[5 May 2014]
What is it that makes Spider-Man amazing?
It’s a question with many answers and that range of answers is a big reason why Spider-Man has had such vast appeal over many decades. This is a hero who doesn’t carry himself as traditional heroes and not just because he got his powers at as a teenager. Peter Parker, as a character, resonates with people in a way characters like Superman, Batman, and Captain America can hope to do. Few people outside Donald Trump and Peyton Manning know what its like to have superhuman ability or billions of dollars in resources. But Peter Parker, despite having superhuman abilities, is defined by the everyday struggles that so many can relate to. This is what makes him amazing.
However, it’s because of those qualities that Amazing Spider-Man #1 has a distinctly unamazing impact. That’s not to say it doesn’t present Spider-Man in a way that embodies all those qualities that fans have come to know and love. It’s the circumstances that have been established as a result of Superior Spider-Man that make these qualities akin to the wrong ingredients in a cake. The premise itself isn’t the problem. Peter Parker is back, having regained control over his body from Doctor Octopus. Now he’s trying to rebuild his life in a way he’s never had to do before. But in doing so, he takes a step back from being amazing and several steps forward to regression.
This gets back to those qualities about Spider-Man that makes him so amazing. He struggles to balance his responsibilities with the real-world problems of his life. But anyone who has ever made it past their teen years intact and only slightly traumatized is still able to make some kind of progress with their lives. They seek higher education, greater training, new jobs, and new opportunities. Sometimes they slip up, but even in those instances most competent people move forward. Well in his first issue back from limbo, Peter Parker gives the impression that he has made little progress as an adult or a hero for that matter. If he were a real person, he would be the kind of guy who habitually crashes on the couches of willing friends and never sees the flaws in his methods.
This is best demonstrated in the battle against a colorful team of thieves that call themselves the Menagerie. They’re basically a team of cos-players with fancy gadgets and humanoid hippo for muscle. They’re the kind of ridiculously tacky villains that Spider-Man faces all the time. While it was refreshing to see Spider-Man with a sense of humor again, his incompetence was anything but humorous. If anything, it was an ominous sign that Peter Parker is falling back into old habits. This would be tragic and compelling if he were a drug addict. But as a superhero, it’s like a grown man trading a motorcycle for a tricycle.
It wasn’t that the Menagerie getting the better of him. It’s a matter of him going back to his old methods, abandoning the infrastructure and resources that Doctor Octopus acquired as the Superior Spider-Man. He ditched the new suits and all the fancy gadgets and went back to basics. This might be good from a conceptual standpoint for the issue, but from a pragmatic standpoint he might as well be a cop exchanging his gun for a musket. The Menagerie reveal why using just a normal uniform made out of the same threads that make up discount apparel at Wal-Mart is a bad idea. Peter Parker is literally and figuratively exposed in a way that Doctor Octopus never was.
But it isn’t just losing his uniform and web-swinging in his underwear that demonstrates his regression. He carries himself around Parker Industries, the company that Doctor Octopus founded under his name, like an unpaid intern pretending to be his boss for a day. He tries to save face around his co-workers and investors. Yet even he admits to himself that he has as much business savvy as kid running a lemonade stand.
It doesn’t bode well for him building on the foundation that the Superior Spider-Man laid out for him. In fact, it already shows cracks in the foundation. When Peter had a chance to pick out one of the many costumes Doctor Octopus created, he picked the one that had the least amount of utility in helping him carry out his responsibilities. And he picked it for no other reason than because it felt familiar. He might as well have been wearing his favorite pair of pants long after a hole formed in the back.
This isn’t just a matter of classic “Parker luck” as it’s often called. It’s a matter of not learning from mistakes. The old uniform may look iconic, but even Batman is smart enough to use new gadgets every now and then. And unlike before, Peter has the resources of his own company to help him. He has these options and he doesn’t use them. That isn’t just incompetent. It’s blatantly irresponsible, which makes it hard to root for him even against a team of villains as ridiculous as the Menagerie.
That irresponsibility sets the stage for an uncomfortable confrontation with Anna, the woman Doctor Octopus dated while he was in Peter’s body. It also sets the stage for an all too familiar conflict between Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson. A bonus story even sets up the return of a very upset Black Cat who is intent on torturing Spider-Man the same way every villain he’s ever encounter has fantasized about. These are all classic themes about Spider-Man that fans have come to expect over the years. And the way they unfold in this issue is not the problem. The problem is that Peter Parker insists on using the same approach he’s always used, even though the Menagerie just proved its flaws. Jameson and Black Cat have excuses, but Peter Parker does not. It’s an instant where reverting back to classic themes make for a choppy and somewhat predictable narrative.
In its efforts to recapture all those amazing qualities that make Spider-Man who he is, Amazing Spider-Man #1 sends Peter Parker down the road to regression. The humor is back, the classic themes have returned, and the tone is much more upbeat than it was during Superior Spider-Man. But bringing Spider-Man back to basics in the context of the story paints a less-than-amazing picture. Every character not named Peter Parker comes off as compelling while Peter Parker just comes off as a guy who refuses to be the superior Spider-Man that Doctor Octopus told him he could be.