Rave : 2003 : Ultimate Spider-Man Losing Its Appeal?
Editors Note: This rave first appeared on the Spider-man Message Board and is reprinted here with the author's permission.
Some of you might wonder what's taken me so long to come to this conclusion, but I've started to wonder recently if I don't like Ultimate Spider-Man as much as I thought I did.
Before Straczynski took control of ASM the Spider-Man mythos had become stale and abused, but Ultimate breathed new life into the character. Brian Michael Bendis's modern restructuring of the origin was exciting not only because it was rich and vivid but because it was a markedly different take without overhauling everything that most fans found important (at first glance, at least. But we'll get to that.)
Bendis's dialogue for the two central characters, Peter and Mary Jane, was pitched perfectly, with great poignancy and humour. This version of Spider-Man was fun and fresh, and I was smitten - but what hooked me more than anything was the sense of anticipation. I couldn't wait to find out what the modern versions of Gwen Stacy, Betty Brant and Felicia Hardy would be like, not to mention all the classic villains I'd come to love throughout the last twenty years. And, for a while, every issue just reeled me in a little bit more.
Bendis's take on The Green Goblin wasn't wonderful, but it was significantly better than the film version at least, and the subsequent story arc with The Enforcers, Kingpin and a dynamic new Electro more than made up for a disappointing Norman Osborn. However, one thing that unsettled me was the three-page appearance of The Shocker in issue # 8. Surely Bendis wouldn't be so dismissive of a villain who, whilst not the most powerful of enemies, is distinctive enough a member of the original Spider-Man's Rogues Gallery to still appear on everything from trading cards to the Spider-Man Monopoly game? Unfortunatetly, this was the beginning of a trend.
I remained a fan of the series through the next two story-arcs, but I can see now it was for the Peter / Mary Jane (and Gwen) dynamic and interesting sub-plots with SHIELD rather than anything else. Bendis couldn't capture the geeky-yet-sinister foundations of Doctor Octopus the way Straczynski did over in Amazing, and as initially humourous as Spider-Man pulling down Ock's trousers with his webbing was, it left me cringing a little, especially when compared to the original character's devastating debut in ASM # 3. And is there any point to even talking about Kraven The Hunter? Another villain like The Shocker, instantly recognisable but one-dimensional (not counting DeMatteis's version) that Bendis could have subverted and made truly memorable, but who, instead, is rendered bland and beaten by a single punch. Great for showing off the hero's potential, perhaps, but a big appeal of Spider-Man is that his triumphs against his enemies are supposed to be a little more hard won than that.
The Green Goblin's return fleshed out the character a little, but a coherent and malevolent personality served only to illustrate just how wrong the whole Abomination-meets-Drax-The-Destroyer design was. And then comes the real stinker - the fake Spider-Man. Bendis plays on the aforementioned anticipation aspect throughout the series, with glimpses of Justin Hammer's Sandman Project and the odd reference to a name here and there, but he is quite obviously toying with his audience in the Public Scrutiny story arc. Is the imposter The Chameleon? A clone? Well, no, actually it's just some kid. Some kid who has access to webbing and web shooters (which is never explained) and who can leap and swing around in a way that would test the most highly trained athlete. Some kid who Spider-Man can hit more - and likely harder - than he hit Kraven previously but not seriously damage. Hello?
I haven't read any of the Venom arc yet, but just the fact that Venom is even appearing I find disappointing. When Venom was originally concieved and written well he was a sinister and powerful villain - very powerful. The whole point of Venom was that he was the Morlun of his day, the most terrifying adversary Spider-Man could have faced after years of averagely powered enemies such as La Tarantula and The Molten Man. What next for Ultimate Spider-Man after Ultimate Venom, then? Ultimate Galactus? I can foresee new versions of Mysterio and The Lizard, perhaps, but who else would last more than a page or two? Just look at how The Rhino, one of my favourite villains, was utterly wasted. Now that REALLY rained on my weekend.
And what about the death of George Stacy? His demise is arguably insignificant here (to Spider-Man), when it was one of the most important story elements of the orginal series along with the deaths of Gwen and Uncle Ben. Now, admittedly, come the end of issue # 32 I haven't yet seen a body with my own eyes so there could be a twist to come that has slightly more depth than Gwen hating Spider-Man because of his involvement in her father's death (Harry already has claim to that one). And The Rhino and The Shocker could return as part of a more dangerous Ultimate Sinister Syndicate with their earlier brief appearances just to lull us all into a false sense of security.
But you know what I reckon? Bendis plans to be on this series for between fifty and seventy issues maximum, and he wants to use all the best storylines during his time. Afterwards, he'll never look back, and that's his prerogative - but Marvel should be looking forward and building this series, with all its incredible potential, far more gradually than they are. That's what editors and chiefs are paid for, Joe Quesada!
I'll continue reading Ultimate, again mainly because I like these versions of Mary Jane and Peter, but it hasn't turned out to be anything like the defining series I thought it would be, which is a shame. Hopefully Bendis can get me hooked again, the way that Straczynski has with the original character - but I won't hold my breath.