Full disclosure. I am, now, have always been, and will always be a Spider-Man fangirl. I saw the 1966 Spider-Man cartoon when I was four, fell in love instantly, and have never looked back. I hung on through the Clone Saga and gritted my teeth through One More Day. Peter Parker has always been my favorite non-mutant hero.
That said, I was very curious when I heard about the Superior Spider-Man title which has now ended its run after 31 issues. I’m looking back at the mega-arc with a curious ambivalence. I enjoyed it mostly, but while delighted to see the one true Spidey back, I’m still kinda sad this wild ride is over. This retrospective through my eyes may help you decide whether it’s worth trying.
Writer Dan Slott has already tweeted that he’s getting a lot of tweets from people eating crow who freaked out at the very idea.
So let’s go back to 2012: the buzz was that something big, something unspeakable was happening. Writer Dan Slott was having to go into hiding and lock up all his social media. Why? Fanboys–and here I stress “boys”–were slinging death threats. Death. Threats. Because Dan Slott, with Marvel’s backing, was ending The Amazing Spider-Man with Spider Man’s death and a new Spider-Man was taking over for him. So this crime was worthy of threatening the writer’s life. All I can do is shake my head.
When I found out it was Doc Ock taking over as Spider-Man, I was dubious yet curious. When I heard Octavius was taking over Peter Parker’s very body, I was appalled and amused–body swapping is old hat in sci-fi, fantasy and comic book circles after all–but still intrigued. I was certain that even if the change was happening, it wouldn’t be permanent. Spider-Man is a Marvel flagship character, and at the time, had just launched a new movie franchise with a sequel on the way.
Keeping that in mind made it easy for me to entertain the idea with certainty that Peter Parker was not going away for good. Which of course has now been proven right; the beauty of retrospective! As I’ve said many times, though, I’m a pushover for a great redemption story, so I got on board out of curiosity and hope.
SPOILER WARNING: various plot points and tidbits will be revealed from here forward. If you’re a new reader, you may want to see how it turns out–but if not, here’s your heads up!
The title has not been the redemption story I hoped for, quite honestly. The core title was a few issues of Octavius-as-Spidey trying briefly to live up to the great power, great responsibility mantra that the original embodied, with only a fragment of Peter Parker’s decent spirit left to watch from the peanut gallery of his own backbrain. Otto was, at the onset, a bad man whose bombardment with the life and thoughts of Peter Parker, guilted and shocked him into attempting to become good. Slott chose to show us how far he had to go to get to Peter’s level by letting us see him at his grossest–masturbating to Peter’s memories of Mary Jane (ewwwwww!) and ogling her when in person.
The art went all out to show us how smarmy and slimy he was in how he acted toward her. The smiles were exaggerated, the gestures far more expansive — obviously a man trying to impress a beautiful woman he has no clue about, and thinks it doesn’t really matter. But Otto soon realized that reliving too many of Peter’s memories of Mary Jane resulted in Otto developing the same emotional connection to them that Peter had. He fell in love with her, and broke off their (hers and Peter’s) burgeoning relationship to keep her safe–something Peter had never been able to do. He also shared Peter’s familial adoration for Aunt May. While it lasted, he did her the great good of restoring her ability to walk.
Doing the hero thing was a lot more of a challenge than Octavius expected. But instead of respecting Peter for doing it, he wrote Peter off as insane for putting up with the abuse that comes from fighting supervillains on a regular basis. Unfortunately, while amping his efficiency, he also amped his brutality — using his spider-strength where the real Spidey would’ve held back, raining vicious violence on enemies Spidey always went sort of easy on. He also approached heroing from the standpoint of his own numbers vs. Peter Parker’s. He uses lethal force, which Spider-Man has made a point of avoiding.
On becoming aware of the original Parker’s presence within their shared mindscape, Octavius tried his best to obliterate the remaining shards of Peter’s mental presence, and nearly succeeded. So much for Otto Octavius proving himself a great hero, and so much for his having really turned over a new leaf. That doesn’t mean Dan Slott still didn’t tell a good and interesting story. Octavius went from trying to be a hero and live up to the “great power, great responsibility” mantra, to rationalizing that he was while he was actually just seeking self aggrandizement. He was in it only to do things his way, stroke his own ego, and to prove himself a superior Spider-Man to Peter Parker in every way. Too bad Octavius missed that what made Spider-Man so good wasn’t the gadgets or the intellect — it was the humanity.
Hubris and Humility
Dan Slott did a great job with the bait and switch, though. Octavius improved on the Spider-Man costume, adding claws, nanites, and spider-armed backpack, not to mention other fancy gizmos that make a longtime reader like me wonder “why didn’t Peter think of that?”. But when it all came down to it: his superior goggle lenses for the mask? Hacked. His spider-bots? Orwellian to the point of the public turning against them — and also hacked. His Spider-Minions? Goofballs, barely above henchman level.
The satellite titles, though, (Superior Spider-Man Team-Up, the crossover one-shots and Mighty Avengers) have been instances of Otto discovering the upside of being a compassionate hero, of doing the right thing, and how rewarding it is to do the right thing for no other reason than “someone needed help”… and facing the consequences of arrogant hubris. He also gets a look at some of his villainous former friends, and sees them through new eyes. There’s disgust there, for seeing how far some of the bad guys were willing to go to be bad; and to his amazement, seeing children used as pawns is a sore spot for Otto in his new guise.
On the flip side, Otto is unusually gentle in dealing with the original five X-Men who were brought to the present day, treating them like precocious students who aren’t living up to their potential. They’ve been a joy to read, seeing Otto making baby steps toward becoming a better man almost in spite of himself.
As I see it, in the long run, there was too much baggage carried in the mental history of Doc Ock for his life as Spider-Man to have undone enough of his badguy history to make a real difference.
The early issues of Mighty Avengers highlight Otto’s egotism. When he discovers Luke Cage forming a new Avengers team, he immediately decides he’s best suited to lead it. When none of the others agree, he brings down his spider-henchmen and spider-mecha to pull a Might Equals Right takeover. It doesn’t go well. Adorable baby Dani Cage recognizes there’s something not right about him, but the other Mighty Avengers have some internal issues going on that distract them from paying too much attention to the fact that the usually humble, playful, and underconfident Spider-Man is acting too big for his spandex. Jessica Jones does the lenses-shattering coup de grace that convinces the spider “hero” that this team does not want him as a leader and he’s better off focusing his energies elsewhere.
One of the Superior Spider-Man Team-Up issues was a crossover with the Terrigen explosion that came from the fall of the Inhumans’ Atillan. (For those not following the big crossover, a quick crash course: Terrigen Mist is the vapor that gives Inhumans their powers; they normally are exposed to it ceremonially. Atillan is the Inhumans’ home city. Their king, Black Bolt, crashed the city into the Hudson River, causing Terrigen to disperse into the atmosphere. It was picked up by the jetstream and went worldwide, creating Inhumans out of unsuspecting humans like Kamala Khan, the titular character of the new Ms. Marvel title which you should be reading.)
Superior Spider-Man encounters one such: a woman who became an Inhuman when she refused to evacuate her studies at the Cloisters when the mists began creeping in. Superior Spidey comes across her in her new form — electricity embodied — and convinces her that she should try to embrace the new electrical powers that are freaking her out. He talks her into taking a codename of sorts, but doesn’t expend the effort to see that she was an unstable Luddite. So rather than making a protege hero as he intended to, he creates a new super-villain in Fulmina who decides that modern technology needs to go in order to return Earth to a purer culture.
Spider-Man then must act to undo what he brought about to save New York City. The story ends with the likely death of Fulmina who realizes he was right about the consequences of casting the world back into the middle ages; but all we get from Otto’s point of view is that in the end, she made him proud. No sorrow for her death, nor remorse for having put her on the wrong path inadvertently. Through this we still see that even attempting to help, he thinks of himself before others, and his lack of compassion informs any guidance he tries to offer.
The malappropriated Spider-Man gets momentary glimmers when he does good: like the glow of a little girl’s gratitude when he helps Cardiac save her life; and hints that he’s on the way wrong path. In the wake of Atillan’s fall, he realizes that sometimes good people do bad things, which mitigates his increasingly thuggish tendency to bludgeon his problems. In the same post-Atillan adventure in which he meets Fulmina, he simultaneously berates himself for stopping to help get the power on for a hospital, ponders on what stopped him from ignoring the crisis in favor of bigger issues, and finally gets on with his night, lingering on the heartwarmed feeling he got from helping. He also learns that while in Spider-Mode, Otto has Peter Parker’s tendency toward showmanship and quippiness, if not his humility.
In the team-up title, Sun Girl, who idolized (the real) Spider-Man gives him a “wtf” at going into battle with the new Superior (formerly Sinister) Six, whom Octo-Spidey mind controlled into “reforming” as “heroes”. The controlled villains themselves call him out for what he did, enraged that a so-called “hero” would do such a thing to them. But between his own audacity and encouragement from ne’er do wells such as Namor, Otto rationalizes his way back to thinking his path is the right one and that Peter Parker’s way was just weak. Telling himself everyone else was inferior, from the Avengers to Peter’s family and friends, he was able to work up just enough fake emotion to manipulate some people who should have suspected. Having Peter Parker’s body and voice made the deception all the more complete. But his supervillain ego got in his way, refusing to let him see the value in having friends, allies, and the upside of respecting the efforts of others.
Catching Thieves Just Like Flies
There’s no debating that the Superior Spider-Man racked up a decent hit count. Scorpion. Boomerang. Vulture. Massacre. Hobgoblin. And for a certain value of “taken down”, the Kingpin. But Otto’s short-sightedness extends beyond his actual eyesight.
Otto finds out the hard way that all his vain genius and sneering contempt for everyone else counts for nothing when he didn’t bother with foresight or relationship building. By the time he’s realized he’s alienated friends, allies, and lost his spider-army, he needs backup more than ever, but has no one to turn to, and is desperate, because in his hubris, he has underestimated the worst of Spider-Man’s enemies and has no idea how to defeat him. This comes as a double whammy because Otto never considered the Green Goblin as an issue or a threat — to someone who supposedly knows Spider-Man and his rogue’s gallery so well, such an oversight is side-splitting hilarity.
Having erased all his Peter Parker knowledge, Octavius has nothing but his own big brain when the Goblin makes his move. His much-prided genius is all but useless to him, because as Doctor Octopus, he was used to having time to sit and plot and think. But once the Goblin springs his trap, faux-Spidey is just reacting without getting an opportunity to plan, and that leaves him knowing he has no shot against his enemy. Norman Osborn’s insanity and having built a goblin army of his own to go against the Spider army, has the Octopus in Spider’s clothing flailing without a clue and it is a great deal of fun to see Otto hoist on his own petard because he just trusted his own genius to foresee every move any criminal might make.
But there’s no way to foresee the actions of the criminally insane. When one has grown up rationalizing that friends aren’t necessary, and that the contributions of others have no value, it’s even worse. This, though, draws a line under the tragedy of little brainiac Otto never having had friends. He never had them in his life, so never gained awareness of how important it is to have a support system. As such, he tossed away Parker’s like they were without value, never dreaming that burning bridges would come back to him when the chips were down.
It all works out though — (like you expected otherwise) — you can’t keep a good man down, and Peter Parker was never really annihilated from his own brain. A few of Parker’s memories had been recessed into Otto’s own mind when he cared about passing as Peter Parker, and those were enough for the original to cling to despite the attempted mindwipe. They almost were not enough; hiding in Otto’s psyche nearly wiped Peter away altogether.
The ironic part is that when Otto cared about Peter’s life, he improved it — for his own purposes. He completed Peter’s college education and got a doctorate. He got a new tech startup put together. But other than to his romantic interest Anna Maria, Otto was still the same old bloviating windbag jerk. The other irony is a line that’s been oft repeated in the go-rounds between Ock and Spidey: “if only you used your powers for good”.
There was some real potential there, squandered because Otto couldn’t get past his own hurt feelings. As for “the good” Otto did as Spider-Man, that’s debatable. Sure, he stopped a bunch of crime, and was a boon to the NYPD; but he’s really done a number on Spidey’s hard-won good reputation.
He built a great relationship with J. Jonah Jameson right at the beginning, then blackmailed him, squandering the good will. Again we get to say “so much for heroism”. At best, Otto-Spidey was an anti-hero. Speaking of Jonah, by the end of the series, he came completely unraveled in a way that is kind of poignant. He betrayed his wife’s dying wish, and cost himself the mayorship of the city with his newer, more pernicious Spider-Man hate. It will be very interesting to see how Jonah bounces back from this — if he does.
A new spin
Slott and his co-writers even managed a few new characters that warrant mention.
Finally, old fan fave, biracial Miguel O’Hara aka, Spider-Man 2099, is back from the future, stuck in 21st Century New York, and getting his own series come July. I can’t wait. The idealistic Spidey and the cynical one fight side by side in the finale of this series, but it’ll be good to see the snarkier webslinger on his own once again. Especially since I just saw the solicitations and Peter David is back behind the keyboard! Dreams do come true!
Fly in the Ointment
I’ve gone on about the character development and storytelling so long I might seem like I’m gushing. Is Superior Spider-Man a perfect series? No. It had a lot of problematic elements from the treatment of Otto as Peter, and a lot of meta-elements that were troublesome for a reader.
Otto never told anyone in his civilian life that it was him as Peter so that cast a very nasty pall of sexual assault onto every romantic relationship he pursued. So while extremely squicky, it did a great job showing that no matter how grand his aspirations of being a hero, Otto was still a long way from being a hero, even with Peter Parker’s memories driving him toward doing right. It also illustrated that Otto is fairly clueless about how to build and develop healthy relationships, again putting a sad underline under an extremely messed up approach. MJ, being the firecracker she is, got fed up and walked.
Black Cat only saw him as Spidey, and by that time he’d expunged Peter’s recollection of her, so she never got a chance to hit on him. All he did was knock a tooth out — and create ill will Peter may have to explain his way out of.
Poor Anna Maria Marconi, who genuinely returned Otto’s feelings, never knew better. By the time she finds out the truth, the man she loved will already be replaced by the rightful owner of his body. Thankfully, Slott wrote the physical part of their relationship as having never gotten further than kisses; they were rudely interrupted by Spider-business before they could consummate.
UPDATE: As of the return of the Amazing title, we have confirmation that Anna-Maria and Otto!Peter did actually engage in sex. So the compliment is withdrawn.
The hardest part any reader will likely have to swallow is that people who know and love Peter Parker should’ve recognized something was off by his speech patterns alone. Otto-as-Peter still talked like an arrogant mad scientist, calling people “dolt”, “clod”, and “imbecile”. He referred to people he’s supposed to love by their last names alone. No one at Horizon labs suspected anything other than “wow, Peter’s acting like a jerk these days”. I can’t complain about this too much either, though, since the arc brought back Spider-Man 2099, who did notice that his old acquaintance was acting like a “bithead”.
In the Team-Up issues, Scarlet Spider also noticed that his “brother” wasn’t quite acting himself. Cardiac, who is sort of a grey hat, also noticed. But none of them were in a position to do anything more than call Spider-Man out on it, and neither had friends or allies they could go to and get their suspicions confirmed. There were hints that Mary Jane and Aunt May both suspected things, but neither woman got to really act on her suspicions.
The Avengers were conveniently in outer space or fighting bigger threats. Otto talked them out of a mind probe when they got back to see their goofy Spider-Man acting strangely, then quit outright when they called him out after dealing with Venom. The X-Men were conveniently elsewhere, so no telepaths. Pretty much everything that could’ve undone the ruse was handwaved, asking the reader to not examine it too closely. Dan Slott could’ve had Otto whip up a psi-baffler to avoid telepathic detection, and had clever Octavius come up with a plausible explanation. This all seemed a little clumsy from an otherwise fairly tight story arc.
While the problematic elements were stumbling blocks, it was interesting to see Otto see himself from the outside. He dug into his own past early in the series, was disgusted at how foolish he came across from the outside, and realized it was no wonder no one took him seriously. The flipside gave a startling amount of pathos. Peter, hiding in Octavius’ psyche, got to see Otto’s life: the abusive father, overly smotheringly devoted mother. Peter got to see that being bullied for brains was something that Parker and Octavius had in common. Peter ends up left very aware that if not for Uncle Ben and Aunt May, he could’ve ended up on the mad scientist career path himself. That’s a hallmark of Peter Parker, though — compassion under the quips.
Lastly, a bit of ableism in the dialogue. Once Peter gets his body back, Ollie, who’s only up until now met the possessed Parker, asks if Peter is “bipolar”. That’s an unfortunate hallmark of living in 2014 — mental illness is not taken seriously and words describing real problems are used to illustrate mere inconvenient behavior.
No look back at the series would be complete without recognizing how instrumental and important women were in this series. SpOck (as the fandom nicknamed him) hired Sajani from Horizon and love interest Anna Maria as his employees at the new Parker Industries. Very weird to see the sexist guy recognizing two women as the sharpest minds around him, even if he didn’t acknowledge others’ intelligence when it would’ve helped him in his super-guise.
While Anna Maria got grabbed to hurt Otto as his damsel in distress at the series’ climactic moment, her brains were what attracted Otto to her, and that, and her compassion and empathy are what he loved about her. The twist is that Otto sacrificed himself to save her, and Spider-Man only knows her through Otto’s memories, but lacks the emotional connection to her. Best of all is that Peter trusted Anna Maria to be able to save herself — and she did, only needing a slight web-slinging assist. Despite having frozen a couple of times when her life was endangered during the series, she doesn’t make Spidey split his attention from the greater threat to help her. I just hope she remains in the title a little longer and that Slott finds a way to keep her among the cast once she and the real Peter have to work out a gentle stand down.
Carlie Cooper, whom Peter tried to convince about the body swap before this whole thing took place, teamed up with Yuri Watanabi (the Wraith), and the two of them, with the least resources of Spider-Man’s many acquaintances, found out the truth. Alas, Carlie also ended up victimized and villainized, but with help from Sajani, will soon be her old self.
Wraith did a fair amount of buttkicking as part of the investigation, and due to falling victim to the Goblin tech, feels she has some more to do yet, as she failed in her own eyes as Carlie’s partner. It wasn’t entirely her fault; her Wraith mask had lenses affected by the same hack used on Superior Spider-Man’s, due to both having been programmed by Horizon’s Uatu Jackson.
While Sajani is very upset with “Peter Parker”, she was instrumental in the defeat of the goblin with Otto’s help. So in the end, Peter won by teaming up with Spidey 2099, Otto, and a civilian.
Peter Parker got his body back in Superior Spider-Man #30 and it was a joy to behold. It was a fantastic, victory lap around the apartment, booty dance of joy moment… tempered with a surprisingly touching moment as Otto finally acknowledges having learned the lesson too late: Peter was always the superior Spider-Man.
The finale in issue #31 is everything a spider-fan could ask for. Peter, thrilled and exultant in getting his rightful body back, has only minutes to get himself up to speed before having to jump straight into action to take on the Goblin King. He manages to convince Carlie it’s no longer Otto driving the body, gets the Marvel Universe’s fastest recap without superspeed, and he’s back in the game!
The confrontation with the big Goblin is pure poetry. Goblin does his monologue thing, gloating at the Spider-Man he believes is Otto-in-the-original’s outfit. All it takes is one quippy little remark for him to realize that the original is back. Pompous prattling and lofty self-important phrasing is not the rightful Spidey’s style; and if no one else got that — his greatest enemy did in nanoseconds! The Goblin’s immediate reaction of “NOPE!” is Tumblr animated gif-worthy.
Does the day get saved? Of course. Does anybody die? Well, if you asked Peter Parker, yes. Are there still threads left untied? So, so many. Which will make a fascinating read for the next few months or years as Peter and company sort through what happened. MJ will likely get the whole truth if she’s willing to sit still long enough, but the rest will take some time rebuilding the damage.
The trades for the series have already been released; since the series came out at double-speed from a normal monthly comic, so did the collections. The Amazing Spider Man: Dying Wish is the run-up to the body swap, and the final issues of Peter’s title which was cancelled for Superior. Superior Spider-Man, the core title has these: Volume 1: My Own Worst Enemy, Volume 2: A Troubled Mind, and Volume 3: The Big Leagues. In addition, there are also trades for Superior Spider-Man Team-Up and The Superior Foes of Spider-Man, which I haven’t had a chance to pick up yet!
The fallout and cleanup as Peter tries to get his life back in order (and gives what-for to the people who should’ve realized something was wrong) is going to be…well, spectacular. Otto did do a little good. But he did a lot of harm: to other people and to Peter’s relationships. Even the enemies.
The ones who make it back into the villain game are going to be vengeful: Scorpion lost his jaw and Vulture his eyesight at SpOck’s hands. On the other hand, he helped stop the Goblin in a way Peter never managed before. A little girl is alive thanks to Spider-Man’s help while Ock was running the body, and Peter Parker now has his doctorate. Will the tech startup survive to thrive after the events of the Goblin Army attack? I’m looking forward to finding out.
Is Doc Ock gone for good? Doubtful. It’s Comics — duh — and besides that, the mindwipe doohickey has already been proven once to not be 100% successful at eradicating a personality from the mindscape. Which means if it works the same way this time, Peter may end up a roommate in his brain. Doubt we’ve seen the last of him. But Peter, if he’s smart, will go find a telepath right quick to get that handled. If he’s not too busy being delighted to have a body again to think about it.
See you soon, Spidey 2099!
Sayonara, Superior Spider-Man, it was fun while it lasted.
LONG LIVE THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN!
For completion purposes, The Superior Spider-Man shows up during the recently ended Spider-Verse event of 2015. He was time-traveled into the middle of it.
The other thing you should know about Superior Spider-Man is that Dan Slott wrote Anna and Otto-possessed-Peter Parker as having been sexually intimate. There are many readers, myself included, who see this as rape under false pretenses. Mr. Slott disagrees. I won’t get into the discussion we had on Twitter, because I won’t recall it accurately and my intent is not to offend Mr. Slott by unfairly representing his position even if I don’t agree with it. A diligent Google will locate it, I’m sure.