comics, comics criticism, marvel, spider-man, writing

The Spider-Marriage and Starcrossed Tragedy

Have you been reading Amazing Spider-Man over the last year? If you haven’t, Dark Web aside, you’re missing out on some of the very best Spider-Man comics to be published in well over a decade.

You’d never guess that by going on Twitter, where the conversations around the title center completely around whether Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson are married or not. Let’s put it out there—I’m pro-Spider-Marriage and am still angry that One More Day happened and that the marriage was thrown out via a deal with the literal devil. But moreso, angry at how it was thrown out, which was among the worst and least thematically appropriate Spider-comics ever made.

One More Day is almost old enough to drink now, and frankly, we’ve all got to move on sometime. I jumped around and floated in and out of Dan Slott’s historic run on the title, which ranged from baffling to excellent, but never good enough to reel me in. I also felt like there was never a good jumping on point. (Do jumping on points even matter? I explore that question in my regular No Context Comics column, hopefully returning soon!) I dipped my toes back in with Nick Spencer’s and Ryan Ottley’s relaunch, which got me very excited after a great debut issue. Perhaps part of what got me to buy in on that issue was its ending, a triumphant kiss between Peter and MJ. They were back together!

But Spencer’s run quickly became a convoluted, senseless, disastrous mess (read more about that here). I was ready to give up on Spidey altogether. But after reading the first arc of Zeb Wells and John Romita Jr’s (along with letterer Joe Caramagna and colorist Marcio Menyz) run, an exceptionally personal and emotionally taught crime thriller with Tombstone, I was back on board, despite being sad to see MJ shuffled back out of Peter’s life.

Most frustrating of all was the “Mystery Box” approach to those first few issues of the run. The book opened with a page of Spider-Man screaming in a crater, holding a strange device and his costume torn up. The marketing asked us “What did Peter do?” After a six-month timeskip, Peter returned to NYC after being away for undisclosed reasons. He was isolated and had seemingly pushed everyone out of his life including Aunt May, his roommate, and The Fantastic Four. Worst of all? MJ was apparently with a new man named Paul, and seemed to have had children with him. Why would they separate Spidey and MJ after the last run spent so much time retconning so many old stories to clean the slate for them?

All those misgivings colored my enjoyment of what has been a tremendous run of stories. After Tombstone, there was a great two-issue fight with The Vulture, followed by a Hobgoblin story that evoked the best of Roger Stern and JRjr’s original stories with the character. And even the hints of what we see of MJ throughout this story, her explanation to Peter that her relationship with Paul and to the children was “about responsibility” showed a clear understanding of MJ’s character and her background as elucidated by Tom DeFalco.

Art by Patrick Gleason

Wells and Romita were showing me they had the goods to tell great stories. But my concern was and continues to be with the editorial team, which made so many awful decisions and strung along plot threads that led nowhere throughout Spencer’s run on the title. That same team continues working with Wells and makes many of the same hyperbolic claims and sloppy errors. The Dark Web crossover is a perfect example of the mismanagement of the publicity for this title and its inability to reel in the worst excesses of its writers. Sloppy continuity errors, recap pages, and reference notes are not uncommon.

But my sentiments have gone from cautiously optimistic to full-throated excitement as the latest stretch of issues unfolds. We are finally getting answers to the Mystery Box, and what once frustrated me now seems like it was the right creative and dramatic choice for this story. In the current storyarc, an old enemy of Spider-Man returns. This Dr. Rabin, a mad scientist and mathematician who uncovered the magic and science of symbology, is hell-bent on summoning a Mayan god named Wayep to obtain its power. In order for Wayep to be summoned, the symbol of the god’s last defeat must be eliminated…Meaning, Spider-Man must die! Rabin attacks Peter and Mary Jane and transports them into an alternate reality where Wayep has destroyed the planet and soon are tragically separated.

As superhero readers, we are trained to expect the hero to rise above his challenges and reestablish the status quo. Should this story about the Mayan god Wayep and interdimensional dangers have begun in real-time, we wouldn’t feel the real dramatic tension that things are about to go horribly wrong. Instead, we read every momentary triumph or spark of hope with the knowledge that, somehow, everything in Spider-Man’s life will be blown up by story’s end. The stakes are clear because we know exactly what they are.

What could have been so bad that forced Peter Parker to ostracize himself from everyone in his life? What could break this couple, who were on the verge of moving in together, to the point that MJ now had a family of her own?

There will never be another Gwen Stacy moment, where superhero comic readers can credibly believe in the stakes of a story or the consequences and reality of a tragic moment. By foregrounding shocking status quo changes at the beginning of the story, readers have already had time to absorb the consequences of the story we are reading now. Now, we get the full revelation of what led to those changes with a full understanding of the weight of what is to come.

Peter is not fighting to maintain the status quo. There are real costs to this battle he is facing against the mad Rabin and Wayep. In the latest issue, after narrowly escaping (against his will) an alternate version of New York where Wayep has decimated the planet, Peter is frantically searching for a way back across time and space to retrieve Mary Jane, who stayed behind so that Peter could escape. He is injured, desperate, and not thinking clearly. No explanation he can give satisfies The Fantastic Four or Captain America, who want to take their time and work through a plan. But Peter is the only one who experienced that twisted world and its dangers. He is the only one who knows that mere hours in their world are weeks there. MJ could already be dead. Each second is precious. After pushing away everyone that could possibly help, Peter makes a deal with the devil (not literally this time), turning to the reformed Norman Osborn who has been trying to make amends.

What’s interesting about these pages of Peter fighting his friends and allies is not the physical feats or the cool action Romita draws (though both are great) but the way they elevate Peter’s worst habits. Ultimately, Peter Parker views himself, like many people who grew up nerdy and picked on do, as fundamentally on his own. When people are not quick to trust him or follow his lead, he lashes out and strikes off on his own. It’s one of his most toxic traits. It never leads to the correct choice but he cannot help himself.

Many of the people you might see tearing down Zeb Wells’s writing on this title choose to see him as opposed to the Peter/Mary Jane relationship at best or, at worst, actively trolling those who are fans of it. But a good faith reading of this story reveals the opposite.

These two characters are deeply in love with one another and the “What did Peter do?” story unfolding now seeks to tell a love story of epic tragedy. That love drives each of the characters to heroically sacrifice themselves for one another. Before Peter is tossed back into the Marvel Universe, Paul informs the couple that Rabin had sent them to this apocalyptic world as a sacrifice to draw Wayep to their reality. The key to unlocking that door is Spider-Man’s death.

It is worth noting here that Paul (MJ’s future significant other–husband? Editorial has confused the status of Paul and MJ’s relationship) is revealed to have been a former associate of Rabin and has lots of convenient knowledge and tools, none of which make him a particularly trustworthy character.

Upon hearing the truth of Rabin’s plan, both MJ and Peter decide that they must save the other. With only one dimension-hopping device available to them, they fight over which of them must go back. Peter, naturally, wants to send MJ to safety and fight Wayep. But MJ knows that should Spider-Man fail, it will mean chaos for Earth. She is determined to have Peter go back even if it means she dies far from home. As Wayep attacks, Mary Jane activates the device, sending Peter across time and space and stranding herself.

It’s an epic and tragic tale of sacrifice for love. Neither is willing to see the other suffer and both believe their heroic action is the right choice. It’s not a happily ever after story (yet, anyway, future issues could reunite them). This is almost Shakespearean in its irony and torment. The ultimate act of love is not selfishly hanging onto the other but saving the one you love from themselves. Even if it means never seeing them again. That’s romance. That’s the kind of big drama that superhero stories can grapple with. It takes the kernel of a deeply personal and human struggle, like losing a loved one, and expands the personal into something primal and universal. The emotions are first and foremost.

Peter alienates Cap and Human Torch out of grief. He is being senseless. So great is his loss and fear that nothing else could possibly matter.

Romita’s kinetic artwork makes the emotional beating physically brutalizing. The couple’s desperate attempts to be and remain together against all odds manifest in showstopping action that grounds pages and panels to a halt. In the first fight with Rabin in issue 21, Peter crashes into the doctor with his full strength. His elbow smashes into the villain, contorting him in inhuman directions. The image takes up a third of the page horizontally, with no vertical panels breaking up the action. Peter digs into Rabin, his body tearing straight across the page, emphasizing his speed as the vertical Rabin bisects the panel. The unstoppable force meets the immovable object. The velocity is clear in their positioning.

Rabin’s back smashes through the wall, a large KRAK sound effect tracing along his spine. In the next panel Rabin falls from the apartment to the ground below.

During Spider-Man’s battle with Wayep in issue 22, the god’s sheer size and imposing figure is emphasized as his stark white figure crowds the panels. We never see a full image of the god. Panel borders cannot contain him. The gutters here are black, not white, making Wayep stand out all the more. Marcio Menyz’s colors add to the contrast with more subdued and subtler use of highlight and shadow. Wayep’s assault transcends the constraints of time and space as understood on the comics page, his attacks crossing panel borders and gutters to strike from the past and future simultaneously.

Time and space itself are conspiring to keep these lovers apart. How much sweeter, then, should they find their way to one another again? And even if they do not end up wrapped up in one another’s arms at story’s end, what a testament to their love that they would reach across reality to find each other, that they would sacrifice their own life for the other’s well-being.

Perhaps MJ’s sacrifice of trapping herself in Wayep’s world, a desolate world without hope, is matched by Peter’s sacrifice of letting her go to explore whatever has yet to be revealed about her life with Paul and the children, trapping himself in a desolate world without hope.

Sometimes, love means impossible choices. Peter and Mary Jane make those impossible choices for one another here. There is no clearer sign of their love, and however the final parts of this story shake out, it is shaping up to be one of the most stirring examinations of their love for one another. To diminish the work Wells and Romita are doing here to mere “trolling” or a petulant flight of fancy is to miss out on excellent superhero comic storytelling.


3 thoughts on “The Spider-Marriage and Starcrossed Tragedy”

  1. The attempt was daring, I’ll give it that, but literally nothing you write corresponds to the comics that actually exist. The comics actually written by Wells that is.

    1) The whole problem of the “mystery box” is that there’s never a fully worked out story to start with, so you can never entirely say that the approach was justified to start with as opposed to if it came out in sequence. Especially since there are glaring continuity errors between how the Run started and how Wells is relating the flashbacks in the recent issues, suggesting that the story wasn’t fully planned then. And Wells himself has said as much in podcast interviews at the time. For all we know the story we read is in response to the backlash and negative feedback. Had Wells started his run in sequence we likely would not have gotten this same story. So it’s virtually impossible to claim, with any degree of good faith, that the way Wells chose to relate the story in the end justified the decision to start the Run this particular way.

    And even the hints of what we see of MJ throughout this story, her explanation to Peter that her relationship with Paul and to the children was “about responsibility” showed a clear understanding of MJ’s character and her background as elucidated by Tom DeFalco.

    Stern and Defalco’s background was about her trauma and guilt of growing up in a poor broken home and running away from her sister Gayle and her children to come to NYC. What does this remotely have to do with vague mutterings of “responsibility?” Given that it was David Michelinie’s run, ASM#289-291, the events leading to the proposal that had Mary Jane grow responsible to her family, return to Philadelphia and be her sister’s keeper, it’s ahistorical to backdate this sense of familial responsible to the backstory rather than the marriage which is when she acted on that guilt.

    As superhero readers, we are trained to expect the hero to rise above his challenges and reestablish the status quo.

    The marriage was the event that broke the status-quo. What Wells is doing is reiterating the most conservative, most regressive, most infantile version of the character. This isn’t any challenge of the status-quo by any means.

    This is almost Shakespearean in its irony and torment.

    I’m sorry there’s no way to avoid this — this is just pretentious. The worst melodramatic cliches of the kind you see in a dozen “Will they won’t they” padding stuff ought not to be denied for what they are.


    I appreciate the effort you put into this review and I will say that it’s a lot better reading than Wells’ run, it’s a better review than the comic deserves. At the same time I think the argument is too overdetermined. In general, Wells doesn’t write women well, doesn’t show inclination in romance, and he’s been criticized this for a good while. It’s hard to believe that this run is any kind of mutual “sacrifice” or tragedy when we only ever see Mary Jane in the issues before as a “feel-bad” machine for Peter (including that X-Men tie-in issue you include above). She’s never been individualized as a character for this to feel like a proper two-sided tragedy of the kind you are making out. You are imposing the longer continuity reading but ignoring the versions of the characters Wells is writing in this story.

    If the story is intended as some kind of tragedy I’d believe it if Wells’ wrote Peter and MJ compellingly and believably as a couple together…for instance you read The Dark Phoenix Saga, Claremont wrote Scott and Jean believably as a loving couple with moments of happiness and joy before the tragedy, which made it hurt even more and also accepted by the reader since they can accept that the writer felt the same way as they did. Whereas Wells clearly doesn’t care about the romance at all based on how he wrote them in Beyond and in the earlier issues. Ultimately this story is entirely instrumental. Wells likes writing Peter as an angry rampaging person because it’s the kind of “Method Acting 101” emoting that overly serious writers of his ilk like indulging in. It’s not indicative of anything deep, it’s just empty gestures.


  2. Spencer’s run was amazing and was definitely building to something bigger, Peter and MJ as an unbreakable couple and a daughter that would defeat the devil. Take your stupid hot take and shove it, these aren’t good comics.


  3. This is a fantastic write-up that so eloquently puts into words how I’m feeling about this run. I’m desperately counting down the hours until the next issue!


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