So, Spiderman is a big topic around the internet these days. And approximately seventy-three million bloggers have already detailed the reasons why the recent events in the series have been so terrible, and about twice that number have simply ranted and raved and proclaimed the inevitable doom that would come from all this. And so it may well seem like there is little more to be said on the matter… but somehow, I can’t resist throwing out a few thoughts of my own.
First off, just for those who have managed to avoid being confronted with the entire ordeal, here is a summary of the situation: The Editor-In-Chief of Marvel comics, on Joe Quesada, dislikes the idea of a married Spiderman. He believes it makes Peter Parker too old for the role, and unrelatable to readers. He wishes to return Spiderman back to the character he was some twenty-odd years back – a swinging bachelor with plenty of hip new stories to tell.
To bring this about, the recent storyline in Spiderman went as follows: A year or so ago, during a recent Big Event, Spiderman revealed his identity to the public as Peter Parker. (With many promises from Mr. Quesada that this was a Genuine Permanent Change.) Not long thereafter, a hitman comes after him – and while Peter is fine, Aunt May is shot. The hospital is keeping her alive, but her health is failing rapidly, and none of Peter’s superpowered friends can do anything to save her – not the greatest scientists, nor the magics of Dr. Strange.
Desperate, and consumed with guilt, he and Mary Jane (his wife) are approached by Mephisto – the Marvel equivalent to the devil. Mephisto offers them a deal – he will save Aunt May in return for… their marriage, a love so pure and true that its loss will be a great triumph for him against the big guy upstairs. Peter and Mary Jane agree, and Mephisto does some hocus pocus that erases everyone’s memory of the marriage – and as a bonus, makes people forget that Spiderman revealed his identity. (At least one person is also brought back from the dead, and a variety of other minor changes in memories seem to be made as well.)
So – that is the long and short of the situation. And, well, there are certainly numerous problems with it, from the very concept to the relatively flawed execution… but such problems have been discussed by others at length. (And if there is one highlight to the entire situation, it lies in some of the completely brilliant commentary it has inspired – such as the usual comedic stylings of David Willis, or a genius Watchmen parody from one chipzdarsky.)
What I find really interesting about the entire matter is the resolution itself – or more specifically, the lack thereof.
See, Marvel doesn’t actually like retcons. That has always been one of the elements that has stood between them in DC – every few years DC tries to tidy up continuity, fix up the past, and in the process wipe the slate clean of various stories that have come before. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
But Marvel likes to stay true to its pre-existing stories. Which leaves Joe Q in a bit of a bind – he wants to render Spidey’s marriage null and void, but without actually arbitrarily changing the past continuity. This was, in fact, a subject of some debate between him and the writer on the series, J. Michael Straczynski.
JMS wanted to have Mephisto perform one simple act – render it so that the marriage had never occured. From there, various fall-out would occur, the usual inevitable ripples that come from a single change in the course of history. I am sure there would have been various problems with this plan as well, and the fall-out from the fans would have been the same – but it would have also resulted in a very different story than the one Joe Q insisted upon.
See, making it so the marriage didn’t happen was exactly the sort of retcon Marvel tries and avoid. So Joe Q devised a way to come up with the same essential result without actually changing the past – he’ll just have Mephisto change everyone’s memories of the past.
Now, this results in a number of key differences. For one, it is actually more disruptive than JMS’s plan – Mephisto has to alter the memories of an entire world, fiddle with physical evidence, etc. And even doing as perfect a job as he can, there are going to be discrepancies – events will have occured that seem illogical and unexplainable, and someone is inevitably bound to notice.
It also, in many ways, ramps Mephisto up to a rather more substantial amount of power – changing the past is pretty potent, certainly, but also a very precise act. (And one that is much more easily bound in ritual, requiring the consent of the two individuals involved in that past occasion being changed.) Altering the memories of an entire universe – well, one would think there would be someone out there immune to such direct manipulation, especially given how far-reaching some of the memory alterations were. With all the cosmic entities out there, the ability to freely rewrite their minds seems a far larger event than simply triggering a ripple through time.
Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is that it renders the change much easier to fix. Just one person regaining their memory or finding out the truth could be enough to start setting things right.
Which brings us to the realization I had about the storyline, and what seems the largest flaw in how it was carried out. Joe Q’s desire was to reset the Spiderman mythos and create a new status quo in which for him to operate. But Joe wasn’t actually willing to go the distance required to do so. He couldn’t create a clean break – it would have been a challenge to do so no matter what, given the weight of the history between the characters, but he had a particularly sloppy attempt to do so, with some very interesting results.
Mephisto’s goal in all of this – at least as far as we have seen – was to destroy this spark of happiness in Spiderman’s life. It seems a bit silly to have expended such colossal power on such a simple task, but there is at least some small bit of logic in it. But you know what would render it completely ludicrous? If it utterly failed to do so. If Spiderman manages to move on with his life and find any degree of happiness in his Brand New Day, the new status quo… well, doesn’t that defeat the entire point of Mephisto’s plan?
The very nature of Mephisto’s plot means that Spiderman can’t move forward in his life without directly invalidating the event that led to it. If Spiderman finds a new love and new happiness, if he isn’t held back by the spectre of his missing life with Mary Jane, then Mephisto’s plan was meaningless. Which means the only way for Peter Parker to move on in life is to find a way to undo what has been done.
Taking that a step forward – the entire universe being currently under the effect of a mind-altering spell is not, can not, be part of any status quo. It is not a conclusion or a resolution – it is an obstacle to be overcome.
That is what is so very bizarre about the method Joe Q chose to use to end this marriage. He didn’t do so with a plot device that was actually complete, but instead essentially chose a story that stopped in the middle. A deal with the devil was made, and Spiderman is now stuck under the devil’s spell, incomplete and unable to move forward. At some point that needs to be resolved. That isn’t an event that can simply be left open-ended or swept under the rug – it is a challenge being set up for him to overcome.
I’m almost tempted to assume Joe Q intended this – but from what I’ve seen of his attitude about the entire project, I’m not exactly inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
All in all, I’m amused by the fact that not only is this a poorly conceived idea, badly executed and presented to the fans in an almost insulting manner… but it is also a story whose own narrative results in it being self-defeating. And perhaps that is why that it seemed almost inevitable that the entire incident will be wiped away not far down the road, and as such my reaction to the story isn’t anger, or frustration, or despair… but simply a sad sort of amusement, and a vague sense that this is so inherently meaningless that it isn’t even worth becoming upset about.