Spidey Tackles The Human Torch: Spider-Man As An Anti-Hero

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As I said before, Spider-Man used to be my favorite comic characters. As such, I wanted to learn as much as possible about the character, which led me to start reading issues of his original run beginning in the 60’s. What always struck me about these issues was the irreverence; no other heroes from this era had the flippancy that made The Amazing Spider-Man such a great read. Despite being a generally good kid, Peter could be a real douche sometimes.

For this post, I wanted to focus on a comic story that I particularly enjoyed when I first read it. It takes place in The Amazing Spiderman #8 (1964). As you can see, the cover shows that this issue is chock full of stories; Peter boxes his rival Flash Thompson and battles a spiffy robot. Fuck those stories, I don’t care about them. What i’m talking about is the story that dwarfs those two, namely “Spider-Man Tackles The Human Torch” (and we ain’t talking about football). As I mentioned before, this was a common sales tactic, everyone loves a dust-up between two heroes, and Spidey and Torch make excellent candidates. At this point in time, Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four were the DEFINITIVE Marvel titles, meaning that combining the two franchises was a sure fire hit. As such, crossovers abounded, but eventually The Human Torch became Spidey’s particular rival given their teenage-ness and cocky attitudes. What made their rivalry even better was that whereas Spidey was so disliked that he was often considered a criminal, Torch was beloved by everyone. So beloved is he that he has a huge birthday party with loads of ladies and stuff, which leads us to our story.

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One of the first things I love about this comic is that there is NO LEAD UP WHATSOEVER. To be fair, the two had a rivalry for awhile, but it was only when they ran into each other. In this issue, Spidey actively harasses him by showing up and fucking up his birthday like it was his job. And maybe bone his girlfriend. Peter’s portrayal here is vastly different than most iterations, which often make him a paragon of morals. While Spidey’s no Punisher, here he shows what made him one of comics’ first anti-heroes. Anyone who’s read Amazing Fantasy #15  knows that Peter has a burning desire for respect.

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His peers mock him and women avert their eyes in his presence, which manages to carry over into his superhero career as well. As such, he’s sometimes portrayed as starved for recognition. Here we see that he’s so envious that he’d do something as petty as ruining a birthday party just because he can’t have one.

The Amazing Spider-Man #21 (1965)

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The Torch isn’t just more popular than Spidey, he’s also the establishment hero that he could never be. The Fantastic Four, as Marvel’s “first family”, defined being a superhero in the marvel universe, so Torch was by extension a major hero. He had all of the benefits Golden Age superheroes were supposed to have; money, women, and public admiration. Ironically, The Torch’s notable lack of a traditional secret identity also makes him more of a superhero to the people, since the public harbors no distrust against him in the same way as Spidey, who’s masked appearance is consistently said to be “creepy” in universe.

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I’m pretty sure Torch gave that girl cancer

Upon seeing  Torch’s fiery display, Spidey calls the kid a “phony” and views his “heroics” as more pompous than purposeful. Given that his powers involve wreathing himself in flame, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. This of course comes off as a bit hypocritical coming from SPIDERMAN of all people, who responds by making an entire bat out of web and throwing it at the partygoers. Having got the man’s attention, he decides to swag in assholishly and talk some good shit. Unsurprisingly, no one reacts with “HOLY SHIT IT’S SPIDERMAN!!!”, and instead act like he’s the paste eating kid in grade school. Mind you, this is still very recent into The Amazing Spider-Man‘s run, so everyone instinctively reacts with hatred towards the poor lad. This went back and forth throughout the series, since seemingly everyone on in Peter’s high school seemed to like Spidey just fine. Since the kids in this particular comic are Torch’s friends, one can assume they are as much “establishment” as he is, so they wouldn’t share other teens’ sentiments. This dynamic makes Pete more sympathetic in the story, since he does deserve some respect for his heroism, even if he did just pull a prank.

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Spidey takes their rejection in stride, causing Torch to create some lame-ass comebacks, including calling Spidey a “rusty crutch”. I often wonder if people in the 60’s really spoke this way or was Stan Lee just fucking around. Spidey isn’t amused by this either, and continues to mock the lad. Once again, we see a nice distinction between the two: Torch is a “square” who uses crappy jokes as opposed to the hip Spidey, who knows how to smack talk with the best. Granted, much of this is due to the fact that this is a Spider-Man story and not a Fantastic Four one, but generally Torch isn’t that funny anyway. Despite the fact that Torch has more social approval, he’s not nearly as entertaining as the irreverent Spidey, who we as the audience like more in this match up. Torch gets so angry at Spidey that they get into an actual fight outside of the building.

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Spidey almost gives up the fight, until Mr. Fantastic, rather innocently, offers a hand to help, which Spidey takes offense to and attacks him as well. Obviously the rest of the Four intervene as well. This isn’t the first time a fight has broken out among these characters; the first issue of his Spidey’s series has him fighting the Four for the first time.

For some reason, in both issues he takes offense to Reed and Sue’s offers of help, as if the very idea that he needs it is insulting. This streak of independence  is probably why Spider-Man was never integrated that much into the Avengers franchise; so much of his character is defined by him struggling alone, which joining a super-group would subvert.

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His rampage against the Four is stopped rather unexpectedly by the Invisible Woman, who flirts heavily with him because she is a woman and that’s what Stan Lee thinks women do. He reciprocates by giving her a web-heart and making fun of the team once again. Our hero! This issue is similar to a much more recent issue of Deadpool, where the titular character picked a fight with Wolverine for the hell of it.

Deadpool #94

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Obviously, while I wouldn’t compare Wolverine THAT MUCH to the Human Torch, one thing they do have in common in their respective issues is that they are Marvel mainstays being accosted by cocky upstarts. Wolverine is a hero known worldwide, respected by pretty much any hero worth a damn. Deadpool is an insane idiot who’s made fun of in this issue by fucking SHADOWCAT, a barely relevant X-Man. Both of these issues illustrate how these characters fit into the larger Marvel universe and what makes them anti-heroes.

Whereas the term “anti-hero” has become synonymous with excessive guns and gruffness (i.e. Cable), anti-heroes in the classical literary sense are those who are impotent and ineffectual. Spidey and Deadpool are the guys who are at the low end of the totem pole; the George Costanzas of superheroes. Just as George Costanza is the man nobody wants to admit they are, Spidey is the hero no one would like to think they would be. Sure, he still performs all the duties expected of him as a cape, but he still has the same problems you and I have. On top of that, he doesn’t always deal with them in the most mature manner. For example, whereas most heroes are dead-set on their lifestyle, Spidey contemplates quitting anytime a personal complication arises. As seen in his battle with the Torch, his seemingly carefree demeanor belies his tempestuous mind, which could be prone to rash decisions. In one of the series’ most famous issues, he quits being Spider-Man all together due to a verbal berating by J. Jonah Jameson on how he should get his life together.

The Amazing Spider-Man #50 (1967)

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Whereas for most people, “getting your life together” could mean starting a 401k, for Spidey this means…

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Unsurprisingly, quitting has been a recurring event in the franchise, even extending to the film Spider-Man 2 , where he quits due to losing Mary Jane to another man. Speaking of women (and this may come as a surprise for modern fans), Peter had SEVERAL girlfriends during his series, including a co-worker at the Daily Bugle (Betty Brant), a high school cheerleader (Liz Allan), an Ivy League former cheerleader(Gwen Stacy), a hot cat-burglar (Black Cat),another Ivy Leaguer (Debra Whitman) and his one-time roommate (Carlie Cooper). He fucked up all of these relationships, just because he’s Spider-Man. Compare this to Superman, the Flashes, and pretty much any other hero who manages to maintain a relationship no matter what. Peter, not so much.

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He’s got haters AND his bitches don’t love him

What’s so great about “Spider-Man Tackles The Human Torch” is that it manages to establish just what isn’t heroic about Peter quite succinctly. The people don’t support him, he doesn’t get the girl, other heroes think of him as at best inconsequential and at worst, a pest. And what’s also great is that he acknowledges it. Acknowledgement can sometimes mean a snappy comeback to his detractors, and sometimes it can mean unwarranted aggression (as we see when he attacks Mr. Fantastic). Attributes like this is what made Spider-Man so resonant in the 60’s.

In 1965 Esquire had a college student poll that revealed that student radicals ranked Spider-Man and the Hulk alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Che Guevara as their favorite revolutionary icons. What made such Spidey such a counter-culture hero was because his readership had the same frustrations he had. He was akin to a James Dean character, trying to fight against the ever-present enemy of society. He neither is accepted by others or accepts others himself, leading him to conflict even with those who don’t wish him harm. Teens had been dealing with sexual frustration and resentment towards authority for years, but this was one of the first superhero franchises that acknowledged it. Spidey’s “tackling” of the Human Torch (and later on the Fantastic Four)represented a confrontation with the “establishment”. Superheroes were meant to be wish fulfillment figures, but that also meant they were often aloof and unrelatable. Despite being young himself, the Human Torch and his allies are very much the detached authority figures that look down upon someone like Spidey. While the Four aren’t “villains” per se, they are the type of heroes “new age” characters like Spider-Man had to differentiate themselves from in order to connect with the sentiments of the audience. As such, conflicts like this helped to illustrate just why Spider-Man has continued to have an impact on several generations of youth.

For a more in-depth look at Spidey’s origin story:

Throwback Recap: Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

For more posts on Marvel heroes:

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

The Lois Lane Effect

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Fast And The Furious 6 Review

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DO YOU LOVE FAST CARS!?!?! DO YOU LOVE CRAZY ASS STREET RACING!?!?! DO YOU LOVE HARDCORE GANGBANGERS AND DRIFTING AND STICK SHIFTS!?!!?!? Well then this film isn’t for you. Granted, this pitch could be presumed to have been the hook for the first film in the franchise, which featured Paul Walker infiltrating a crew of street racers who moonlight as thieves. Given the success of the film, a sequel was inevitable. And by “a” sequel, I mean infinite sequels. Just how many films can you make about illegal street racers? Not many, but you could manage it if they parlayed their driving skills into the most convenient criminal career of all time. Knowing how to use NOS has allowed them to take down drug dealers and complete a million dollar heist. Sequel escalation being what it is, by the time we arrive at Fast 6 , the only thing left for the protagonists to do is become the Mission: Impossible team. No seriously, the plot of the film is DDS Agent Hobbs (The Rock, who’s incorrectly billed as the fictional “Dwayne Johnson”) offers all of the protagonists full pardons if they can take down an international mercenary and his gang,who were responsible for the theft of a BILLION dollar macguffin. Because lord knows that nobody in the American government could handle a whip like Tyrese.

The plot device of recruiting blue collar guys to do high profile missions is oddly reminiscent of Armageddonwhere NASA needs to take out an asteroid “the size of Texas” with the aid of miners, since apparently astronauts are pussies who could never grasp the specifics of making holes in things.  I can see the appeal of these plots: doesn’t every Joe Sixpack want to think he could save the world if given the chance? In Fast 6Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), vaguely-ethnic uneducated gang banger that he is, can beat up martial artists, survive leaping out of cars, and outsmart criminal masterminds. Talk about starting from the bottom.

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As expected, there’s not much to comment on character-wise. As a neophyte to the franchise, I can’t determine how consistent the characters’ portrayals are compared to previous films, but I can call em how I see em:

Vin Diesel is gruff, basically Riddick with a hemi.

Paul Walker is surprisingly demoted to extra, having a pointless subplot and barely any action scenes. He’s the Eddie Winslow of Fast 6; a former main character who becomes nothing more than some dude for Vin Diesel’s Steve Urkel to talk to. I’m surprised they didn’t pull an Iron Man and just replace him with a cheaper actor (yea, I just dissed Don Cheadle,what of it?).

Tyrese Gibson channels his inner Bojangles and becomes the (insert racial epithet) that everyone laughs at. This makes sense given that in 2 Fast 2 Furious, he was the minority replacement for Vin Diesel. Having both of them in the same film forces the character to differentiate himself, if not necessarily in the most PC way.

Ludacris (incorrectly billed as “Chris Bridges”), having had the role of token black guy stolen from him by Tyrese, is officially the tech guy, being inexplicably able to jam cell phones and power up a grappling hook with NOS. Whatever.

The Asian guy from Tokyo Drift is in the film too and i don’t care. Seriously though, he doesn’t do a damn thing, he doesn’t even know martial arts, making his existence incomprehensible to me.

There’s also a chick named Giselle I think and she dates Han I think and I still don’t care.

Michelle Rodriguez as Letty continues to be the least hottest Latina in Hollywood, narrowly beating out the woman who played George Lopez’s mom. And no, she’s not a good enough actress to avoid being judged for her looks so be quiet feminists.

Gina Carano manages to make up for Rodriguez’s lack of hotness as a busty DDS Agent working with Hobbs.

And speaking of Hobbs, THE ROCK IS IN THIS FILM! I never saw Fast Five, so the idea of the Rock being in the series still makes me mildly excited. He spends the entire film being commented upon for being as big as a house, which is pretty understandable since he’s as big as a house. I don’t think he can even put his arms down anymore.

The bad guy in this film is played by Luke Evans who…is a bad guy. Honestly, having watched Oblivion and Iron Manrecently, i’m kind of burnt out on generic villains and his character, Owen Shaw, is not even worth commenting upon. I really think that a casting agent heard his British accent and said “that’s all I needed”. And that’s the whole gang.

The most obvious reaction most people will have to this film is, “How the fuck did we get here?”, and i can say that I know that feel. I’ll be honest, the only film in the series i saw before this was 2 Fast 2 Furious (speaking of which, i’m disappointed in the sixth installments lazy name; I guess a sixth sequel doesn’t lend itself to title puns).  As such, I don’t care about the progression of the franchise personally from its humble beginnings to its current state. As a movie goer though, i have to say that this film is over the top by any standards. The guys at Spill.com aptly deemed it “The Avengers with cars” due to the sheer balls out action that occurs. One of the coolest scenes in the film involves the bad guy fleeing his base with a souped up F1 racer with a scoop in the front to send opposing cars flying.

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At one point, the Rock actually jumps out of a moving car onto his car in order to stop the guy. Shit like this will probably be the biggest point of contention for most moviegoers, since the action is almost jarringly ridiculous. Earlier in the film, The Rock destroys an interrogation room beating some guy up, but no one even calls him out on it. Vin Diesel manages to launch himself out of a crashing car in order to rescue someone in midair, his fall broken by a car windshield. Anything resembling real life has completely left the franchise.

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Yes, that is a tank

This is exacerbated by heavy use of CG during the film’s climax, which arguably would be too much by MICHAEL BAY standards. The tonal progression of the series is similar to Pirates of the Carribean which has had similar criticisms of  “jumping the shark”. The first film focused on choreographed swordplay and some mild mystical elements. By the last film, Jack Sparrow’s fighting a squid man on the mast of a ghost ship caught in a whirlpool caused by a Rastafarian sea goddess while holding said squid man’s still-beating heart. I’m surprised Sebastian the Crab doesn’t appear on the ship and sing a rousing sea-ditty.

Like PiratesFast 6 elicits the same reaction from me: fair enough. At the risk of sounding common, I actually liked that the Pirates series kept upping the ante; that’s honestly the only thing left to do in sequels. The film’s weren’t based on a series of novels, they originated from a children’s ride at Disney World. Calm the fuck down, critics. There was no story beyond “Jack Sparrow fights ghost pirates”. Likewise, The Fast and The Furious was based on a magazine article on illegal street racing. The fact that screenwriters managed to stretch that out as long as they had is remarkable in the first place. Film sequels often fall into a narrative form of the scientific ‘Anthropic Principle’, specifically that “For any given story, there exists basic elements that are required for the story itself to happen, or there would be no story. In other words, there is no “resolution” without “conflict“. (definition courtesy of tv tropes). Most filmmakers don’t intend for sequels to be made, so rarely do films not resolve their conflicts. Therefore the very existence of a sequel is predicated on willing suspension of disbelief. How could Letty in Fast 6 become an amnesiac due to a point blank explosion yet still retain all of her driving skills? Because Michelle Rodriguez needed the bail money, that’s fucking why!

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And makeup

Final Verdict

The world demands sequels to be made, and outrageous plots are often the only things that can make them happen. The Fast and the Furious series will only continue to become more and more ridiculous, and god bless it as far as i’m concerned. While i don’t particularly care for the series, I respect its tenacity. With this in mind, go see Fast 6  if you want to sea a triumphantly ridiculous action film. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, sit at home and knit (because you’re a woman).

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Iron Man: Real American Hero

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While DC comics was mired in conservative ideologies, Marvel had the benefit of being born in the socially progressive 60’s, giving them an opportunity to capitalize on the counter-culture with characters like Spider-Man and The Hulk. Editor-In-Chief Stan Lee, a pretty liberal dude himself, oversaw the creation of all these characters. Given his leanings, it’s pretty odd that he’s also responsible for one of the most “ establishment ” heroes ever made: Tony Stark aka “ Iron Man ”. He himself claims that he wanted to “ take the kind of character that nobody would like…and shove him down their throats and make them like him ”. Stan must be dominant as hell in the bedroom. Iron Man was a billionaire, an industrialist, a capitalist, and a jingoist. The only thing that could have made him more anti-counter-culture was having the suit be piloted by Richard Nixon.

Futurama “A Head In The Polls” 1999

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This is how that would probably look

Stan knew what would grind the gears of Marvel’s fan-base and used it as an exercise in characterization. In doing so, he created a character that reflected ( and continues to reflect ) several American ideologies.

Tales of Suspense Issue 39 1963

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Iron Man first appeared in the sci-fi anthology series Tales of Suspense, issue 39 in March 1963. Just like Captain America, Tony Stark’s impetus for heroism begins during wartime; the Vietnam War, to be specific. As opposed to the film’s Tony Stark, who just sort of dicks around in a war zone and happens to get caught, the 60’s Tony Stark was intentionally behind enemy lines. I guess his balls are iron too.

Stark has no connection to the other great American inventor Daddy Yankee

Stark has no connection to the other great American inventor Daddy Yankee

He of course gets injured in an explosion and is captured by FU MANCHU!

The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)

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Oops, I mean “Wong-Chu” ( I get confused in my old age ). Wong Chu is definitely not an Asian stereotype.

Not at all

Not at all

Since this was the 60’s, instead of having something as ridiculous as a perpetual fusion generator, Ho Yinsen saves Tony’s life with a transistor-powered iron vest. In case you’re wondering, transistors are semiconductors that amplify and switch electronic signals and power. They are mostly associated with radios and calculators, so Iron Man originally had the horsepower of a TI-84. He was one step away from being the Invincible Calculator.

He'd get no bitches

He’d get no bitches

Unless you’ve been in a cave ( with a box of scraps ), you probably know the rest of this story: he’s told to build a weapon, he instead builds powered armor, Yinsen dies, Stark beats everyone up, escapes and becomes a superhero.

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Unlike most other incarnations, Stan Lee puts lots of emphasis on Stark’s physical condition, which is supposed to “ humanize ” him by having him always be near death and bummed about it. In addition, he actually had a secret identity; Iron Man was said to be a bodyguard of Stark’s who happens to do some heroing on the side. Given that he’s always portrayed as regularly boning women, I never understood how no one ever noticed that he had big-ass chest plate but whatever. Due to how ludicrous both plot elements are, they were removed by later authors, with Tony having long repaired his heart condition and revealed to the populace his identity.

Without his humanizing weaknesses, Tony Stark ceased to be much of a person and more of an archetype. Mind you, this isn’t bad thing. Most popular comic franchises continue to exist because of how broad their protagonists are. Broad characters allow for more flexible storytelling, since a writer doesn’t have to worry about the audience objecting to “Out of Character” moments. Superman isn’t a real person, which is why an idea as ludicrous as “ What if Superman was a soviet? ” can still produce an amazing series like Red Son ( 2003 ), since the audience associates Superman more closely with patriotic ideals than an individual personality.

Likewise, Stark became the embodiment of American capitalism.  Anything he wanted he could accomplish with enough determination, including having sex with models, making billions, and being a super hero. He is Lex Luthor gone terrifically right; the ultimate man of the mind. His powers didn’t come from a fortuitous accident, but industry. Sure, he has an impetus similar to other heroes ( the death of Yinsen, to an extent ), but it’s how he thinks his way out of his predicament that forges him into Iron Man. In the same way that the country romanticizes the self-made man, he’s the self-made super-man.

Not all of Stark’s American-ness is unambiguously heroic; he’s often used to reflect more unsavory aspects of the American military machine. In the original Stan Lee written stories, a common plot for an Iron Man tale was Stark developing some kind of super-weapon for the war effort and some guys plotting to take it away. And of course, by guys I mean god-awful 50’s era stereotypes of America’s participants in the Cold War. From the origin story, we of course have Wong Chu and his crew, a group of Vietcong so fucking dumb that they speak broken English TO EACH OTHER! A later issue featured the Russian known as “ The Red Barbarian ”, a boorish, ugly sod who gets drunk and throws hams at people. And of course, the worst of them all has to be The Mandarin.

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Because Wong-Fu was just not offensive enough

Because Wong-Fu was just not offensive enough

Good fucking God. I was honestly shocked that Marvel Studios decided to work the Mandarin into the Iron Man film series because, frankly, he’s an Chinese film ban waiting to happen. The caption of his first appearance literally says “ the most feared Oriental of all time ”. Who is the Mandarin, you ask? In his original appearance, he’s a Chinese dude with ten rings ( each with a different weapon ) who’s loosely affiliated with Red China and, of course, knows karate. Good enough karate to punch through POWERED ARMOR. It’s no surprise that the character is rarely used in any medium, despite his intended importance. In their first encounter, Iron Man barely survives, marking him as the toughest villain of the original series run. Stan Lee intended for the Mandarin to be Stark’s definitive arch-nemesis. To once again quote Bruce Willis; “ Any story where you have good guys versus bad guys can only be as smart as the intelligence of your baddest guy ”. Just like Lex Luthor helps define Superman, the Mandarin (despite his shittiness) and Iron Man’s other antagonists was meant to help define Tony Stark. Iron Man is a champion of America’s technological and military might, so his antagonists are those with comparable resources who use them irresponsibly. By irresponsibly, I mean in an “ anti-American ” manner. A conflict like this was especially relevant during the Cold War, where the threat of nuclear attack from “ The Reds ” was always thought to be looming. For the first time in a while, America was on an equal playing ground with several enemies who could mete out the same swift violence this country often reveled in.

Of course, given the lack of sophistication applied to these early comics, Stark’s culpability in the propagation of this conflict is all but ignored. One issue features him pitching a recently created disintegrator ray to the military brass. His proposed uses are an anti-tank weapon, a breach weapon, and a city destroyer.

Tales of Suspense 1963

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Tony Stark actually proposed, albeit hypothetically, using a WMD again a city of civilians. Once again, the only thing that makes the creation of such a weapon a problem is that the ham-throwing Red Barbarian tries to steal it.

The usage of Tony’s technology by un-American groups has been touched upon multiple times, most recently in the Iron Man film series. In the first film, Tony inadvertently has a hand in his own capture when one of his own “ Jericho ” missiles is used against his convoy, leading to the shrapnel in his heart. As M. Night Shyamalan would say: “What a twist!”. This is one of the reasons I think the Iron Man film series is by far one of the best comic book adaptations ever; it acknowledges an aspect of the character that might make him appear unsympathetic to the audience and finds a way to explore it without betraying the character himself. Pre-Afghanistan Tony is pretty much the Tony Stark of the 60’s, unconcerned with the dangers of his technology. Because of this, he suffers an Outer Limits –style comeuppance as his indifference leads to his own injury. In reality, this is something that is a consequence the increase of military technology. Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in his 1961 farewell speech about the threat of the “military-industrial complex”: a concept referring to the monetary relations between armed forces and the military industrial base that supports them. Specifically, he warns there will most likely be a “ potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power ”. As long as there are weapons, people will be there to sell them, often for their own interests. Terrorist groups like the IRA or Al Quaeda, both antagonists to different parts of the West, obtained much of their weaponry from the very regions they act against. Western weapon manufacturers have funded their countries’ own enemies. Tony getting attacked in Afghanistan is beginning to seem more than appropriate.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Civil War #1 (2006)

photo posted on post-gazette.com

The more unsavory aspects of Tony have been used to make him an excellent foil for THE American Avenger, Captain America. As opposed to Tony’s ambiguous nature, Cap’s heroism is unquestionable. While he also originated in wartime, Cap had the fortune of being conceived during a conflict considered black and white (some would say ‘stark’ but that’s a terrible pun). World War 2 turned the West into the heroes of the world, with Captain America as all of the country’s heroism given form. In Captain America: The First Avenger ( 2011 ), Steve Rogers isn’t interested in the politics or glory of war, he just wants to help people. He even turns down the presidency in a John Byrne written story because he felt he wouldn’t be best suited for the realities of the the political world. In Daredevil : Born Again (1986), a corrupt general asks Steve to play ball with a cover-up, citing his loyalty to the government. His response: “I’m loyal to nothing, general, except the dream“.

In contrast, Tony originates from both the Vietnam War and the Cold War, one of the most divisive periods in American history. The War against the Eastern Powers is often thought of as a conflict that arose entirely from politics. There isn’t a Hogan’s Heroes or a Blackhawks for Vietnam, instead we got depressing shit like M.A.S.H. and First Blood. The American people knew what terrible acts were committed during the war due to regular media coverage. There’s no easy moral to look back upon, no fable to obscure the ugly reality of war. Tony Stark isn’t the romantic infantryman who stormed Normandy, he’s the detached administrator who drew a bulls-eye on Hiroshima. Stark is the crushing force of the military incarnate; his violence concealed by the colors of a superhero. Due to his origins, Tony has always been more politically aligned than many other heroes. In his original series he’s clearly shown to be willing to act under the orders of the government against international challenges.

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This becomes a huge plot point in the Marvel crossover event Civil Warwhere Tony Stark ends up supporting the Superhuman Registration Act, which would force anyone with powers or a mask to register with the government  (including revealing their identity) and become commissioned soldiers. With the backing of S.H.I.E.L.D. it looked like the plan would be a go if it weren’t for the resistance of Captain America. Cap feels that forcing heroes and citizens to register with the government  would be a violation of civil liberties. This of course kicks off a schism in the Marvel Universe, with both heroes being the representatives of the two sides.

Unlike similar crossovers, Civil War attempts to be more morally gray. Many reviewers agree that, while an interesting series, it fails to do that spectacularly. Tony Stark and his allies are portrayed as having a laughably high advantage over Cap’s rebels,which makes sense since the Registration Act is a government mandate, meaning they are legally in the right to kick their shit in any way that seems fit. And they take that to heart, at one point Stark even starts recruiting SUPERVILLAINS to force heroes to register ( note that in the above picture, Tony’s allies include Daredevil archenemy Bullseye and Venom). Once again, Tony ends up being an unsavory American archetype, in this case The Man. Rather than stand up for the ” freedoms ” that heroes are entitled to ( which is stupid but for the sake of the story i’ll go along with ), he sides with the government.

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Tony’s militancy is logically left out of the film franchise; considering that we’ve been in the midst of an unpopular war makes a character so connected to the military a hard sell. Later iterations have followed suit by having Tony be a more blithe spirit, accomplished by emphasizing his love of drink and sexing.

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Or in this case, drinking while watching himself having sex

In Ultimates (seen above), every single panel has him casually swigging liquor, while in Avengers VS X-Menhe references having sex on SATURN. I guess he could be considered falling into the American archetype of ” frat boy ” now. More heroically, he’s also portrayed as wanting to turn his technology towards more civil means. In the films, this meant using his arc reactor to provide clean energy, a very popular modern American cause. In the comics, this meant…flying cars.

Iron Man:The Iron Age #2 1998

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So i guess now he can scratch off FLYING while intoxicated on his bucket list

Most authors’ modern interpretation of Stark distills the best elements of the character. Iron Man represents the wonders of technological progress. In real life, many scientists’ innovations have had varied impacts. One of the most famous is Albert Einstein, who is responsible for an entire branch of physics and also creating the H-Bomb. Einstein himself regretted being part of the Manhattan Project, once musing that ” The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking… the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker “. Technology will always be a Pandora’s Box, opening up the world to chaotic possibilities. Despite Einstein’s wishes, science will never have the orderly mechanics of a stopwatch. Progress causes problems ( particularly in terms of warfare ) but it also leads to opportunity. For Tony Stark that meant saving his own life, and for the Marvel Universe that meant gaining a hero. He might not be a paragon, but he’s a character that has been allowed to develop towards becoming the hero the country needs. Like many superheroes, he’s trying to create order from chaos, whether that means being a hero, attempting to register heroes, or even culling the advance of war. Just as America has changed in the later half of the century, our icons must change to suit a ( hopefully ) maturing country.

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Or at least do cool shit like this

For more posts on superheroes:

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

The Best Spider-Man Issue Ever / Why Spider-Man Is A Classic Anti-Hero

Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Superman As Defined By Lex Luthor

The Lois Lane Effect

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

From Comic To TV: Green Arrow as Adapted in “Arrow”

Recommended Reading:

Iron Man: America’s Cold War Champion ( a much more scholarly version of my blog post 

Leon Thomas’ take on how the Cinematic Universe’s Tony Stark fits into a Post-9/11 America

(In case anyone is wondering, the Calculator is an honest-to-God Batman villain. Look for yourself http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Noah_Kuttler_(New_Earth)  The picture is from Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe)

Iron Man 3 Review

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With all due respect, Iron Man is a pretty hard character to adapt to screen. He doesn’t have a noteworthy rogues gallery and it’s difficult to create believable threats for him. Without a secret identity, there’s no worry of revealing who he is, which tends to be a heavy amount of most superhero drama. He’s also practically a one man army with unlimited arms and resources to. This makes it all the more impressive how well the Iron Man film series has turned out. I honestly believe that the series is the best comic book adaptation to date, managing to translate the franchise, which has a lot of issues, to modern film. The third film shares a good amount of the quality of previous installments, albeit with a few missteps as well.

In the film,Tony suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to the events of The Avengers ( 2012 ) His condition causes him insomnia and impaired judgement. By impaired judgement, i mean pissing off an international terrorist named the Mandarin, who declares war on Tony. Backing Mandarin is a new rival of Tony’s, a wealthy bio-engineer dabbling in human experimentation. The cast includes Ben Kingsley ( yes, Ghandhi ) as the Mandarin and Guy Pearce ( Prometheus, The King’s Speech ) as Aldrich Killian. The plot draws from several comic arcs, including Warren Ellis’ Extremis arc (the use of genetically modified super soldiers) and the Armor Wars ( Tony’s suit variations ) and the Joe Quesada’s ‘ Sentient Armor ‘ arc, which thank god didn’t factor too much into the plot since it features an armor who gets a mind of its own, falls in love with Tony,vthen becomes violent towards him.

You could call him an abusive SUITor. Get it?

You could call him an abusive SUITor. Get it?

The film acts as a reconstruction of Tony Stark as a character. Before the end of The Avengers, he was basically the world’s greatest man;not only having the wealth and brilliance of his own series, but also the love of his life and the admiration of the planet. This is a common issue in sequels; satisfying conclusions need to include character development of some kind. Therefore, the protagonist of a film should have already settled whatever problems he or she suffered from. One of the MANY reasons i found The Hangover Part 2 ( 2011 ) so stupid is that in order for the events of the film to take place, everyone would have to trust Alan enough to take him along ( despite his mistakes from the previous film ) and Alan would have to be the same reckless idiot he started as. Sure, one could say people don’t necessarily learn from every mistake, but growth of some kind is often a necessity for compelling stories. Since Iron Man ( 2008 ) is a decently written film franchise Tony Stark has loads of development, so much so that when Pepper asks what’s wrong with him in the beginning of the film, he just tells her. No lies,no drinking, he just acknowledges his PTSD. Big improvement over the guy who drunkenly beat up his best friend in the previous film in order to ‘cope’. The remaining challenge for Tony is reconciling the implications of a larger Marvel Universe. Both film and comic Tony Stark are men at the height of human potential, but they are still only human. How does someone like Tony stark cope with beings who’s abilities dwarf him soundly? He gets back to basics, which for him means tinkering and snark.

The film begins with him creating a new suit that can be summoned piece by piece onto his body via ” body computer ” ( which of course becomes a recurring Chekhov’s gun throughout the film ) which is just cool as hell. This is one of the first things i like about the film and the franchise as a whole: brand new shit every film. Yes, i know some dude at Mattel would probably make the filmmakers include new toys anyway, but for once it works perfectly for a franchise like this. Iron Man is always making new suits to do all kinds of shit, he even makes one to fight THOR of all people ( spoiler: it doesn’t work ).

Tony Stark, despite a few issues, is very much an escapist character, like James Bond. Iron Man is what every child with an erector set wishes he was making. Unfortunately, the coolness of being Iron Man and Tony’s general flippancy undercuts the ” PTSD ” he’s supposedly going through. In the film, Tony literally sees a woman get shot and a friend’s bruised body, yet still seems perfectly able to crack wise. I wouldn’t call this a huge fault of the film, however, this is Tony Stark, not Bruce Wayne we’re talking about. The character’s personality allows for his banter to be played as a coping mechanism.

In terms of pacing, nothing in the film is dragged on. There’s not too much exposition going on in the film’s beginning, which is appropriate given that this is the third film in a series. What might be a point of contention for many people is part of the reason why there’s no need to exposit: both antagonists are quite familiar.

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Aldrich Killian, Tony’s rival industrialist, is a nerd who gets rich and sexy. He’s a character originating from the Iron Man Extremis arc. As the guys at spill.com pointed out, he’s basically The Riddler from Batman Forever ( 1995 ); an awkward scientist who is rejected by the wealthy protagonist and later uses his success to beat him at his own game. Some will probably say that another evil industrialist is getting redundant, and i would agree. Mind you, this isn’t a criticism of the film, it’s more of an acknowledgment about the nature of the franchise. Who the fuck is going to fight a billionaire with powered armor unless they had the same amount of resources? Due to the level of power Tony wields, he can only really be opposed by someone like him. Guy Pearce puts in an okay performance: it’s just enough for the film, but doesn’t really distinguish itself from similar characters. I could sum up his performance as a more reserved Tony Stark. Nothing more than that. As such, he’s not so much menacing, but then it’s kind of hard to be a sexy billionaire scientist AND a personal threat, so it’s passable.

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Who isn’t like him is the film’s designated ethnic antagonist, The Mandarin. The Mandarin appeared not too long after the first issue of Iron Man’s series in 1963 and was intended to be his archnemesis, but due to the obvious racist overtones, was mostly overlooked. With he and Killian, we once again see the franchise’s habit of, without intending it i assume, having an American and a non-American antagonist. This is a carryover from the comic series, where the only threats Tony dealt with were either corrupt corporations or enemies of the state. In 1963, the boy reading an Iron Man comic would know that communist China is always fodder for villainy, and in 2013, the equivalent would be a (lets be honest) a bearded Middle Eastern dude makin’ movies. Yes the character’s racist, but without spoiling anything,the film manages to justify why so. Ben Kingsley basically plays a supervillainous version of Osama Bin Laden. I’m pretty sure a vocal coach told him that film supervillains have strange, unrealistic accents like Joker and Bane, so he sounds a lot like Richard Nixon. I find it kind of funny, to be honest, but it works in the context of the film. Since both characters are basically variations of previous ones, the film doesn’t need to build either of them. Even thought two villain comic films have become synonymous with shit, the combination of the two allows for it to avoid the pitfalls of the previous film in terms of action. In Iron Man 2 ( 2010 ), Ivan Vanko didn’t have nearly enough weapons or resources upon his first battle with Stark, so it barely manages to be compelling outside of the fact that he just jumps him. Justin Hammer wasn’t even a “supervillain”, just an envious industrial rival. It took till the end of the film before their combined threat managed to lead towards an exciting action scene. This film, on the other hand, manages to seamlessly integrate both villains into a viable threat from the moment Tony’s house is attacked. The two antagonists end up having a very logical connection that works brilliantly. This leads to the film having several exciting twists, even if some of the bigger ones might be somewhat predictable.

Final Verdict

Overall, despite some initial reservations, i believe Iron Man 3 is a sufficient end to the franchise. The film is entertaining and a great conclusion to the character development of Tony Stark. He manages to reassert his significance to the world, even outside of Iron Man, and makes a ( mostly ) logical decision about what to do with his life at the film’s climax. Hopefully the character will continue to entertain in the almost certain cameos he will have in other Marvel films.

For more thoughts on Iron Man:

Iron Man: Real American Hero

 

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

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Like many young comic fans, my favorite superhero used to be Spider-Man. And why not? He’s basically what Bumblebee was for Transformers; a kid character who was ‘radical’, flippant, and treated like shit by anyone over 30 years old. Just like your childhood! Go ahead and cry a little. Stan Lee intended for Spider-Man to be the ‘every-man/kid’ who would have more mundane challenges, like girls and money. And he more than succeeded in his efforts:from the very beginning of the series you “get” who Peter is. He accomplishes this initially by making his journey to heroism a multi-step process rather than an immediate change.

Anyone who’s even mildly familiar with the character of Spider-Man is probably pretty well versed with the basic origin story, with a few minor details being subject to change ( webbing,the nature of the spider, etc ), so my recapping of Spidey’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 will only focus on a few important bits.

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Unlike many other superheroes, the origin story puts emphasis on what shapes the character before he got powers rather than after. The first panel (above) establishes his complete lack of support from his peers. At one point he asks out a fellow student, who rebuffs him in favor of Flash Thompson, who’s conveniently standing right next to him. Afterwards he walks away sobbing, vowing to “show them one day”. As internet reviewer Linkara pointed out, he had all the makings of a school shooter. Despite the lack of subtlety, this kind of justifies why Parker, once receiving “great power”, doesn’t rush to help out any of the god awful assholes who occupy his Queens neighborhood.

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To make up for his bullying, Stan assures us that his Aunt May and Uncle Ben treat him really well (which isn’t at all tempting fate…).

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After getting powers and engaging in wrestling, he becomes a masked performer

This is  where the comic’s portrayal of his reaction to getting powers differs from most adaptations. In both film series, Peter is portrayed as immediately neglecting his Aunt and Uncle once he gets empowered, which serve as precursors to his inadvertent role in Uncle Ben’s death. It also makes Peter a little more guilt-ridden because his Uncle died while they were on somewhat bad terms. This makes perfect sense for a film, which doesn’t have the time for drawn out character development. A comic series does, however, so instead of Peter brushing off his Aunt and Uncle, he actually vows to help them out since they were the only ones that have been nice to him.

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Rather than turning into a selfish jerk, Peter stays the same. As established earlier, Peter Parker always wanted to show up his classmates, and getting his powers allowed him to act that out and get paid for it. In addition, he actually vows to help his family, with his powers. And yet, he’s still not a ‘true’ hero. In the rationale of the superhero genre, it isn’t enough that Pete doesn’t decide to become a criminal or even that he wants to help his family. He has to be the WORLD’S hero. Superheroes use their abilities for the sake of mankind and not just their friends and family. When he neglects to help his fellow man, it bites him in the ass when his Uncle Ben is killed. The problems of the world, even trivial ones, will eventually affect him in a local sphere. This becomes a recurring theme in Peter’s hilariously sad life.

Now you would think that after all of that tragedy Peter would see the light of heroism and become the hero he was meant to be. You would be wrong. The follow up story has Peter lamenting his Uncle’s death…then promptly going back to being an entertainer. When you think about it, this is a perfectly reasonable reaction. Ok sure, Uncle Ben is dead, but that doesn’t really warrant being a superhero in itself. First off, his Uncle Ben dying from the same mugger that he let go is an event so contrived that no sane person would really take much of a “lesson” from it.

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THE MORE YOU KNOW==X

Secondly, he still has much more pressing matters to worry about, particularly losing a SUBSTANTIAL amount of income due to his surrogate father dying. He actually considers becoming a thief in order to pay for bills, but quickly dismisses it. He doesn’t dismiss it for moral reasons, he just couldn’t stand hurting his Aunt May by getting arrested. We see here that Peter is still relatively self-centered compared to most superheroes at this point. He’s still thinking only locally. The ‘Call To Adventure’ has yet to be received by Peter, but he is forced to move closer to heroism by circumstance. What keeps Peter from resuming his career in show business is the arrival of probably the greatest non-powered antagonist in comics: J. Jonah Jameson.

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In true Jameson fashion, he begins his crusade against Spider-Man based on the perceived threat of children imitating his crime-fighting and acrobatics. Yes Jameson, god forbid children get interested in FUCKING GYMNASTICS. Jameson is basically the minister from Footloose. He manages to build up enough vitriol to get Spider-Man banned from performing. People really don’t like Peter Parker. But opportunity arises for young Peter: Jameson’s astronaut son is having a test of a space ship thing in Queens for some reason.

While Peter is in attendance, the shuttle thing malfunctions, causing Peter to intervene. Strangely, no one wants a masked teenager on a million dollar spacecraft, to which Spidey responds…

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…and then proceeds to save the astronaut.

His first emotion when getting out was elation. Mind you, it wasn’t because he just saved a man’s life, it was because he’s sure Jameson won’t write negative editorials about him anymore. Though he did save Jameson, it was more of a knee-jerk reaction, rather than proactive heroism. Hell, his statement afterwards makes it plausible that he was GLAD the thing malfunctioned since it meant he can look like a hero and continue his entertainment career. Once again, Peter is still thinking about his own problems. Of course, Jameson not only doesn’t take back his slander, he actually accuses him of SABOTAGING the module in the first place. That guy really is an asshole.

The success of Amazing Fantasy #15 led to Marvel deciding to give Spider-Man his own series, The Amazing Spider-ManGiven that the character is now supporting his own series, one would assume that in the next story, he will truly become a proper superhero and fight evil. And you would be wrong again! He fights Marvel’s greatest heroes at the time, The Fantastic Four!

Apparently spiders lived in his armpits

Apparently spiders lived in his armpits

Now granted, covers like this were pretty common back in the day, because nothing made a kid plunk down a dime faster than heroes fighting each other. Most of the time, some one was brainwashed or whatever, but this time, Spidey ACTUALLY picked a fight with the Fantastic Four. Thinking it was a great idea to just break into their house (as many of us do) he pries open a window and steps right in like Brotherman from Martin (sorry for that reference, white people).

They of course attempt to beat his ass, but he manages to evade and out fight them for just long enough before Mr. Fantastic actually questions why the hell he broke in. His answer? He wants to join the team, which they accept. Except Spidey didn’t realize that no one gets paid to be in their club. He promptly leaves. Our hero!

For a few issues this is the usual manner of conflict Spidey has, he tries to do something in his personal life and shit just kind of happens around him. He’s no hero, he’s just a victim of circumstance. As you see in the green section of the cover, Spidey has his first encounter with a super-villain, the Chameleon, who impersonates him and frames him for various crimes.

The Chameleon then calls the gullible Spidey for a job so that he can take the fall. Thus conflict. In the next issue, Peter begins a photography career, focusing on the crime beat, which isn’t weird at all for a high school student. Seeing the Daily Bugle reward for pictures of a jewelry thief known as the Vulture ( i’m sensing an animal theme here ), he dons his outfit and catches the bird in the act, only to be knocked out by him. He of course recovers, and desires more pictures. And revenge! Thus conflict. In the accompanying story, aliens appear. Thus conflict.

This guy knew it all along

This guy knew it all along

Now during this issue, Spidey makes a few steps in the right direction. After taking the first couple of pictures of Vulture, he realizes that he actually wants to be Spider-Man. And not just because he can get easy money doing it, he just finds it fun. Granted, he still doesn’t have much heroic motivation, he just likes the thrill of it.

This transition deconstructs the usual unambiguous altruism of super-heroics: as Captain Stacy points out in the The Amazing SpiderMan (2012), nothing about Spidey’s modus operandi is heroic. He goes around, beats up low end criminals, and is justifiably disliked by the people because of his carelessness. This is a guy who broke into someone’s home just to get a job and interfered in a robbery for some pictures. Stacy’s comments could serve as an indictment of ALL masked heroes, and the genre in general. Should the people, and us an audience, admire those who assert their power for their own glory? Shouldn’t a hero be more than that? Many authors as of late have posed that question. Over at DC, Superman: Grounded (2010-2011) featured the titular hero literally walking across America, committing acts of heroism such as fixing a man’s car and shutting down a drug lab. The goal of the series was to have Superman attempt to connect with the people he saves everyday in order to remind himself why he does what he does. While Spidey isn’t nearly as ‘above’ normal people as Superman, he needed a humbling in order to become akin to heroes like Superman.

In many ways, superheroes are like mythical heroes. As such, one can only become a true hero by accomplishing godly feats of skill and bravery. Often these challenges take on the form of dread monsters. Hercules had the the three-headed hell-hound Cerberus, Theseus had the horned hybrid Minotaur, and Spider-Man had…Doctor Octopus.

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Alright,alright; I know he isn’t exactly Doomsday, but in context, Doctor Octopus was a pretty big deal. He the first enemy to be as strong and as smart as Spider-Man. Up until this point, Spidey had fought regular criminals, a guy who was really good with masks, 5-foot tall aliens,and an octogenerian with wings. I guess we could count “fighting” the Fantastic Four but it’s pretty clear during the brawl that no one is really endeavoring to kill the kid, just stop him. The fact is Spidey still has not been vetted in true combat. He even reflects on this himself in the beginning of the issue, stating that he “wished he could have a true test of his skills”. And boy does he eat those words. The good Doctor, while working on a nuclear experiment, nukes himself, giving him control over the tentacles which give him his moniker. Now having a severe case of nuclear brain crazy, he decides to take over the hospital for some reason and shake it’s staff incessantly. The cad! Because no one else can take care of him ( since there sure aren’t any other heroes in New York ), Spidey decides to intervene, thinking it will be cakewalk. It isn’t.

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Despite his silly appearance, Ock overwhelms him with surprising speed and strength and he’s beaten into unconsciousness. Ock mocks Spidey’s feeble power and tosses him casually out the window. Having suffered his first loss has an extreme effect on him. What he thought would be a merry life of beating up muggers has turned into something that could result in death. In Campbellian narrative, Ock would probably be referred to as his “Threshold Guardian”: he is the first real obstacle to Spider-Man’s status as a superhero. TV Tropes defines the Threshold Guardian as one who “puts the hero in a position where he must make a decision that reflects a sincere commitment to the task at hand, by providing a threat or bar to progress that the hero must specifically choose to overcome”. Everything else leading up to this point has been circumstantial; Peter hasn’t made a true commitment to heroism. His initial choice is to fold rather than challenge Ock again. He decides to quit being Spider-Man ( a recurring event in the character’s history ), even going as far to tell Jameson that he can’t provide any more photos. He continues on his sob stroll until he hears a rousing speech from a very unlikely source: The Human Torch ( that guy he tried to beat up a few issues ago ). Having been contacted by the authorities to take down Doc Ock, who has now taken over the entire U.S. Atomic Research Center, he decides to visit Peter’s high school since he’s too sick to fight immediately anyway ( once again, why no one didn’t contact the SEVERAL other active heroes in New York is beyond me ).

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Despite the triteness of the Torch’s “rousing speech’, it still works well in the context of Peter’s journey so far. At this point in Marvel, Fantastic Four was by far the highest selling property and in-universe, they were Earth’s greatest heroes. Having a visit from Johnny Storm was like having a visit from JFK. As such, Peter takes whatever the Torch said as invaluable nuggets of wisdom. In addition, this brings Peter’s journey full circle back to the first issue; at first he rejected the call to heroism the Fantastic Four offered him, which meant he wasn’t ready for it. Having delved further into being a superhero, he now sees the path the Four represent and is ready to jump at the call despite knowing the dangers. Facing an even greater threat than before, Spidey heads to the Atomic Research Center to defeat Dr. Octopus. While the Doctor manages to put up an immense fight using atomic weapons and his arms, Spidey finally manages to put him down with one knockout blow (the first in a loooong series).

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Afterwards, Spidey thanks Johnny for his unintended help and swings away. From then on, Spider-Man’s heroism was no longer ambiguious. He still had the financial and social problems that plagued him before he got his powers, but he didn’t let them take priority over his self-appointed duty as a hero. Peter Parker became an idealized everyman, someone who had the same struggles you and I did, but always did what was right.

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Well, at least most of the time…

For more posts on Spidey and Marvel Comics:

Spidey Tackles The Torch: Spider-Man as an Anti-Hero

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

The Lois Lane Effect