Did Spider-Man deserve better?

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The vast majority of the conversation about Amazing Spider-Man #700 is over the last few pages, and the implications for the upcoming Superior Spider-Man title. It does suggest that the reception to the issue would not have been the same if it had just ended a little bit differently.

“Dying Wish” seemed to be Dan Slott’s version of a trope common in some of the best Spider-Man stories: Present the hero with the ultimate physical challenge and have him fight until the end. Lee and Ditko trapped him under tons of wreckage, in a slowly flooding underwater base. Roger Stern consciously replicated that scene when he pit Spider-Man against the Juggernaut, as he explained in an interview for Comics Creators on Spider-Man.

I wanted Spider-Man to fight someone who posed a real physical threat. It had to be someone who could pound the living daylights out of him, someone that Spider-Man couldn’t possibly defeat. I don’t know why, but I just thought of the Juggernaut. After all his power is that he can’t be stopped, so what if Spider-Man has to find a way stop him and all the other heroes are out of town?

Now Spider-Man has to save Madame Web’s life, and then go after the Juggernaut, who is like the great weight that fell on Spider-Man during the ‘Master Planner’ story in Amazing #31-33. There’s no way that Spider-Man can lift that weight, just that there’s no way that he can defeat the Juggernaut, but he still finds a way to do it.

J. Michael Straczynski started his Amazing Spider-Man run with that type of story, as Spider-Man fought against Morlun, a new villain who was stronger than any he had faced before, and seemingly unbeatable. Slott referenced the battles with Morlun and Juggernaut, as well as the Master Planner saga, in Amazing Spider-Man #700.

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The situation at the end of Amazing Spider-Man #698 was as dire as in those great stories, or when Kraven shot and buried Spider-Man, before impersonating the hero. The difference with “Dying Wish” is that when Slott told this story, it doesn’t have the conventional ending. Spider-Man’s last effort seemed to fail.

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Doctor Octopus is still flooded with Spider-Man’s memories, experiencing his triumphs and tragedies. It would have been a conventional and crowd-pleasing finale if the story then ended with Doc Ock sacrificing himself to save Spider-Man, removing the plating in his mask to allow the golden octobot to switch his brain patterns with Peter’s. It’s how Howard Mackie ended his final Spider-Man story, as a vilain who was trying to replace Spider-Man decided instead to sacrifice himself to save the hero.

I’m kinda glad it didn’t end that way, just because I’m interested in seeing more of Doctor Octopus, even when the Superior Spider-Man era is over. But there are many readers who  thought that the hero simply deserved better. Donovan Grant of the Crawl Space explained his problem with the death scene.

This is the most undignified way for a character to go out that I have ever seen.

It furthers my feelings that, for a creator who’s love of Spider-Man splashes all over interviews and many of his scripts, Dan Slott doesn’t think very highly of him. Neither, for that matter does Wacker, Pyle or Alonso. At least when Captain America died, people mourned his death in a miniseries and it cast a shadow over the Marvel Universe. Peter Parker, comics’ favorite superhero underdog, dies under the guise of a villain in a frail body without anyone learning about it.

In this story, the nature of the end doesn’t allow for memorials, as Doctor Octopus turns out to be the only one aware of the loss. It’s also easier for Slott if there’s no need to explain resurrections to the rest of the Marvel Universe. We’ve also seen that story before quite recently in Ultimate Fallout.

In an earlier entry, I wondered about the advantages of a depressing and unconventional ending for Spider-Man’s story. I could appreciate the argument that readers are emotionally invested in Spider-Man’s story, but fiction isn’t about good people getting what they deserve. I do agree that Spider-Man deserved better. But so do a lot of people, who die in horrible ways in the world outside your window. And the promise of the Marvel Universe was that unlike DC, it’s the world outside your window.

Let DC sell stories where JFK faked his death. Marvel’s heroes often have pyrhic victories. In the Dark Phoenix Saga, the X-Men save Jean Grey from the Shiar, but she still sacrifices herself. In Daredevil: Born Again, Matt Murdoch gets the girl but loses his license to practice law as well as his friendships with Ben Urich and Foggy Nelson. The Master Planner Saga had Peter save Aunt May and lose Betty Brant. Matt Wilson of Comics Alliance suggests that “Dying Wish” still provided a victory for Spidey, even if it came at a great cost.

What had me concerned was that this comic was going to be a bummer. And while the issue spends much of its middle wallowing in what’s (let’s be honest) a bit of a tired Spider-Man trope, the one where he encounters his old friends who have died and feels a lot of guilt before Uncle Ben’s ghost gives him a pep talk, it really picks up by the end. In fact, Slott offers a really cool spin on another Spidey story point that writers have kicked around since the birth of the character 50 years ago: The notion that even when Spider-Man wins, he loses. Here, it’s the opposite. Peter really couldn’t lose any harder than he does here, but his spirit and overwhelming sense of responsibility are so powerful that he essentially wills them to live on in Spider-Ock. That the new Spider-Man doesn’t entirely have Doc Ock’s evil personality, that he’s seasoned with Peter’s driving purpose and heroic obligation to others, makes the new title way more intriguing than if this was just Ock masquerading as Spidey. Here, Ock endeavors to change.

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George Marston of Newsarama was also sold on the sacrifice.

Those final scenes are where Amazing Spider-Man #700 definitely hits the mark, when Peter and Ock have their final confrontation. It’s in those final moments that Doc Ock finally learns the full extent of the responsibility he has accepted, the truth about being Spider-Man, and accepts not just Peter’s identity, but his legacy as well. There’s something to be said about a man who, even in dying, saves the day. In his final act, Peter Parker ensures that the world will not just have a Spider-Man, but one capable of living up to the standard the world expects of it’s friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. Dan Slott has walked a very fine tightrope for these last few issues, and the way this story is perceived in the long run will depend greatly on what happens in Superior Spider-Man, but on its own legs, Amazing Spider-Man #700 stands as Slott’s masterpiece.

Slott discussed his aims in an interview with the Hero Complex.

HC: What made it the right ending for Peter Parker?

DS: He’s not Superman. Spider-Man doesn’t always win. He’s us. We do our best, but sometimes we fall short. What makes him heroic is that he stays on the right path. There’s a victory in this story for Peter if you’re willing to see it. Any superhero can look heroic in the winner’s circle, when they’re adored and showered with praise. But when you’re in a losing battle, when the world’s against you, when everyone thinks you’re a menace, but you do the right thing anyway … that’s when you’re better than a superhero. That’s when you’re Peter Parker.

This is almost certainly not the end of Peter Parker’s story. He’ll be back as Spider-Man soon enough. But it would have been an appropriate conclusion for a series that has always been about defying expectations.

The Infinite Spider-Man is a series of mini-essays regarding Marvel’s options for the future of the best character in comics.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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