Whenever we think of a certain superhero we admire, we often think of them through a specific lens by which we have come to understand them. That lens tends to comprise a distinct tone, one that we associate with the demeanor of the character. In regard to a character such as Spider-Man, it is safe to say that most people perceive him to be of a light-hearted nature. Various interpretations of his character in live-action, animation, and comic book mediums have often maintained vibrant, buoyant tones. Various, but not all, which is why it is worth revisiting J. Michael Straczynski’s SPIDER-MAN: BACK IN BLACK in the first place.
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SPIDER-MAN: BACK IN BLACK cover. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment." data-medium-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/spidermanbackinblack_cover-165x252.jpg" data-large-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/spidermanbackinblack_cover-787x1200.jpg" class="size-full wp-image-254124 sp-no-webp">
The BreakdownBack when Marc Webb’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN films were being released, many criticized the franchise for its darker tone. Many believed Spider-Man could not possibly embody a gritty style, that it ultimately was not true to his character.
Say what you want about THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, but the argument that one is incapable of telling a dark Spider-Man story simply because that would compromise the authenticity of the character is inaccurate.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #539 through #543 comprises an arc entitled BACK IN BLACK. This arc challenges every aspect of not only the Spider-Man symbol but Peter Parker himself. Peter’s humanity has always been an anchor for his superhero alter ego, and this run reminds us why. Although, it also depicts how that humanity can bring a whole new, bleaker meaning to your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #539 page 1. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment." data-medium-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/backinblack_1-164x252.png" data-large-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/backinblack_1-781x1200.png" class=" wp-image-252762 sp-no-webp">
The Shot That Killed the SpiderTHE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #539, the first installment of SPIDER-MAN: BACK IN BLACK, begins in incredibly dramatic fashion. Peter Parker cradles Aunt May, who has just been shot through the heart by a sniper hired by Wilson Fisk aka the Kingpin.
The issue immediately dives into the chaos, shocking us in the process.
Now, it is worth noting that, at this point, the world knows Peter Parker’s identity as Spider-Man due to the preceding events of CIVIL WAR. Thus, one may wonder why Kingpin had his sniper shoot Aunt May rather than Peter himself.
Why not eliminate the person who has beaten him time and time again?
Though Kingpin later explains his motives, one can infer that there is a certain pride Kingpin attains in traumatizing someone who has obstructed his ambitions. Kingpin wants to break Peter. He wants to destroy the symbol Peter has established as Spider-Man and rob Peter of the confidence he has in himself as a hero.
By killing someone Peter loves, one shakes the very foundation Spider-Man is built upon. Vengeful, angry sentiments engulf Peter’s mind as he doubts the staunch moral code he has spent his career abiding by.
Eventually, Kingpin affirms this perception of his actions when he states,
“Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad.”
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #539 page 5. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment." data-medium-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/page5-164x252.png" data-large-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/page5-783x1200.png" class="size-full wp-image-253717 sp-no-webp">
Mad WorldThus, immediately following the shot that struck Aunt May’s heart, Peter Parker grits his teeth and repeatedly cries, “No more!”
These are the only words Peter seems to muster while cradling his beloved aunt, but what do they mean?
One interpretation may be that Peter is referring to the violence he devotes his life to fighting, the violence that has perpetuated into his own family. Perhaps Peter’s cries refer to the end of his Spider-Man persona, the one that inspired hope and optimism in civilians. Perhaps, in this moment, Peter has lost faith in that symbol. His unwavering positivity has been displaced by relentless guilt, doubt that his symbol has actually done any good.
How could it if all his efforts have led to the potential demise of his aunt?
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #539 page 18. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment." data-medium-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/backinblack_2-164x252.png" data-large-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/backinblack_2-781x1200.png" class="size-full wp-image-252764 sp-no-webp">
The ResurrectionConsequently, Peter feels responsible for what has just transpired. He feels as though his attribution towards a moral code has facilitated this sniper’s actions on behalf of Kingpin. Now, Peter cannot help but feel that keeping Kingpin alive all these years has culminated into a tragic mistake.
If Kingpin was dead, Aunt May would have never gotten hurt. Though, that may be too simplistic of a thought process. However, for the majority of BACK IN BLACK, Peter does not do much constructive thinking at all. So, that simplistic mode of thought makes sense in the context of Peter’s state of mind.
Therefore, Peter now believes the only way to truly bring those responsible to justice is if he takes on a new tactic: brutality.
Additionally, Peter throws all his rules out the window, even in a simple of act of web-swinging. Following the shot, Peter rushes Aunt May to the hospital. He swings through the city completely unmasked, to the grave concern of Aunt May.
This sequence is particularly upsetting when you consider the fact that Aunt May’s initial concerns are not even about her health. Rather, she expresses great worry that Peter Parker is exposing himself to the city. Even though the world knows who Spider-Man is, Aunt May worries about the vulnerability being Spider-Man presents.
The mask, though thin and redundant now that Peter’s identity is public, did instill a layer of protection between Peter and his enemies. They could never witness his fear, his hesitations, because the mask obscured it all.
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #28. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment." data-medium-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/backinblack_3-163x252.png" data-large-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/backinblack_3-777x1200.png" class="size-full wp-image-252765 sp-no-webp">
The Killer in MeSo, that semblance of safety no longer matters to Peter.
His subconscious now operates on a single track: revenge. As a result, a fear of his enemies and hesitation to take action upon them is no longer on Peter’s radar. In fact, he currently believes his enemies should fear him and what he is now capable of doing to them.
There are a variety of archetypes that often define a hero. Accompanying those archetypes are certain characteristics that contribute to a hero’s moral compass. Guilt is among those characteristics.
In the context of BACK IN BLACK, Peter blames himself for the shooting of Aunt May despite the fact that he was not the one who pulled the trigger. However, his sense of duty towards protecting loved ones such as Aunt May has total authority over his own perception of himself.
As aforementioned, Peter’s humanity has served as an anchor to Spider-Man. Thus, his humanity is the very reason why he wants to get revenge. His empathy has catalyzed his vengeful desires because the shooting of Aunt May has agonized him so.
Therefore, after leaving Aunt May at the hospital with Mary Jane by her side, Peter vows to find those responsible for the shooting in order to do what he believes he does best: hurting people.
Throughout the arc’s series of events so far, Peter’s perception of himself has obviously changed quite drastically. Sure, the symbol of Spider-Man is still grounded in humanity, but it is now also grounded in pain and retribution as a result of Peter’s empathetic nature.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #540 page 4. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment." data-medium-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/page4-164x252.png" data-large-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/page4-780x1200.png" class="size-full wp-image-253718 sp-no-webp">
The Killer in YouPerhaps most significantly, Peter has come to realize that he is a violent hero. Though he has never killed anyone, he has a history of using his fists to resolve conflict. As a result, Peter has come to ask himself, what makes him different from those he puts behind bars when he too has hurt people?
There is no difference, and he may not be completely wrong.
There is a newfound apathy Peter maintains towards criminals after he vows to find those responsible for Aunt May’s condition. This is first exemplified when he goes to interrogate some gun runners. He fights them in an unhinged manner, a byproduct of his current “one track mind.”
In addition to this mindset, Peter presents a new interpretation of Spider-Man to the world as he dons the classic black suit. Interestingly, Peter is aware of the connotations that come with the black suit. Yet, that is exactly what he wants.
Peter wants to provoke fear, intimidation.
He no longer wants to don the hopeful red-and-blue suit because that suit is no longer an accurate representation of what he is carrying internally. His hope and optimism were shattered with the bullet of the sniper.
As he takes down criminals, including Jake Martino, the sniper himself, Peter never displays his customary quips and witty comments. Rather, he showcases the violent streak he always curbed as he brutalizes Martino without wearing a mask. Thus, Peter’s anger is put on full display, and it is quite terrifying.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #40 page 15. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment." data-medium-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/page15-164x252.png" data-large-file="https://cdn.thedesigningfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/01/page15-780x1200.png" class="size-full wp-image-253719 sp-no-webp">
What Could Have BeenPeter enters this confrontation with Martino wishing to kill him. Ironically though, before Peter can make that fatal move, Martino gets killed by a sniper. It is interesting to consider whether or not Peter would have actually killed Martino. Perhaps he would have hesitated. Perhaps he would have gone through with the killing, only to find himself immediately regretting it.
I find myself inclined to believe the latter due to the fact that Peter’s murderous attitude derives from a traumatic event and rash actions. Throughout this arc, he has not stopped himself to plan his next move. He simply goes on impulsively.
So, I believe that if he were to kill Martino, the red that has overcome his mind would have cleared, and he would have been horrified by his own actions.
Of course, this scenario never happened.
Martino dies before Peter has a chance to kill him. Yet, Martino’s death does not satisfy Peter completely. For Peter, there is still one person left who needs to die: Wilson Fisk.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #540 page 19. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.
The Curtain CallIn fact, Peter tells Kingpin himself that his days are numbered. Interestingly, Kingpin maintains a collected response to Peter’s threat. Kingpin clearly believes Peter’s assertion to be ineffectual. He believes Spider-Man’s current hostile state of mind to be a byproduct of a series of rash actions, which is not totally wrong. Therefore, to Kingpin, Spider-Man does not truly maintain the audacity to become a murderer. Rather, Spider-Man’s threats to kill derive from fury rather than design and calculation.
Ultimately, Kingpin believes Spider-Man was not built to be a killer. He believes Spider-Man’s humanity to be a barrier that constrains the urge to kill. As of now, Peter Parker is seeing red. Once that red fades away, he will remain the individual he was before, just more guilt-ridden.
To bolster this perspective, Kingpin states that if Peter were to kill him, the act would violate the laws of nature. Wilson Fisk perceives himself as Peter’s contrast, the evil balance to Peter’s good, which is another reason why he believes Peter lacks the audacity to kill.
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Thus, there is a sense of foreordination Kingpin is playing at. He perceives his role, and that of Spider-Man’s, to be inscribed in nature and time. As a result, Peter cannot become a killer because he is simply not destined to become one.