04 January 2013

breaking spider-man & the marvel universe's genius creep

Reading list: Amazing Spider-Man # 648-700 (Dan Slott/ various)

The 100+ issue "Brand New Day" era of Amazing Spider-Man was, very clearly, a soft reboot of the character.  Though most of the prior continuity was retained, the focus of the run was very much on reintroducing Spider-Man, his supporting cast, his relationships, and finally his villains, all while peppering the series with new additions.  So once that was over, and the page turned to Dan Slott's "Big Time" run, the question became "Where does Spidey go next?"

Slott's answer, at least for his first fifty issues, was to play up Peter Parker's scientific acumen, give him a tech job, and have him apply the same dedication to scientific pursuits that he has applied to his Spidey business for years.  Thus we got wave after wave of new technologically enhanced Spider-Man costumes, new gadgets for just about every situation imaginable, and an increasingly effective Spidey - to the point that the character began to take on the qualities of a Mary Sue.  He can't really *be* a Mary Sue in any meaningful sense, but he had a lot of the same hallmarks.  Increasingly he was shown as more effective than other heroes, and often the object of deference even from characters who were more powerful or experienced than he.  To some extent... y'know, it's Spidey's comic so he has to be the star - but Slott really took it to extremes in terms of making the character nigh-infallible.  The worst offending storyline was "Ends of the Earth" wherein Spidey literally saves the entire world from Doctor Octopus, only after Ock has easily defeated the Avengers.

And now, of course, Slott went and pulled the rug out from under Peter Parker, and presumably intended to all along.  Obviously no matter what Marvel says, the current situation in Amazing Superior Spider-Man is temporary.  "Temporary" may be more than a few months but this isn't intended to be the new "permanent" status quo the way that, say, Kyle Rayner replacing Hal Jordan was.  For most of Slott's run, I've been waiting for that other shoe to drop, and working on faith that eventually he'd realize - you can only build up Spider-Man so much before you have to tear him down.  Once he reaches a certain level of uber-competence, he stops being Spidey.  "Ends of the Earth" is a near-perfect illustration of that, as Spidey might as well be Iron Man for most of the story.  He doesn't even *look* like Spidey, donning an alternate costume for most of the arc.  And Slott knew all this - he was doing it on purpose, making Peter's rise more steep so that his fall could be that much more painful.

And yet.. I wonder if he broke the character in service to his setup.

See here's the thing - Peter Parker really isn't a genius.  Yea, he's a bright kid who invented web fluid and web shooters when he was in high school.  That is undoubtedly impressive.  But going from Peter being the smartest guy in chemistry lab to the smartest guy in ANY room is a mistake, and one that Marvel has repeated all too often.  Indestructible Hulk #1 has Bruce Banner complaining that he's now one of the smartest people in the world too - yea, dude, that bit where you made a bomb was just visionary.  No one's ever thought of THAT before.

The Marvel Universe has lost the concept that people can be smart without being world-class geniuses, and it's poorer for it.

Another thing Slott did a LOT - presumably on purpose - was have Spider-Man make goofy mistakes protecting his secret identity.  In an early issue of the run, he's seemingly found out by Max Modell, who despite the evidence in front of him assumes that Peter must be designing Spidey's tech, because what are the odds that someone would have spider powers AND be smart enough to build his own stuff?

Well actually Max, the odds are pretty good.  There are hundreds, nay, thousands of super-powered characters running around the Marvel Universe.  It stands to reason that some of them will be really smart, some will be really dumb, and most will be somewhere in between.  That would be true of ANY random assemblage of people, right?  In Max's defense, maybe he's read a lot of Marvel Comics and realized that, eventually, any character shown to be even remotely academically inclined will be portrayed as a world class genius.  And most of them don't have super-intelligence or anything, either.

So okay, that works for Tony Stark and Reed Richards.  I guess it's okay for Hank McCoy.  The less said about Pym, the better.  (He sucks.)

But Peter Parker?  Well okay, but if that's where you're headed with him, you can stop the "everyman" stuff pretty much forever.  Because if he now has super powers, and has a knockout redhead draped all over him, and is on the Avengers AND he's now one of the smartest people in the world?  Yeah - not an everyman.  Who knows what the situation will be by the time Peter inevitably returns.  Maybe all his tech gets ruined or his relationships destroyed.  I don't know.  But when he comes back - he's still a genius, right? 

The last thing you want for Spider-Man is the Iron Man Conundrum.  See, the problem with Iron Man is that Tony Stark is way more interesting *and more powerful* than Iron Man is.  It doesn't make all that much sense for Stark to even wear the armor anymore - surely he could control it remotely - we've seen him do that a bunch of times.  He's only in the suit at all because it's an action-adventure comic and he needs to be physically present for the action.  The Iron Man armor is just a widget, so much so that the actual action sequences are the least interesting part of the book.  Peter's never been more powerful than Spidey - certainly when it's done well the Peter stuff in the book is interesting, sometimes as much so as the superheroics.  But it's always made sense for him to be Spidey, to put on the costume and go punch people in the face.  That stops making sense at some point if he's a brainiac.

The Marvel Universe already has too many super-geniuses.  It doesn't need for Peter Parker to be one, too.


superfriend said...

i think you might be laboring under the assumption that people read Spider-Man comicbooks because he's supposed to be an "everyman".

my theory is that people are reading Spider-Man comicbooks because it's a Spider-Man comicbook. evidenced by the phenomena that they'll read Doctor Octopus, an aged fat scientist with a bad haircut, trapped in the body of Spider-Man and call it a refreshing diversion.

potential readers are still called movie-goers iirc.

by the by, didn't Slott also make Pym the Scientist Supreme?

superfriend: no help. :p

matches said...

I think the everyman thing is part of what makes the character work. Can't speak to people's motivations for buying the comic, esp. when the book has sold well through some periods where (at least IMO) it *didn't* work.

Ock as Spidey only works to the extent it is ultimately a story about Pete - i.e. an exploration of why someone with Pete's physical abilities and a possibly superior intellect will fail at being both Pete and Spidey. It reminds me a ton of Knightfall and Jean-Paul Valley standing in as Batman.

re Pym, that was either Slott or Chris Gage. Not sure which as I skipped that run.

superfriend said...

i read somewhere someone was very excited about the possibility of Doc Ock interacting with the superhero set in Avengers, for instance.

is Marvel employing this sort of cross-title continuity anymore? it seems like many of the more disruptive storylines continuity-wise are existing between seconds...which i suppose could still be factored in to characterization reading the characters operating in the present in other books. but it really just reads to me like Marvel's heart isn't in the whole continuity caretaking thing.

which is fine. if you're not into it then you're usually pretty lousy at it.

anyway, do you know if Doc Ock Spider-Man is appearing outside of the Superior book?

matches said...

He is. He's in Avenging Spidey as the lead, and already showed up in Daredevil. At some point, I think after the first arc or so?, he will be the Spidey in Avengers.