Ladies and gentle web-heads, we are currently in the throes of a Spider-Man golden era.
If you somehow haven’t noticed, Spider-Man is everywhere these days, even more so than he usually is. The webbed hero is in critically acclaimed high budget games like Spider-Man PS4/Miles Morales; Into the Spider-Verse saw the popularity of character Miles Morales leap to new heights as it became the definitive Miles Morales story and won an Academy Award(!); Marvel Studios is bringing the beginnings of MCU Spider-Man to Disney+ with their animated entry titled Spider-Man: Freshman Year; and how could we forget about the staying power of the live-action MCU Spider-Man portrayed by Tom Holland? No Way Home is the perfect embodiment of what it means to be a Spider-Man fan right now. What’s that? What about the comics, you ask? Well, they’re…ok.
The quality of both Peter Parker and Miles Morales Spidey’s stories within the comic book medium over the past twelve years have been rather hit or miss, to state it honestly. Beginning with Peter’s stories, at times, we witness flashes of greatness through complex (and sometimes controversial) thought-provoking series like the Peter Parker-Doc Ock Freaky Friday-esque story “Superior Spider-Man” by Dan Slott, Ryan Stegman, Humberto Ramos, and Giuseppe Camoncoli, while, on the other hand, we received a litany of lamentable stories that often mischaracterize the essence of who Peter Parker/Spider-Man is, like the “One Moment in Time” storyline by Joe Quesada and Pablo Rivera for instance.
On the Miles Morales side of things, he’s a bit more green. Spinning directly out of the Ultimate universe—a universe now seemingly destroyed as per the events of Secret Wars—Miles has been fighting for respect as ultimate-Peter’s replacement after he died in battle. Miles captivated the masses by giving a lot of readers a Spider-Man that they could fully identify with in regards to his culture, upbringing, and racial identification. In his short ten-year history, Miles has had his share of hit-or-miss storylines as well with one of his weakest stories being the “Sitting In A Tree” storyline by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli. However, his most compelling comic storyline came in the Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man series, specifically “Revival,” a storyline by Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez.
And it’s in this mess of hit or miss storylines between our Spider-Men of the hour that we find ourselves knee-deep in the confines of 2012’s Spider-Men and 2017’s Spider-Men II, both by Brian Michael Bendis, Sara Pichelli, Axel Alonso, and Jim Cheung, as we attempt to decipher where these books fit.
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Our first story’s starting point sees main-Peter Parker’s mundane routine of crime-fighting suddenly disrupted by a purple beam erecting through a warehouse. After investigating the room and finding a fishbowl, he deduces that the culprit is Mysterio. A fight ensues, and as a result, Peter stumbles into the purple-colored source and is transported to a different dimension: the Ultimate Universe. Here, Peter discovers another Spider-character (with a way cooler costume, Peter said it, not me) in Miles Morales and that his Ultimate counterpart had perished in battle. Unfortunately, the revelation is interrupted by the ultimate-Mysterio avatar/android, controlled by the main-Mysterio in Earth prime, sent there to kill both Spider-Men. Feeling a sense of dread after the battle, Peter decides that he must go to the place that ties both of the Peters together: to the home of Aunt May. With eyes full of water droplets, Peter breaks down at the sight of not only seeing Aunt May but Gwen Stacy as well—a young lady who died in his universe. After being told for the third time by his universally distant relatives that his ultimate universe counterpart is dead, Peter is picked up by Nick Fury along with Miles, and they are taken to the location of Mysterio’s universe-hopping portal where the Spider-Men defeat him and leave him imprisoned in the Ultimate universe. As the book wraps up and Peter Parker returns to his universe, he curiously looks into who Miles Morales’ counterpart could be in his universe. So, with a simple google search, he looks for Miles Morales and is shocked at the revelations.
The Amazing Spider-Men? Eh.
Leading up to this monumental crossover, Axel Alonso claimed that this miniseries would explore Miles Morales and how he feels about the revelation that there are other universes out there, and work his way through the “huge shadow” cast over Miles in the aftermath of Ultimate Peter’s death. We were also promised a “super-cool villain” with a “mind-bending” plot/setup. So, with that information going into the book fused with my expectations for a Spider-Man book with BMB as the writer and the incomparable Sara Pichelli as the artist…Spider-Men (2012) was a bit of a letdown.
As a die-hard Spider-Man fan, this story was what I spent my whole life waiting for: the Spider-Man that I grew up with making contact with the Spider-Man that I (finally) identified with. The significance of this story comes two-fold as it marks the first time that the main Marvel Comics universe crossed over with the Ultimate universe and, on a representation level, this meant that Marvel took the concept of Miles Morales seriously and didn’t think of the character as a mere “diversity for diversity’s sake” creation but wanted to explore Miles’ character in the aftermath of becoming THE Spider-Man for his universe. Yet, Spider-Men (2012) rarely allows us the perspective of Miles as Peter comes swinging into his world, taking up the majority of the main narrative. As a result, this story comes off less as a “what will Miles do when he meets Peter of the main-universe” as much as it is a story of “what will Peter of the main universe think about the ultimate universe and his immortality?”. And even examining the book through that distinctly different question and lens, the series still comes up short.
Spider-Men (2012) doesn’t work as this world-shattering event that it was touted/thought to be at the time. But the miniseries isn’t a total letdown. What the comic does well is provide a closer examination of self; a shallow but respectable question of what it means to be you and how facing one’s mortality (even if it’s through an alternate universe version of the world, you know) could bring a sense of closure to the trauma you carry. In addition, the neatly written miniseries utilizes its emotional beats to tie up the Ultimate universe’s leftover threads from the death of their Peter Parker. With Peter meeting his Ultimate-counterpart’s loved ones, these characters are allowed a moment of closure; Peter gets to see Gwen alive, not as a clone but alive and breathing, and Gwen and Aunt May get to see and embrace Peter—even if it’s for a moment. This panel in the book expertly articulates the raw emotions one would feel if given a chance at talking with a loved one for the last time, knowing that this is the last time.
Five years later, after the “groundbreaking” crossover from Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli, we pick up with everyone’s favorite web slingers, Miles Morales and Peter Parker, as we embark on a journey that will answer a fundamental question posed by Spider-Men (2012): who is the other Miles Morales? A lot has happened in the Marvel universe since Spider-Men (2012). For example, the collapse of the multiverse in Marvel’s universe-wide magnum opus Secret Wars (2015), with Miles’ universe being destroyed as a result.
The story kicks off in media res as both spider heroes are in captivity. Miles frees them, and then he’s after the figures who tied them up and are now escaping via plane. Miles attempts to latch on to the aircraft but is instead flung to the ground, failing. Peter berates Miles and tells him that Miles, “you have no business being Spider-Man, none of this should have happened,” taking back the blessing he once bestowed upon him in Spider-Men (2012). Later in the story, we then shift to a man with a scarred face with the revelation being this man is the main-Miles Morales. The Spider-bros then fight Taskmaster in the following issue resulting in Taskmaster getting away. After the fight, Miles tells Peter that he overheard Taskmaster talking to someone named Miles Morales in his ear, which prompts Peter to enlist the help of Jessica Jones to help them find this other Miles Morales. After exhausting investigations, Jessica Jones reveals to both Miles and Peter that nothing came up—there is no trace of a main-Miles Morales. Later, we essentially get an origin story for main-Miles and a bit of a retcon for Kingpin, which states that Miles Morales and Kingpin go way back as they were jail buds. It also revealed that Kingpin is why there is no record of Miles Morales in the main Marvel universe. We also get a glimpse into Barbara, Miles Morales’ significant other. A flashback in issue #4 shows us that Barbara dies, and Miles is told by Kingpin that there is a way to bring her back—visiting other worlds and universes. Stricken by the same grief that is eating Miles alive, Kingpin tells Miles that there is a way for him to achieve this, which then brings us up to where the miniseries began with the Spider-Men tied up and main-Miles making his escape. Taskmaster gives main-Miles a device to travel to a universe with a Barbara stationed there. Main-miles manages to escape to the other universe only to find out that that other universe is the return of the Ultimate universe.
Main-Miles Morales Origin Story #1, Apparently
Much like the writing in Spider-Men (2012), Spider-Men II (2017) is your average superhero story, but somehow ends up worse than the first miniseries due to a frustrating lack of direction. Again, it’s not that the book’s writing is gut-wrenchingly bad but more so that it misses its own purpose. I genuinely feel that the series doesn’t honestly know who or what it’s supposed to be. But, before I go any deeper with my criticisms, I do want to point something about both Spider-Men (2012) and Spider-Men II (2017): Sara Pichelli is absolutely the real MVP in both miniseries. Her art articulates more about their character, personalities, and emotions than the writing sometimes does.
With the cliff-hanger of the first miniseries, we were promised a particular type of story; one that would maybe look to explore the two Miles in-depth with a close look at their motives, their feelings about the multiverse and each other, and what shocked Peter when he googled Miles Morales. But, what we actually received was the origin story of main-Miles Morales. That’s it. While that isn’t the worst thing that could have happened, it is pretty frustrating to receive yet another piece of Miles Morales content with minimal exploration of ultimate-Miles’ character and the more profound psychological implications of occupying a totally different universe from his own—especially since the story appears to have a heavy focus on multiversity—all while living in the shadow of Peter Parker.
This miniseries tackles a bit of Miles’ being in the shadow of Peter, but through very shallow means that lack real insight into Miles’ own feelings. Just like the case of the main-Miles Morales, it just comes off as halfhearted and unsure of itself. We do get Miles Morales essentially quitting his role as Spider-Man at the end, but as we know, that isn’t a decision that will last long.
While I usually enjoy Bendis’ wordy writing, the banter and “serious” conversations between Peter and Miles seem to lack those emotional beats that served as a redeeming factor in Spider-Men(2012) for me. The interactions between Parker and Morales aren’t terrible, and we can see tiny glimpses of Morales understanding what being Spider-Man means. Still, some of that emotional growth he is supposed to feel doesn’t strike me right away. And honestly, I feel that has something to do with the fact that Miles doesn’t have the original burden that he had pre-Secret Wars—operating as Spider-Man in a world where Peter Parker is dead and having to deal with the overwhelming notion that it’s all up to him to continue the legacy of Spider-Man as best he can. This wasn’t a sentiment I always had about Morales existing in the main universe today, but after reading Spider-Men II (2017) several times, I began to notice how weak Morales’ understanding of what it means to be Spider-Man seemed since being away from his home universe and the catalyst that made him the Miles Morales that resonated with me.
Overall, the whole Spider-Men series story was pretty straightforward and rarely moved me. It’s an anticlimactic narrative that stays afloat on the premise that a promise to the reader will be delivered. The result is Spider-Men (2012), a promise that doesn’t come close to matching the hype for its own cliffhanger. The story’s heavy reliance and focus on Peter’s role as Spider-Man and his feelings about the existence of another Spider-Man in both miniseries ultimately works against Miles’ growth as a character within the confines of these two particular stories.
While it may have worked a bit in the first miniseries, Spider-Men II (2017) isn’t nearly as lucky; Miles’ character receives some growth as a character/wielder of the Spider-Man mantle, but Bendis’ writing keeps Peter and main-Miles Morales ahead of him as the story’s main focal points so much that it feels like Miles could’ve been left out as one of the main characters altogether. You can feel this creative decision in how Bendis did not answer the question of how our Miles feels about this other Miles Morales. Instead of an answer to this question Bendis delivers an exploration of the origins of main-Miles Morales and his place in the main Marvel universe. The only connections between the two are that they share a name and a possible love interest named Barbara, and are from different universes—and that latter point is further complicated as we find out that Ultimate Peter Parker is back from the dead as well. Which goes back to my initial gripe with the story focusing so heavily on Peter Parker and main-Miles Morales to begin with. What is the point of having Spider-Men (2012) be about “what happens when Peter Parker meets the new Spider-Man?” and Spider-Men II (2017) being centered on “who is the other Miles Morales?” if neither of these questions positions ultimate-Miles Morales’ perspective as just as important as Peter’s in Spider-Men (2012) or main-Miles Morales in Spider-Men II (2017)? Couple that with the fact that apparently, ultimate-Peter Parker (and the rest of the Ultimate universe for that matter) is back from the dead, rendering ultimate-Miles Morales’ motivations for becoming Spider-Man pointless across the multiverse in a post-Secret Wars landscape.
But that isn’t to say that Bendis totally misses the mark with Peter and ultimate-Miles. As mentioned earlier, there are moments where Bendis does a great job of playing off Peter Parker’s mentor/ultimate-Miles Morales’ student role as Peter slowly begins to realize that he needs to do a better job at assisting his Spider-counterpart. Bendis and Pichelli are excellent in showing Peter’s maturation as he attempts to make up for his failings, as demonstrated at the beginning of Spider-Men II (2017). These are probably the most vital moments in the story as ultimate-Miles is seen as an ally/potential equal to Peter Parker as opposed to an afterthought—which the story often does. Miles’ ending was interesting as well, deciding that he doesn’t need to be Spider-Man and instead wants to figure out how to be his own man; it’s this type of critical analysis of the Spider-mantle and introspection that I so desperately wished drove Miles’ arc in this series. But these moments are either scarce or nonexistent in most of this series and can’t provide enough redeeming qualities for how poorly ultimate-Miles’ character arc is used here.
Ultimately, I’m convinced that the direction of Spider-Men II (2017) was Bendis saying goodbye to Jessica Jones and Miles Morales, as he would soon leave Marvel for DC Comics. If that was the case, I wish he would have just said that instead. Although we may be currently in the middle of a Spider-Man golden era, we have to acknowledge the missteps that the comics have suffered along the way, and Spider-Men as a complete series is one of those duds. I still love you, Bendis!