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Last week brought us issue 2 of Dan Slott’s Renew Your Vows mini-series, Slott’s comprehensive look at the incredibly divisive One More Day story by Joe Quesada and J. Michael Straczynski. Renew Your Vows has been shaky ground so far, leaning heavily on a lot of narrative contrivance while failing to really reach a more cogent stance on the nature of Peter as a father and husband. It’s possible there’s a revival waiting in the wings for the series as Slott is an excellent writer in his own right but the whole affair has set me thinking. I’ve never been a huge fan of Spider-man though I certainly like the character though I was always more intrigued by his villains than the man himself. What’s attracted me to web head recently is the question that’s ultimately lingered over him and the entire Spider-man comic fandom since the events of One More Day: should Spider-man be married.
Now to be clear this isn’t a question meant to redeem One More Day or determine some greater quality for that comic. If you haven’t read it Atop The Fourth Wall did an excellent review already but suffice it to say the comic is terribly written and doesn’t need any greater meta-textual debate on the nature of character to make it worse. At the same time this isn’t even a question that’s limited to just Peter Parker and Mary Jane, this same question would just as easily apply if he was married to Gwen Stacy or Betty Brant or Matt Murdock. This is a question that’s ultimately applicable to all heroes in some form or another. For instance a character like Superman whose powers and focus mean he’s got to be able to take on disasters almost 24/7, him being married honestly doesn’t make much sense given how little time he’d ever be able to actually devote to his spouse and how little he’d really be able to connect with them even if they were super powered like him. What’s more the core nature of Superman as a character is to put others before himself, that’s why even though he’s a reporter he rarely ever writes about the disasters he stops as Superman. Superman’s whole defining character is a man who would never endanger someone else or bring them harm to fill his own desires and that’s what him being married would mean. Conversely look at someone like Batman, at the core of Batman’s character is recovering from trauma. Bruce Wayne is Batman in order to regain a sense of agency and meaning in the face of his overwhelming grief. For him being married is almost a logical extension of the Batman idea, much like taking a sidekick, it’s another way in which he’s healing.
Which brings us back to Spider-man while also giving us a good starting point for the question of whether or not he should be married, namely; what is at the core of Spider-man’s character. The best place to look on this subject is Spider-man’s origin, both of them. Something a lot of people don’t realize is that Spider-man actually has something close to two distinct origins for his character even though most folks are aware of both; the first is obviously the death of Uncle Ben and the second is the Death of Gwen Stacy. Remember, at the time the Death of Gwen Stacy was a huge deal, killing off the series key love interest and major archenemy in addition to forcing Peter’s graduation from college and into legitimate adulthood. The central motif of both of these stories is Peter’s selfishness costing him and others in the extreme and his guilt over these events acting as his heroic motivation.
From there Peter has devoted himself more or less fully to the task of being Spider-man, even to the detriment of his own life. That’s why despite majoring in science and being of the same intellectual caliber as most of the Marvel genius Peter still works as a photographer riding off his achievements as Spider-man. Even Peter’s work as a photo-journalist is unremarkable, serving only as a source of modest income rather than ever combating a foe through journalistic activities. There are a lot of ways to interpret this aspect of Spider-man’s character. On the one hand it could be argued that this is the heart of heroic sacrifice, Peter giving up his own personal aspirations to focus on dedicating his life to being the best Spider-man he can be. Alternatively one could take a more cynical view of Parker, that he focuses so much on being Spider-man because he’s afraid to be Peter Parker; afraid that without Spider-man to make him and all his pain big he’ll be small forever.
I personally prefer the more cynical take on Peter but it’s ultimately up to the reader to decide, however either answer leaves us with a somewhat similar verdict on the question of whether or not this character should be in a married relationship, at least a happy and healthy one. If Peter is truly devoting himself fully to being Spider-man him being married just doesn’t work because that’s another thing Peter should have to give up to be the best Spider-man he can be. Conversely if Peter really is a selfish man who’s too afraid to be Peter Parker that he hides in his masked identity actually making the kind of connection that could lead to marriage.
In both of these cases the underlying theme remains the same, that Spider-man shouldn’t be married, notice I said Spider-man not Peter Parker. Peter Parker, the man not the hero, could totally work as a married individual, the thing is that Pete being married is indicative of a larger shift in the character focus, Peter finally letting himself be happy. As I mentioned earlier Peter is a hero defined by guilt, his action as Spider-man rather fueled by insecurity or heroic sacrifice, stem from the idea that he is punishing himself for his failures. For Spider-man to exist Peter Parker must not because Peter Parker triumphing is the antithesis of being Spider-man. Succeeding as Spider-man is stopping the Green Goblin or Kingpin, succeeding as Peter Parker is developing some new cure or technology, it’s being happily married husband and father, more than succeeding that’s simply existing as Peter Parker. That’s what’s made Renew Your Vows such a strange and disappointing experience, despite giving up being Spider-man Peter still doesn’t quite exist on his own terms, he’s still only ½ a person.
Most of all this seems to come from a very basic disconnect between the effect of marriage and how Spider-man works as a character in the Marvel comics’ universe. He’s meant to be the borderline between every man and masked hero, where the problems with being a normal person clash against the problems of being a superhero. Being married would only serve to enhance that, making Peter Parker more grounded but it would also make him the one thing he can never be: small.