s already been closed should not have come to a conclusion, the typical solution is some kind of reversal, even if it seems kinda silly. For example, the DC superhero Deadman was the ghost of circus acrobat Boston Brand, searching for his one-armed murderer. Eventually, his story came to an end and it seemed as if he had caught the killer. When DC editors told Jack Kirby to bring the character back in Forever People, the murder mystery was suddenly reopened with the revelation that another one-armed man had killed Boston Brand.
In serial fiction, it’s common for this stuff to happen. Villains who are imprisoned escape. Characters who are believed dead return to life. Former villains fall off the wagon and return to the rogues gallery. The crippled are healed.
Everything’s a cycle. For the most part, the focus is on the micro, rather than the macro. It’s all about whether a shorter storyline, or the mega-arc is satisfying, rather than whether it fits perfectly into an ongoing narrative that started in 1962. The short-term plot is whether Spider-Man can defeat Doctor Octopus. There may be a larger mega-arc involving Doctor Octopus’s master plan, and the consequences of his victory. But when it’s all over, don’t expect Spider-Man to be radically different and noticeably older.
It’s a fine line to figure out what stories should come to an end in such a long-running series. There is the risk that if the writers pull on too many threads, the entire raison d’etre of a series will be snuffed. But it is bothersome if nothing changes. At some point, some long-running stories have to come to an end. But the writers have to be selective about which ones they choose. Sometimes the reversal just isn’t worth it. Deadman’s guest appearance in Forever People is still considered one of the low points of Kirby’s Fourth World saga.
With Spider-Man, there is the fear that Peter’s life will stagnate under the Illusion of Change. That problem is still preferable to unwise developments that are difficult to reverse. Marvel really doesn’t want to break the character, in which case they break the franchise.
One More Day put several genies back in the bottle. The most obvious was the marriage, but there was also Aunt May’s knowledge of Spider-Man’s identity as well as Harry Osborn’s death, and the developments in the Civil War tie-in issues of Amazing Spider-Man, which only happened because of the build-up to One More Day.
The acceptance of reversals in seemingly finished stories does allow for a counter-argument that Marvel could bring back the marriage, Aunt May’s knowledge of Spider-Man’s identity, or any reversed development, under the presumption that it could later be undone. Some things could be done repeatedly, but I think killing off characters (and bringing them back), and unmarrying two characters (and then having them marry again) would try the patience of readers, especially since they can have access to all the stories in which it’s happened before.
I think it would be foolish for Marvel to undo One More Day, or to go with any developments that require an OMD approach. It would be one thing to kill off a character, and bring him back, as happened with Harry Osborn. It’s another to keep the cycle going indefinitely (IE- if Harry were to die again in ASM #735, and come back in ASM #800, die again in ASM #871, and come back in ASM #907.)
While unwise developments could break franchises, excessive reversals could have the same effect. It’s also possible to combine the two. In the first Post-Infinite Crisis Batman arc ‘Face the Face’ Two Face became a villain again, and murdered quite a few police officers. That restricted what subsequent writers were able to do with one of the most notable Batman villains, since now he’s a generic villain, pretty much irredeemable, especially in the DCU, where so many untold tales get published in mini-series and anthologies. Fortunately, the writers and artists had more toys to play with when one got dinged. They have plenty of other villains to use. Peter Parker’s closest relationships are a bigger part of the series than any one villain, so this is a category in which mistakes would be more serious.
I don’t think it’s worth seeing if fans would be able to handle another shift from a married Spider-Man to a single Spider-Man a decade or two from now. It would be too much of a revolving door, as writers get replaced by those who grew up reading Ultimate Spider-Man, or Brand New Day.
Developments that are more plausible (Peter Parker getting fired from the Daily Bugle, and later getting his job back) could be far more cyclical. But I think death/ resurrection, changing which characters know a secret identity, and erasing and reinstating marital vows between two specific characters could seem absurd.
One problem with the marriage was that it seemed like something that happens in the tail end of a book. In a New Yorker review of a collection of Saul Bellow’s first novels, John Acocella notes the problem of focusing on the end of a story about a character’s growth.
The novel runs out of steam in its last quarter or so, but that is a case with a bildungsroman (see “Huckleberry Finn,” “My Antonia”), because it is the quest that is romantic, and no ending of that, no fall into adult life, will seem a worthy conclusion.
It’s about the journey rather than the destination. That cliche has been used by fans of the marriage, sometimes inaccurately. Spider-Man: Blue is often mentioned as one of the best stories with a married Peter Parker; it’s #2 on IGN’s list. It could just as easily have been an epilogue to Spider-Man’s adventures, published after the cancellation of the titles, with framing sequences set long after Peter Parker had retired.
Another of the most acclaimed Spider-Man stories of the last few years “To Have and to Hold” (#5 on IGN’s list) is more apocalyptic. It’s a fantastic take on the character at a rather dramatic time, but it’s not a status that could be sustained for long. A story about Peter Parker and Mary Jane as fugitives, after Spider-Man’s identity became public is as different from what made the character appealing in the first place as one can get.
There are several things the best stories with a married Spider-Man have in common. They usually fall into one of two categories, with occasional overlap. Many of the stories tend to be self-contained, as creative teams come to tell a one-off adventure. In addition to Blue and Sensational Spider-Man Annual One, there’s Kraven’s Last Hunt, Peter David’s short story “Five Minutes” and Millar’s Marvel Knights Spider-Man run. It’s an interesting contrast to the single Spider-Man, who seems better represented in stories that are clearly part of an ongoing run. The other highly regarded stories tend to feature significant closed doors, as long running stories are given permanent endings. Examples include the Death of Aunt May, the Death of Harry Osborn, Kraven’s Last Hunt and even The Return of the Sinister Six, with the death of Aunt May’s fiancee Nathan Lubensky.
Pretty much any storytelling decision removes some choices, while allowing for alternatives, so closing some doors opens others. This doesn’t mean that all the doors and options are equal. While an illusion of change approach does close some doors it does open others, as different combinations of characters lead to new options. For example, I don’t believe we’ve seen every “Peter Parker goes on a first date” story any more than we’ve seen every “Spider-Man fights a villain for the first time” story. I’m not even sure if we’ve seen a story in the 616 universe in which Mary Jane goes on a first date with a guy. And that’s something you can’t do with a married Spider-Man.
If the destination is the important thing, there comes a point when the story comes to an end. So if you want to keep everything going for a long, long time, it’s better to concern the reader with the short-term, instead of dangling a mystery like the search for Boston Brand’s killers that is going to have to be resolved at some point.