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zombie captain america attacks tony stark in Spider-Man #4 Image: J.J. Abrams, Henry Abrams, Sara Pichelli/Marvel Comics

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J.J. Abrams’ Spider-Man comic plays in Marvel’s sandbox like a kid with a jackhammer

The comic continues to go hog-wild after a nine-month hiatus

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

In the very first pages of their first Marvel Comics project, Spider-Man, J.J Abrams and his son Henry Abrams made clear that nothing was off limits. The book introduced a new villain, Cadaverous, killed off Mary Jane, saw Peter Parker hang up his Spidey suit, and jumped into the future to pick up with Peter and MJ’s son Ben. In issue #2, the writing duo killed off the Avengers — with a billboard!

The fury with which the Abrams boys carved out a “what if?” continuity ultimately overshadows the run, which began in September 2019 and, after many delays, delivers a fourth issue this week. There was patented mystery box allure to the mania of the first issue; with Spider-Man #4, the box is all that’s left. Ben’s story — about understanding his father, being the mutated heir to the superhero throne, and the general anxieties of teen life (kinda?) — feels nonexistent under the assault of action unleashed by Cadaverous.

But a lot of weird stuff happens! And maybe that’s the joy for the Abramses: When some writers might play in the sandbox, to echo comic veterans while bringing their creations into new context, Spider-Man is provocateurship. Yes, they really did that. No, nothing matters. Smash smash, thwip thwip, boom boom, Fin.

If there’s a big twist left to “J.J. Abrams Marvel book,” it’s that it really belongs to artist Sara Pichelli.

[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Spider-Man #4.]

zombie thor attacks tony stark in Spider-Man #4, Marvel Comics (2020). Image: J.J. Abrams, Henry Abrams, Sara Pichelli/Marvel Comics

Having successfully captured Peter Parker and drained the (Spider-)man’s super blood, Cadaverous completes his mission: To revive his old mentor, Minka Tross.

Spider-Man #3 revealed the two were former Stark Industries employees working alongside none other than Richard and Mary Parker, Peter’s parents. As a group, they developed radiobiology tech known as “The Key,” a restorative, gene-bending blah blah blah that could potentially bring people back to life. But the experiments failed, and a revived test subject killed Minka. Stark, not wanting to play god, dismantled the unit. Then SHIELD showed up at their door looking to weaponize the discovery. The implosion of their careers prompted Richard and Mary to destroy all remaining evidence of the The Key, except for one test subject: a genetically enhanced spider!

[Captain America voice] I understood that reference.

Spider-Man #4 spends half its pages catching Minka up on what we learned in the last issue, which is unfortunate. But that talky stretch also gives us a glimpse of just how horribly wrong the experiments were going back in the day. Cadaverous’ blood transfusion successfully resurrects the deceased scientist, but … also morphs her into an Actual Spider Person.

Cadaverous and Minka explain things in Spider-Man #4, Marvel Comics (2020). Image: J.J. Abrams, Henry Abrams, Sara Pichelli/Marvel Comics

Whether it’s the gap between issues or the overinvestment in Cadaverous’ connection to Stark/the Parks as a compelling hook, J.J. and Henry’s new chapter is mostly spinning wheels. Thankfully, the wheels are flailing dirt in every direction. The Avengers are alive and livid thanks to the villains’ cybernetic upgrades, and Pichelli’s art style keeps the mayhem grungy. There’s glee in the voices of both our heroes (Ben in full Spider-mode, Riri in Ironheart armor, Old Tony running for his life) and the undead (Slobbering Thor, Slobbering Hulk, Slobbering Captain America, and Slobbering Black Widow).

J.J. Abrams knows how to concoct an edge-of-your-seat action movie. He does it here, finally, when most of the twisty storytelling is behind him. Pichelli more than delivers, then she gets to draw a giant spider webbing itself around the Brooklyn Bridge.

Spider-Man fights Cadaverous’ minions in Spider-Man #4, Marvel Comics (2020). Image: J.J. Abrams, Henry Abrams, Sara Pichelli/Marvel Comics

This version of Spider-Man is nonsense, but it’s particularly infuriating because it’s weightless nonsense that hopes twists and references and laissez-faire world-building are enough for a six-issue mini-series. It’s hard to imagine we’ll ever meet Ben Parker again (especially since Miles Morales does the young Spidey thing so well). It’s hard to imagine any resolution sticking. But there’s still a good book here, buried at the bottom of the mystery box. It’s one of pure spectacle, where a pair of writers step back from the spotlight, glorify their collaborators wielding pencils and ink, and let the real art rip.

There may not be time to evolve in that way. Four issues and 11 months in, and with two more books to go, Spider-Man, rather bizarrely, is still just an excuse to play with Marvel’s toys.


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