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The Amazing Spider-Man – The Gauntlet: Mysterio – Mysterioso (Review)

This April, to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we are taking a look at some classic and modern comics featuring Spider-Man (and friends). Check back daily for the latest review.

And so The Gauntlet circles around to writer Dan Slott and artist Marcos Martín. It really is impressive the talent that Marvel was able to draw to The Amazing Spider-Man as part of their Brand New Day. The comic was publishing several times a month, requiring rotating writers and artists to keep everything moving, with a strong editorial hand to guide the comic. Whatever one might say about the motivations and consequences of Brand New Day, it affirmed the idea that The Amazing Spider-Man was one of Marvel’s premier titles, featuring some incredible creative talent.

The Gauntlet is focused on the idea of re-working and re-engineering various classic Spider-Man bad guys. Both Power to the People and Keemia’s Castle stressed the idea that Spider-Man’s bad guys are really tragic figures – that there is something to pity in figures like Max Dillon or Flint Marko. With Mysterioso, Dan Slott and Marcos Martin focus on Mysterio, perhaps the least sympathetic bad guy featured as part of The Gauntlet. (The only real competition comes from either the new Rhino or the Lizard, if you separate him from Curt Connors.)

"Mister Spider-Man, I've been expecting you..."

“Mister Spider-Man, I’ve been expecting you…”

Far from a tragic figure trapped by circumstance, Slott positions Mysterio as a arch-criminal-as-artisté – a character who not only revels in the crime that he causes, but also the psychological damage he inflicts. He is a super villain who considers the entire world to be his set, staging elaborate set-pieces for nothing beyond his own amusement. There’s no fractured psyche here, no familial love, no excuse. Mysterio is a character who simply enjoys what he does. It doesn’t add much depth to the character, even if it is great fun.

And yet, despite this, Slott manages to make Mysterioso something of an encapsulation of the themes of The Gauntlet. This is the first time in the epic that Spider-Man’s “no kill rule” is discussed and stressed, and a story that emphasises that Spider-Man’s unique brand of heroism is about enduring the impossible without being corrupted by it. As such, it feels like Slott is really codifying some of the rules of this epic. Mysterioso skilfully closes out the first third of The Gauntlet, confirming what lies ahead.

All bets are off...

All bets are off…

Mysterio is – as with so many Stan Lee and Steve Ditko creations – a rather wonderful character. His design is iconic. The bubble dome head should be enough alone to earn him an appearance in some Spider-Man feature film or other. Even outside of that, the purple cape and green jumpsuit is an elegant and efficient super villain design, with some nice touches – he has those same creepy Steve-Ditko-esque eyes sewn into his costume.

Even beyond that, Mysterio fills a pretty essential super villain niche in Spider-Man’s rogues gallery. He’s the character who treads the line between reality and fantasy – he’s the villain who can blur the line between what is real and what is not. As a result, he’s the type of baddie that can be used quite effectively as a plot device by any writer who needs to play with the concept of reality. (Brian Michael Bendis uses him in this capacity in Spider-Men, for example.)

The world's a stage...

The world’s a stage…

Mysterio essentially fills the same role in Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery as the Scarecrow does for Batman. He’s a handy character for any number of basic superhero plots – a great vehicle for playing with symbolism and iconography. The result is that you’ll very rarely get a showcase arc built around him, but he’s a nice character to keep handy. Indeed, even the stories about that sort of character will inevitably be more about the hero facing the questions raised about their reality than they will be about the character creating the illusion.

So it makes sense that Slott doesn’t really peel back the layers on Mysterio in the way that Power to the People did for Max Dillon or Keemia’s Castle did for Flint Marko. Indeed, Mysterioso trades on the idea that Mysterio himself is something of a mystery. “They call me Quentin Beck, the one and only Mysterio,” he teases the reader. “Or maybe the real Beck is dead? I wouldn’t trust me on this. I lie about everything.” There’s something very playful about that, particularly when so much of The Gauntlet is built around the tragedy of being a Spider-Man villain. (As mirrored against the tragedy of being Spider-Man.)

Beck is bowled over...

Beck is bowled over…

Indeed, Mysterio never feels like a real character. He feels like an actor playing a role – the role of a super villain. (Again, this is an approach that Bendis uses in Spider-Men, with Mysterio playing the role of ultimate!Mysterio.) As such, there’s an awareness of the tropes and narrative conventions to which he must play. At one point, he claims to be Spider-Man’s long-lost cousin. At another, he acknowledges how much he relishes faking his one death. “I live for this! Nothing beats a good death scene! God, I’m good. Y’know, it’s a shame… that super villains don’t give out awards for this stuff.”

Later on, Mysterio tries to take credit for the continuity glitches introduced by One More Day. He teases Spider-Man, “Actually, I’ve been around for some time. You just didn’t know it. All these little things that’re wrong with your life… the living who should be dead. The dead who appear to be living. It’s all been me. Messing with you.” Of course, it isn’t true at all, but Mysterio is cleverly playing with the form. That sounds like something a super villain would totally do, right? After all, in the world of The Amazing Spider-Man, it’s hardly impossible.

An explosive finalé...

An explosive finalé…

That’s part of what makes Slott’s handling of Mysterio so fascinating in Mysterioso. Mysterio is presented as an artist who knows the form. He’s the Daniel Day Lewis of super villains, with an intimate knowledge of how best to calibrate his performance. And so, slotting into the wider context of The Gauntlet, Mysterio ups his game. One of the more compelling aspects of Mysterioso is that Mysterio doesn’t waste too much time attacking Spider-Man directly. Instead, with a keen understanding of how Spider-Man stories and comic book stories work, he tries to undermine the principles of Spider-Man.

In many respects, Mysterioso reads like the villain is attempting a cynical deconstruction of Spider-Man, as if to push the character past breaking point by playing examining the “rules” of a superhero narrative. So suddenly Spider-Man is not able to fight in those massive brawls without causing any harm. During one confrontation, Spider-Man knocks a henchman off a high structure – a fall typical in these sorts of fights. However, the fall kills a henchman. In a later encounter with a gang of armed thugs, a deflection causes a goon’s machine gun to fire wildly, killing the people around him.

Bam!

Bam!

Mysterio is a character who exists to challenge Spider-Man on an intellectual or metaphysical level, and here he seems to picking apart the foundations of The Amazing Spider-Man as a comic book. In order for Spider-Man to be a hero of his story, we need to believe that he can disarm all those goons without causing an accidental death, or that the goons he throws over railings never snap their necks. Mysterio undermines that.

So Mysterio attacks Spider-Man using comic book tropes. Indeed, he weaponises quite a few of the storytelling tools used as part of The Gauntlet. The Gauntlet feels like a spiritual companion to Knightfall, a comic book about deconstructing (and reconstructing) Batman. So it feels like Mysterio is launching his own deconstruction of Spider-Man inside the comic. He’s a comic book character playing with the narrative around him in a delightfully ingenious way.

The man who would be don...

The man who would be don…

Indeed, The Gauntlet builds to a very comic-book-y resurrection in Grim Hunt, so Mysterio stages his own comic book resurrections of characters like George Stacy, the Big Man and Jean DeWolff. He even tries to use weaponised continuity against Spider-Man, suggesting that George Stacy and Jean DeWolff were not the saints they appeared to be. In many respects, it seems like Mysterio could be a comic book writer trying desperately to undermine and de-rail The Amazing Spider-Man from the pages of the comic.

However, in keeping with the themes of the larger story arc, Mysterioso refuses to allow Mysterio to destroy The Amazing Spider-Man. It’s impossible to smother true heroism, or to force certain characters past breaking points. Spider-Man isn’t taken in by any of Mysterio’s hackneyed tricks, and immediately identifies Mysterio as the culprit after George Stacy’s “confession.” Spider-Man doesn’t buy into the cynical idea that George Stacy could have been a corrupt cop. “You just tipped your hand! I know you’re behind this now!”

We all have our demons...

We all have our demons…

Here, Slott hits on the big recurring idea of The Gauntlet, one that reaches its ultimate expression in Grim Hunt. As much as The Gauntlet might seem like an unrelentingly grim trek into darkness, that misses the point of it all. Carly Cooper offers an effective summation to Peter in the final pages of the arc. Describing her own “gauntlet”, she advises Peter, “When you do it right… it makes you stronger. You just have to reach the other side.” So The Gauntlet isn’t about Peter plunging into darkness. It’s the opposite; it’s about Peter coming out the other side.

In fact, it’s telling how the characters around Spider-Man all recognise his moral strength. When Mysterio fakes the death of a henchman to incriminate Spider-Man, the hero is momentarily thrown for a loop. “The man’s a vigilante and a killer!” a random cop protests when Captain Watanabe lets him go. “No, he’s not,” she replies. “Not even on his worst day.” That would seem to be the central thesis of The Gauntlet and Grim Hunt, as Peter Parker finds himself surrounded by characters who are made of weaker moral fibre.

A gas character...

A gas character…

(Slott even hammers the point during his epilogue to Mysterioso. As they try to steal Peter’s blood back from Mr. Negative, the duo have to silence a henchman. “And killing him’s outta the question,” the Black Cat reflects, almost sighing at Peter’s idealism. “Yeah!” Peter replies, without hesitation. “And even if I could (which I wouldn’t), I don’t think Negative’s goons can die.” So there’s very much a sense that Peter’s “no kill” rule is being pushed to the fore. At one point, he even wonders how Wolverine can take lives so casually.)

In many respects, Mysterio lacks the sort of tragedy that underscores The Gauntlet. He isn’t doing this to protect his family or to get adoration or to pay for treatment. In fact, Mysterio isn’t even doing this for money. When a goon wodners why Mysterio isn’t happy making a lot of money behind the scenes, he explains, “Pulling off the gag. That’s the rush. Not the day-to-day stuff.” After a performance, he orders, “Cut, print, and put that on the compilation reel. That’s a keeper!”

A smashing success...

A smashing success…

And yet Mysterioso is still packed with the sort of compromise and tragedy we’ve come to expect from The Gauntlet. Ray Cooper is just as sorry a figure as Flint Marko or Max Dillon, a man who compromised in order to pay his wife’s medical bills. The result is a monster that his daughter barely recognises. On a larger scale, the Maggia crime family seems like tragic figures – a once-proud family that sold their souls to Mysterio in order to stay on top, losing everything in the process.

While an organised crime family is hardly the most sympathetic of organisations, Mysterioso sees the Maggia so thoroughly and brutally humiliated that their fate does garner some small measure of pity. In an early scene there’s a sad moment of realisation for the Maggia goons who realise that they’ve fallen below even Spider-Man’s radar. “He could care less about the Maggia. We’re just a big joke to him. That’s all we are anymore. One big joke.”

Dead stop...

Dead stop…

(Similarly, the final page of Slott’s epilogue teases the pending tragedy of Curt Connors. Connors is desperate to reinvent himself, to prove himself a capable father. His new employer, Mr. King, cynically preys on those needs, “You want to show the courts you can support your son? You need us…” Of course, we know that this must end in tragedy – even without that dramatic closing panel featuring the Lizard looming over Curt Connors’ shoulder.)

Still, as effective as Mysterioso might be, there are a few notes the ring false. Mr. Negative plays pretty heavily, but doesn’t quite feel like he belongs in the middle of an arc showcasing the classic Spider-Man baddies. Negative is one of the new characters introduced as part of Brand New Day, a conscious attempt to add a new opponent to Spider-Man’s already overflowing rogues’ gallery. However, Mr. Negative is a character who needs more work.

The lizard on his back...

The lizard on his back…

Mr. Negative is a great visual. From a pure design standpoint, the villain jumps out as one of the best-looking and most distinctive new Spider-Man foes since Venom in the eighties. However, the character’s concept is not nearly as strong. There are some awkward racial clichés about presenting an Asian gang leader with the yin and yang sign emblazoned on his back as he talks about being “bound” by “a code” and launches “inner demons” swinging samurai-style swords and wearing oriental demon masks. More than that, though, the character’s niche feels a little weird.

He’s the classic “duality themed” bad guy – a good guy who happens to have an evil alter ego like Harvey Dent. It’s a classic comic book trope, but it’s already well represented among Spider-Man’s core adversaries. Curt Connors really fills that niche as a good man with a dark secret. Mr. Negative’s other gimmick is that he has the capacity to bring out the dark side of regular people – he can turn good guys evil and expose their more unpleasant attributes. It’s not the worst power in the world, but it is very much a gimmick.

Feel the power of the dark side...

Feel the power of the dark side…

Here, he uses the power against Aunt May, which serves as one of the least satisfying plot threads that runs through The Gauntlet. It feels a little pointless to cut away from the on-going story to scenes of “Aunt May being mean”, only to have her conveniently snap out of it at the end of the epic saga. To be fair, it does play to the underlying idea that some people are intrinsically good no matter what happens, but it also feels like a plot tumour in the context of The Gauntlet – something that steals focus from more worthy elements and dilutes the stronger aspects of the arc.

Still, these are minor complaints. Mysterioso continues The Gauntlet in a fitting manner, drawing the first third to a close and firmly laying out what the big themes of the arc are to be.

You might be interested in our other reviews of The Gauntlet and Grim Hunt:

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2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on moviesutra.

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