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Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Image: Marvel Studios

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Marvel still doesn’t know what to do with its most popular hero, Spider-Man

Spider-Man endures, almost in spite of many Spider-Man stories

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

In the character’s 60-plus years of existence, there hasn’t been a better time to be into Spider-Man than right now. There’s an abundance of excellent Spidey-stories that take all kinds of shapes: a wonderful PlayStation game with a sequel on the way, a fantastic animated film (also with a sequel on the way), a popular live-action trilogy of films, and a deep bench of previous movies, animated series, and video games to enjoy. These are good stories that really show off why the character has been around for more than half a century. But there are also bad stories that kind of make you wonder how the good stories ever got here.

One of these stories is called Dark Web. It just wrapped up at the start of this year. Here is what happens in it.

Ben Reilly, the clone of Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man, has lost his memories of the life that he and Peter shared and as a result, he simply must become a supervillain. To that end, he obtains new, glowy, poorly defined powers, calls himself Chasm, and teams up with Madelyne Pryor, the Goblin Queen of the sorta-hell realm Limbo, to unleash demons on Manhattan in an effort to pressure Peter into giving up his memories by eating an infernal fruit, so Ben can have them back.

This is, as best as I can describe, what I’ve been watching one of the most beloved fictional characters on Earth do in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, the flagship Marvel comic book that is largely the fuel for all those movies and video games and cartoons we all love so much. Believe it or not, it’s meant to be beginner-friendly! The main story in Amazing Spider-Man is something of a soft status quo reboot. In the first issue, we learn that Peter Parker has done something to piss off just about everyone in his life. Things are so dire these days that he’s hanging out with Norman Osborn, who has turned a new leaf on his villainous past as the Green Goblin after another villain known as the Sin-Eater literally blasted his sins away with a magic shotgun. It’s not clear what that means, but for the most part, Norman wants to be a good guy now, and he’s haunted by his illustrious career as a bad one.

Green Goblin flies over New York in a still from Spider-Man (2002)
This is how the Green Goblin looks in the 2002 Spider-Man video game, not in Dark Web, but it’s how most people know him.
Image: Treyarch/Activision via Levan/YouTube

Meanwhile, Norman’s sins have manifested as an entity known as Queen Goblin, the monstrous alter ego of cloned psychiatrist Dr. Ashley Kafka (a lot going on there), and Mary Jane dislikes Peter so much that she’s gone off and gotten engaged to a guy with two kids — not that she and Peter were going steady to begin with. And not once does anyone make use of the excellent pun “dark web.”

For some perspective: This is nowhere near a low point in Spider-Man comics. In fact, these are the best they’ve been in a while. Writer Zeb Wells constructs witty and breezy scripts that, despite their focus on a down-and-out Peter, never feel miserable. Wells’ partner on art has mostly been returning champ John Romita Jr., a longtime Spidey artist with a distinctive, boxy style and a blue-collar aesthetic that’s well suited to grounded Spider-Man comics. That’s always been the appeal of Spider-Man, right? The everyman hero who finds a way to grin and bear it even when nothing works out? Who has evil clones and makes trips to hell and fights the personified sins of homicidal sociopaths?

This is the funny thing about reading The Amazing Spider-Man in 2023. While there are other comic book companion series and spinoffs from the main book, some of which have been very good (Joe Kelly and Chris Bachalo’s Non-Stop Spider-Man is a great example), Marvel has, for much of the last decade, no sense of who its flagship Spidey title is being made for. It’s comics as a tautological exercise: The Amazing Spider-Man is for people who read The Amazing Spider-Man. And people read The Amazing Spider-Man because it is there to be read.

Spider-Man - photo mode comic book cover
A photo from the Spider-Man game made to look like a Spider-Man comic with enough fidelity to be a Spider-Man movie.
Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

That is the only real sensible explanation for the series’ fixation on its own incredibly messy history with stories that continually revisit the character’s most controversial moments (clones, symbiotes, etc.). For decades now, Marvel has periodically announced that Spider-Man will be going “back to basics” — the 2022 start of Wells’ run, the 2018 beginning of his predecessor Nick Spencer’s tenure, and multiple times throughout Dan Slott’s 10-year reign as Spidey scribe — only to inevitably end up here. The reason, arguably, is because The Amazing Spider-Man, despite being the main series about a relatable hero, hasn’t been interested in relating to anyone in a long time.

In the periphery, recent comics have addressed this. Chip Zdarsky’s Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man was a throwback series that drew heavily on the initial Stan Lee and Steve Ditko webhead stories, with a pointed finale about why Spider-Man matters. The 2019 comic Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man by Tom Taylor and Juann Cabal focused on Peter Parker and his alter ego as a member of a community, building out a cast of neighbors in a New York City apartment building for its hero to bounce off and help. These are comics that can be given to people cold, those curious from movies or cartoons about Spider-Man and hungry for more adventures.

It is hard to fathom the same being said about any given Amazing Spider-Man arc in recent memory. It is a listless series, a twice-monthly labor of brand maintenance that is continually kept from forming a beating heart. It has its fans — there is a real appeal in keeping track of these decades-running twists and turns and seeing the subtle ways they are repackaged and commented on by different generations of creators — but it’s hard to imagine it winning any new ones. That is now the work of other media: brilliant animated films that offer diverse new avatars to carry the Spider-Man legend onward, or lovingly rendered video games that let players vicariously experience the highs and lows of the iconic wall-crawler. It’s a shame, then, how likely these eager new fans are to turn to the comics being published now, only to find a series completely hostile to them.


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