OK boys and girls, we all know the story of May Parker's favorite nephew. His parents long dead, he is being raised by his beloved Aunt and Uncle, then one day he while attending a science experiment, he is accidentally bitten by a irradiated spider, and gains the proportional strength and abilities of a spider. In an attempt to cash in on his newfound powers, Peter designs a costume and goes into professional wrestling. After winning the match, and being swindled by the fight promoter, Peter allows a burglar to escape the arena with a "it's not my problem" attitude. Needless to say (and as any O. Henry fan or Einstein theorist can tell you) this action comes back to bite him on the butt, when he gets home only to discover that self-same burglar has killed his Uncle.
The rest of Peter's life becomes an exercise in "If only" - If only he had stopped that burglar, If only he had taken his powers seriously from the start. If only... Well as the purpose of What If...? stories are to explore that very possibility of Robert Frost's The road not taken, this particular tale takes us down one possible path, when it asks, What would Peter Parkers life had been like if Uncle Ben had lived and Aunt May had been the one that had been killed.
Much to its credit, this story begins differently than most of the What If...? tales that have been previously been published, as it kick-starts its way with two comicbook fans talking about the events that propelled Peter into the world of superheroics, and (as is the procedure for these types of tales), alters one small detail. Just shortly before the burglar enters the house Ben decided to walk to the corner market to get a gallon of milk. When he returns May has been shot and killed.
He then has to break this news to Peter when Peter arrives home shortly thereafter. From here the story takes on new dimensions. Instead of simply ducking out, changing into Spider-Man, and chasing down the burglar; Peter goes into superhero mode directly in front of Uncle Ben (presumably Uncle Ben has a stronger heart and it's a guy thing that Peter would be less likely to keep a secret from his Uncle), and bolts after the burglar.
Startled, but still intent on protecting his (superpowered) nephew, Ben follows Peter Nee: Spider-Man as best he can. As in the film (not the comic) Peter surprises the burglar and - tearing off his mask - confronts him, causing the thug to fall through a second-story window, to his death. (Here is where the really big twist occurs.) Ben arrives at the warehouse just in time to see this occur, and pulls his nephew aside, to stand in front of the window (which is now spotlighted by the Police) to take the blame for pushing the burglar to his death.
Peter follows his Uncle's advice, and hides, allowing Ben to take the rap for the burglar's death, which - naturally enough - sends Ben to jail. Being underage, Peter is put into the system, and is bounced around to a series of foster homes, and becomes despondent, all but giving up his alter ego. Needless to say without any Spider-man to save him, there is no one to rescue John Jameson when his space capsule malfunctions, which sends John's father, JJJ into a rage, which he (inexplicably) still takes out on a missing Spider- Man. All of which fuels Peter's own rage, causing him to lash out at Jameson (the comic fans point out that without Aunt May, Peter has lost (or never fully developed) his moral center. Full of his own rage and with no one to guide him, young Peter continues to get into trouble and winds up in Juvenile Detention (along with Flash and Harry Osborn who were both busted for possession).
Even in Juvie, Peter is hounded by bullies, and finally he does what any self- respecting super-powered individual would do, he busts out, and uses his Spider-Powers to steal enough food to survive on the run in NYC. It is during these "outlaw" days, Spider-Man becomes a proto Hero-for-Hire, as he takes on a number of super-powered baddies (including Doc Ock, The Vulture, the Lizard, and The Green Goblin) for the reward money. After being bested by Peter the Goblin is revealed to be not only Norman Osborn but a loon, and is sent off to Bellevue (which probably explains why a wealthy guy like him allowed his son to be placed into the system).
With no moral center, no direction, and at his wits end, Peter busts into prison to free Uncle Ben. Only Ben isn't having any and won't allow his nephew to descend any further into the depths of villainy and refuses to be busted out. Peter, who has hit a wall on his emotional roller-coaster life, finally listens to Ben, and moves in with Anna Watson (why he didn't from the get-go is just one of the misfires of this story, but more on that later), gets his life in order by becoming the honor student he was destined to become, hooks up with Anna's niece, Mary Jane and even keeps Spider-Man around (though the hero part of his life isn't as important in this incarnation). Eventually Ben is paroled and through the vagaries of comicbook fate, becomes Alfred to Peter's Batman, as he assists Spidey in his nightly patrols across the city.
The best What If...? stories are ones that don't simply give us an alternate ending of a specific story, tell us a preposterously unbelievable story (What if Wolverine Killed the Hulk?), or simply attempt to tie into a recent mega event in the Marvel Universe (too many of those to even begin). The best stories not only tell how a different action spins into a different story, but also show the ripple effect of how those actions spread through the Marvelverse.
This story is somewhat plausible and does take into account some of those ripple effects, only this review has issues with some of the basic premises (that it is only after Ben's death that May becomes Peter's "moral center" (she has essentially been his mother for over 10 years, at the time of Ben's death, meaning that sort of molding would have been in place for years). As stated in the body of this review, why didn't Peter go directly to Anna Watson's care? With Spidey out of the limelight, why would JJJ fix so tenaciously on Spidey to vent his ire? Also, personally this reviewer has difficulties with the image of Spidey boosting groceries, but that's could just be me.
The concept of May dieing instead of instead of Ben, has long been a staple of conjecture with Spidey fans, is worthy of Marvel exploring this idea a second time is very cool (during the original run of this title (Vol. 1 #46, 1984) the question was asked "What if Uncle Ben had lived?"). Personally - and this as the basis for What If...? is the cause for endless debate, and the original motivation for this series in the first place - I have an entirely different scenario, but that is the cause for an entirely different sort of article. Leave it for now to say that the story works as well as any under this umbrella but still doesn't rise above the level of just ordinary.
In spite of the previous paragraph, I did like the story, even if I disagreed with some of the underlying precepts. Seeing different twists on established tales is always good, and despite of my objections to some of the story elements, I did like the methodology of how it was told (by fans in a comic shop, which is how many of these alternate tales begin in the first place.