Dan Slott’s series-ending Amazing Spider-Man #700 is really two superhero stories in one: the death of a superhero and the origin story of another. From the time I discovered the ending of this story in the spoiler leak several days ago, to actually sitting down to read the issue, I’ve been trying to piece together what exactly frustrates me so much about this storyline. Is it that Peter Parker dies a horrible death? Actually, no. Superhero deaths are nothing new, and with the comic book industry’s illustrious history of retconning and bringing characters back to life, I imagine we haven’t seen the last of Peter Parker. Not to mention, superhero death stories can be genuine works of art. It wasn’t so simple as just being an irate fan who doesn’t want to see his childhood hero’s demise. So why did this disappoint me so much? After all, it is just a comic book. These aren’t real people. They’re characters in a story. But no. It is more than just a story. There is a philosophy in every comic book. People don’t read comics merely for the fireworks of two emotionally damaged people in leotards beating the hell out of each other. No, we read comics for what the stories tell us about ourselves and the world around us. And my problem with Amazing Spider-Man #700 is that in attempting to show how a villain might be redeemed and rise to the challenge of heroism, instead, Slott has written an origin story which thoroughly misunderstands what makes a hero.
If you’ve recently emerged from hibernation and need a quick recap, here you go: Doc Ock switched consciousnesses with Peter, so Ock was running around in Peter’s body and Peter was in Ock’s near-death cancer-ridden body. Peter attempts to switch minds back, but Ock prepared for this with a special cranial armor. Peter realizes that while he can’t switch minds, he can beam his mind into Ock’s. So as Peter’s life flashes before his eyes, so too does it flash before Doctor Octopus’s eyes. Ock feels Peter’s memories and finally understands what it means to be a hero (or something like that). Peter tells him with great power yadda yadda and Doc Ock promises to take up the Spider-Man mantle as a hero. Presto chango, and fifty years of villainy and warped psychosis are overturned in favor of heroism. Ta da!
People will rightfully complain about the silliness of this plot for a long time (hopefully forever). But here’s the crucial problem: why did Doc Ock suddenly decide to become a hero? The answer we’re given in the comic is that by experiencing Peter’s memories, with the love and pain associated therewith, Doc Ock has his Oprah moment and decides to give up his villainous past and take up the Spider-Man mantle as a hero. The damning flaw in this concept is that pain and loss do not alone make a hero. Dan Slott has grossly oversimplified the hero archetype. Losing a loved one doesn’t flip a switch in your brain and turn you into a masked avenger.
In issue #11 of Daredevil, Matt Murdock reluctantly agrees to a brief team-up with The Punisher and his new protege, Cole. When Cole makes a remark to Daredevil about how no one can understand why they do what they do except others who have experienced pain like they have, Daredevil angrily rebukes her, saying that’s an insult to cops, soldiers, firefighters and other selfless heroes. He accuses her of cynicism. You really have to just read the scene for yourself, because it’s important. The point Daredevil makes here is essential. It is deeply cynical and unrealistic to think that only those who have experienced pain or loss can be selfless heroes. It takes more than that. It takes more than just pain. Pain can be processed in a million different ways, including villainy. Take for example, Mr. Freeze, who goes insane and turns to a life of crime after losing his wife Nora in an experiment gone wrong. Or Magneto, who after suffering through the Holocaust and the brutality of a world intolerant of mutants, attempts to achieve mutant supremacy through violence. I could go on. The point being that pain is not a sufficient condition for heroism. So when Peter’s life flashes before his and Doc Ock’s eyes, and the essential moments we see from his history of losing loved ones causes Ock to change his entire nature, it rings false. Yes, pain and loss can strongly influence an individual to selfless heroism (most superheroes have at least some element of this). But Slott took just one piece of the hero puzzle and extrapolated it as the whole impetus for Superior Spider-Man’s origin story.
Doctor Octopus is not a hero. He never was, never will be. It isn’t as though his mind literally merged with Peter’s; he merely shared Peter’s memories. But here’s the other thing: those are not Ock’s memories; they’re still Peter’s. He experienced someone else’s pain and suffering, not his own. It isn’t like Ock got in a time machine and was able to feel a powerful moment in the moment itself. He experienced it from a distance, through memory. You yourself know that the pain of a memory is very different than that memory’s pain in the moment it occurred. They are two separate emotions. One is the experience itself, the other is merely a reflection. Ock didn’t feel Peter’s life, he felt the reflection of his life. That may elicit empathy, but it won’t change your personality. That’s all a bit psychoanalytic, but it gets to the heart of the problem here. Also consider that Doc Ock is still Doc Ock. He didn’t become Peter, and he retained all of his own memories. All of the pain, suffering, loss, brutality, anger, hatred, and fear that made Ock a villain in the first place still exists inside him. All of the memories of his life, actions and feelings which turned him to a life of crime, are still with him. He is still Doc Ock, just a more enlightened version. So merely by experiencing a modicum of empathy for his arch-nemesis, he suddenly casts off his own lifetime of experiences and become a hero? To put it bluntly: Bullshit.
So what does make a hero? That’s hard to say. It’s easier to recognize that pain isn’t enough. Superheroes become heroes for many different reasons. Superman was instilled with a genuine concern for humanity by his parents, the Kents. The X-Men want to see a better future for mutantkind and humankind alike. Thor is the protector of Midgard; such is his role as a champion of justice. There are many reasons why people become heroes. But saying that losing your parents to a robber in a dark alley is all it takes to make you put on a bat costume and beat up mobsters is an oversimplification. It’s lazy, and limits the capacity for robust character development. Superior Spider-Man’s origin story feels rushed and incomplete, because we haven’t been given enough to make his turn to good believable by any stretch of the imagination. I just don’t buy it.
We will probably see Peter Parker sooner rather than later. With Amazing Spider-Man 2 planned for theaters, and Marvel undoubtedly hoping to increase sales of comics as a result, I expect we’ll see Parker swinging through Manhattan before May 2014. Nevertheless, I believe the story of Spider-Man has been tarnished by this surprisingly vapid and simplistic reading of the hero archetype. You would think that after 50 years of Spider-Man, readers could expect stories that truly understand what makes a hero. I suppose it is a testament to the complexity of the subject that even the titans of superhero comics are still figuring that out.