On the surface, Jason Aaron and Adam Kubert’s Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine is a fun, over-the-top time travel team-up with dinosaurs, living planets, and ape men. Behind this extravagant surface, however, this tale contains an insightful philosophical comparison of essentialism and existentialism.
The ways the Peter and Logan react to the strange time periods they are transported to reflect their underlying philosophies. On the surface, the situation they find themselves in is absurd and senseless. They are randomly brought together and transported throughout time with little rhyme or reason. But could their journey be controlled by fate? First, the heroes visit the Cretaceous period before the extinction event, and then they go to a post-apocalyptic future. When confronting these struggles, Spider-Man has an essentialist view while Wolverine is more existential, but their individual philosophies help them cope with their brutal situations.
In this absurd world, Wolverine follows the existential ideal of controlling his destiny with free will. When the characters are sent to the Cretaceous period, he quickly becomes the leader of a group of ape men. He creates his own purpose in life by helping these less-fortunate people. Considering Logan is old and “has seen it all,” he is stuck in a vicious cycle of life much like Albert Camus’s depiction of Sisyphus. This existential hero was forced to heave a burdensome rock to the top of a hill, watch it fall down, and roll it back up. However, he still exerted his free will by sneering at the gods. Similarly, Wolverine’s “rock” is his constant battles and struggles, and he gets back at the “gods” with his primal scream in the face of death and indulgence in drinking. Like Sisyphus he is exerting his own free will.
In dealing with two instances of the end of the world, Wolverine looks at death head-on in an existential fashion. When an asteroid is coming, Logan lets out an angry scream. The heroes are then transported to a post-apocalyptic time, and he bravely sacrifices himself to save Earth. In both instances, he is courageous in confronting his certain demise, and he wants to have a glorious death that he thinks about “every morning.” This reflects the importance existentialists put on accepting death. Before the sacrifice, Wolverine thinks about living his life differently, imagining himself with “the time to savor each sight and sound, each breath, each moment.” This relates to the existential belief that people control their own lives instead of fate choosing their destinies. Logan’s decisions were his own, and he could have changed his path.
Continuing the study of his existential views, Wolverine feels alienated from others. He threatens Peter to stay away from him and isolates himself from his fellow hero early in their adventure. While the leader of the ape men, he prefers to be by himself while the early men gather together. He sees himself as distinctly separate from those he leads. When the ape men want him to act as a messiah in the post-apocalyptic future, he isolates himself from them and the expectations of their society.
Although existentialism is often associated with atheism, Jason Aaron shows Logan still generally believes in Christian tenets. Before oncoming death, Wolverine thinks, “Let’s just hope at this point, the list of good deeds somehow outweighs the bad. Guess we’ll know soon enough.” He thinks of the basic ideas of Heaven and Hell, and he later contemplates praying before the end comes. After actually dying, Wolverine journeys to a version of Heaven to be with his mother (before Peter brings him back to physical existence). Therefore, one can infer he is a Christian existentialist rather than an atheistic existentialist like Albert Camus.
On the other hand, Spider-Man gets by with an essentialist view, believing his life is controlled by fate. Unlike Logan, Peter decides not to interact with others or significantly change anything in the Cretaceous period to avoid the Butterfly Effect. He believes it is his predetermined fate to live an unimportant existence to avoid destroying the future. Spidey expounds his belief in faith by saying, “We have to be here for a reason, I know that in my heart.” (To this, Wolverine laughs.) He imposes structure and meaning on his existence because he’s “a guy who likes for things to make sense.” Near the end of his adventure with Wolverine, he believes the purpose of their journey was for him to find Sara Bailey, a girl he plans on marrying. He believes destiny caused him to be displaced in time and drove them to be together.
In facing death, Peter is full of angst and worry, contrasting with Wolverine’s acceptance of death. In the Cretaceous period, he refuses to come to terms with his oncoming demise and desperately works to avoid it. With the end approaching in the post-apocalyptic world, he wants to sacrifice himself, but he is full of angst that he will fail to save others. While Logan was brave facing death, Peter is distressed and cowardly in a non-existential way. Similarly, although Wolverine thinks about what he could have changed in his past, Peter thinks about what he could have accomplished in the future: “There’s so much more I could have done.” He believes fate directs his route in life and has cut him off from more possibilities. On the other hand, Wolverine sees his position as absurd and refuses to believe fate controls life.
By contrasting Spider-Man and Wolverine’s separate world views, Jason Aaron gets to the essence of why the two rarely get along early in the story. They have two completely different ideologies. Peter believes in fate and imposes structure on his world. The world has to make sense to him. Meanwhile, Logan sees the world as absurd, and he believes people control their own destinies with free will.
However, at the end of the miniseries, Jason Aaron shakes up the characters’ world views. Both heroes end their adventure when they are transported back to their original time period with most damage undone. Peter is dismayed to find the girl he loved, Sara Baily, does not remember him or their past relationship. This causes him to have an existential crisis; he thought the purpose of the journey was to meet Sara until their relationship suddenly ends. He thinks, “There’s always a point, I tell myself. A reason things happen the way they do. There has to be. Or then again … maybe there doesn’t.” Peter decides to sit under a tree “until some kind of point finally up and reveals itself.” But he realizes he will be sitting “for a while.” He is left doubting his essentialist views.
On the other hand, Wolverine seems to be decidedly less existential after journeying to Heaven and bonding with Peter. In the final stop on their time travel adventure, Wolverine is happy to travel with Peter and his group of friends, contrasting with his highly-isolated former self. Similarly, while Peter muses that his search for meaning is “all for nothing,” Logan thinks of the bonding between himself and Spidey. The two cut their palms and held hands, symbolizing their friendship. Wolverine notices that his glove still has evidence of the cut, and it is not “set right” like everything else. Wolverine contemplates that it may have been fate that brought him and Spider-Man together to bond, weakening his existentialist views.
With the characters thoroughly confused, Jason Aaron leaves the question of whether Spider-Man and Wolverine’s journey was driven by fate or randomness. Were they destined to get involved in the situation together to become friends? Or was the whole story absurd and pointless? The answer lies in the role of the time crystals that drive the plot. Every time the characters travel to different times, the crystals are responsible, but little is revealed about these gems. Readers are left to decide if the crystals randomly chose destinations and participants, or if there was an underlying reason why the crystals placed the character together. Interestingly, Wolverine and Spider-Man both go to the other character’s younger days to better understand them. Was it fate that the gems chose these destinations so they could relate and bond easier?
Hopefully, I have sufficiently proven that there are philosophical undertones in this team-up miniseries. Nevertheless, I realize this could seem like a silly argument at face value. Is it highly realistic that Jason Aaron wrote this without any particular plan in mind? Yes, it is. He could have randomly sprinkled in profound dialogue. However, he could have had an ultimate plan with his script, and the story was always destined to be philosophically insightful. Perhaps your own world views will dictate how you view Aaron’s intentions. Perhaps I simply need to lay off the existential fiction.