Sunday, October 18, 2015

Growth and Regression: Amazing Spider-Man #1

The following is my review of Amazing Spider-Man #1, which was posted on PopMatters.com.


Certain characters have certain characteristics that make them iconic, lovable, or at the very least acceptable. On the surface, characters like Batman or the Punisher would be diagnosed with serious personality disorders in the real world. But within their respective narratives, they're portrayed in a way that makes them respectable despite whatever disorder they might have. Whereas they would need serious counseling and medication in the real world, they're able to channel their problems into a personal journey. And in some respects, that might be healthier, given the side-effects of certain medications.

The personal journey of Peter Parker isn't nearly as dark or distressing as Batman or the Punisher. It's not all rainbows and ponies either, given how he's lost loved ones and endured trauma that few therapists are equipped to treat. But his journey has always been conveyed in a way that feels more relatable than most characters. He's not an alien from a distant world. He's not an ex-marine or eccentric billionaire. He's a kid from Queens. If he were in a high school yearbook, he'd be voted the most likely to be completely forgotten the day after graduation.

But over the past few years, that reliability has been undermined and this time it's not because he married a supermodel. He's gone from a no-name kid from Queens to an aspiring Tony Stark wannabe. He has his own company. He has a doctorate. The amount of people who can make that claim these days could probably fill Yankee's Stadium and still have enough room left for an open bar and buffet.

Now, in Amazing Spider-Man #1, the journey of Peter Parker goes in a bold new direction. But does this direction remain true to the narrative that makes Peter Parker respectable? The answer isn't a clear yes or no. However, there are clear undertones that attempt to keep this new direction from being too bold. And in some respects, this is a major crack in the foundation of Spider-Man. It hasn't caused the whole building to crumble, but it does give the impression that it bribed the building code inspector.

That's not to say the foundation doesn't support an engaging story. It's a story that involves an oversized car that can climb walls. And if the success of the Fast and the Furious movies has taught us anything, it's that obscenely overpowered cars are awesome. Peter Parker might not Vin Disel, but he does finally put that genius IQ to work for him and he's able to do it without losing any hair. That alone is an accomplishment.

It feels like one of those stories that shouldn't have taken this long to develop. Like a state that only recently revoked laws that banned short skirts, it feels like Peter should've done something like this earlier. A big part of his character is that he's a nerd with an above-average IQ. It's because of that IQ that he was able to make the kind of artificial webbing that DARPA probably spent $10 billion trying to develop. That kind of resourcefulness gives him all the traits he needs to be a successful businessman. Elon Musk is proof enough of that.

But however long it took, Peter never gives the impression that he's all that comfortable with this role. His definitely not Tony Stark in that he carries himself with the kind of Kanye West swagger that would lead him to spend six figures on a toilet seat. He does still come off as the kind of humble everyman that makes Spider-Man so iconic. While this is admirable, it's also the greatest flaw in the narrative.

A good chunk of the story is spent showing how Peter runs his company. He basically tries to run it in the way Bernie Sanders thinks all companies should be run. He doesn't pay himself an obscene salary. He tries to put himself on the same levels as his workers. And he tries to be charitable in a way that the Bill Gates of the world would approve of. But it's the Bruce Waynes and Tony Starks of the world who would sense something amiss.

The readers already know what's amiss and they don't need Bruce Wayne's detective skills to figure it out. Peter Parker, for all his brilliance and humility, doesn't give the impression that he knows what he's doing. In the same way he basically fell into his powers, he fell into this company as well. He didn't create it out of a garage like Steve Jobs. Otto Octavious created it. He just inherited it when the whole mind-swap story finally regressed. And because of this, there's this underlying sentiment that Peter will regress.

This is what makes it hard to get overly excited about the bold new direction of Peter Parker in Amazing Spider-Man #1. There's this sense that because Peter doesn't know what he's doing, he's going to screw it up somehow and regress back to the guy who lives with his Aunt and works a lousy job for J. Jonah Jameson. He calls it Parker Luck, but it's really a flaw in system that makes it hard to get attached to any of these new developments.

It's played out many times throughout Spider-Man's history. Gets a really nice job that pulls him out of poverty? He screws it up. Gets a really nice girl? He screws that up too. Gets his own company that somebody else created for him? He hasn't screwed that up yet, but there's a distinct sense that he will. The ending already lays the foundation in that a familiar enemy re-emerges who is bound to make screwing up that much easier.

For the moment, Peter Parker is in a new position with a new narrative. There are elements in Amazing Spider-Man #1 that give that narrative plenty of promise. At the same time, it feels more like a gimmick in the same mold of Superior Spider-Man. There's still a sense that at some point, Peter Parker will snap back to being that everyman who hasn't progressed beyond the stage of an indebted college student. And as relatable as that is, there comes a point where someone stuck in that stage isn't all that amazing.

Final Score: 5 out of 10

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