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Ultimate Spider-Man – The Death of Spider-Man Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

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.

It’s amazing how much can change in a decade or so. When it launched, Marvel’s Ultimate Universe was an incredibly fresh playground for some of the top creators working in comic books. It was an opportunity to relaunch iconic characters without the baggage of continuity – to allow creators to tell stories unburdened by decades of history and back story. It was something fresh and exciting, classic characters boiled down their purest essence.

This approach worked, particularly when juxtaposed against a wider Marvel Universe populated with characters that had drifted away from their roots a bit. Modern storytelling conventions, popular writers and artists, and easy of access all made the Ultimate Universe a very exciting place to be. The early years of the Ultimate Universe offer some of the best gateways into comic books for anybody looking to branch into the medium.

At your service...

At your service…

However, things change. Over time, the Ultimate universe lost a bit of its sheen. This was partially due to the way that the comics built up their own tangled continuity over the years that followed – it was soon as difficult to jump into an Ultimate comic book as it was to jump into the mainstream Marvel universe. At the same time, storytelling in the mainstream Marvel universe adjusted to incorporate the aspects that had made the Ultimate Universe so popular.

So the Ultimate Universe wound down a bit, with the decline assisted by some very questionable creative choices. Allowing Jeph Loeb to kill off most of the cast in Ultimatum was a bit of a miscalculation, and it seemed like titles like Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate X-Men became a bit messy and less focused than they had been. There was a sense of redundancy to the entire Ultimate line. Relaunches followed, with a number of attempts to re-brand and re-energise the Ultimate line.

A bridge to nowhere...

A bridge to nowhere…

With all of this going on, a bold decision was made. The Ultimate Universe was introduced as a place populated with very boiled-down and iconic takes on the famous characters, as if offering readers a glimpse at the very essence of these heroes. However, as times began to change, the editors became a bit more willing to experiment – to try new things. Having served its purpose as an accessible alternative to the mainstream Marvel Universe, it became the place where Marvel could try new things, things impossible in the mainstream universe.

And so the comic attempted a variety of new approaches. Mutants were no longer quirks of evolution, but the result of government experiments gone horribly wrong. The X-Men became a bunch of teenage runaways. Reed Richards became a large-scale supervillain. However, perhaps the most audacious approach taken to the Ultimate Universe was the decision to kill off Peter Parker, with the original Ultimate Spider-Man creative team of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley conspiring to close the book on this version of Spider-Man.

Everything blows up in his face...

Everything blows up in his face…

To be fair, killing off superheroes has become a bit of a cliché. 2011 was a bumper year for superhero fatalities. The Death of Spider-Man was published shortly after the death of Johnny Storm in Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four. Marvel’s big summer event that year, Fear Itself, featured the “deaths” of both Captain America and Thor. This was also around the time that Marvel infamously promised to killing one character ever three months. In the years since, Dan Slott “killed off” the real Peter Parker in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man.

So the death itself isn’t really a big deal. Superheroes die all the time. It’s really about how that death is handled – how that plays into a particular story. It’s to the credit of Fear Itself that the pretence of a long-lasting death for either of those two major characters was dismissed before the ink had dried on the event’s epilogue. Superhero death is mostly a storytelling tool, part of a character’s over-all arc that is (increasingly) just another stop along the road rather than the absolute end of anything.

More powerful than a locomotive...

More powerful than a locomotive…

However, it’s to the credit of Brian Michael Bendis that it looks like he meant The Death of Spider-Man. Three years on, the ultimate version of Peter Parker is still dead. His replacement – the young Miles Morales – is still going strong. Well, as strong as any of the Ultimate Universe comics. Despite the occasional nose-tweaking of excitable fans, it seems like Brian Michael Bendis is quite happy for The Death of Spider-Man to stand, with no need to overwrite it.

Bendis is quite clever about this. Leading into The Death of Spider-Man (and branded as a “prelude to…”), Bendis tells a story about a mysterious artefact (“the Zodiac Key”) that is a literal deus ex machina. It is a device that allows the user to re-write the universe according to their wishes. It offers almost limitless power. It can do anything. The fact that such a convenient plot device is introduced directly before the death of Peter Parker is not a coincidence; Bendis makes a point to underscore the continuity of Ultimate Spider-Man by having Black Cat witness various events from earlier arcs, to demonstrate that continuity does exist.

This is going straight to the top of the youtube charts...

This is going straight to the top of the youtube charts…

So, Bendis makes it quite clear that there is a very open door to revive Peter Parker. He puts a handy means of resurrecting the character in plain view directly before killing the character off. In doing so, he cleverly undercuts the idea of launching a “resurrection of Peter Parker” story arc about characters searching for mystical devices to revive the character. S.H.I.E.L.D. already has a handy device that can re-write reality.

Bendis just makes it clear that the device will not be used. The Zodiac Key is so devastating that even the Kingpin is terrified of it. “No one can have this,” he vows. “No one can ever have this.” Asking a local to explain why the device is so horrific, he is told, “Everything has a price.” That is certainly the truth. So Bendis concedes that comic book plotting readily allows for the resurrection of Peter Parker, but also argues that it would come with a cost that Bendis is not willing to pay.

Key details...

Key details…

The cost is quite apparent. It would wipe Bendis’ replacement Spider-Man, Miles Morales, from existence. As such, it would effectively invalidate this alternate take on the comic book superhero. It would move the clock backwards, arresting the development of the Ultimate Universe. It would also undermine Peter Parker’s narrative arc – cheating the character out of richly-earned closure.

There’s something quite touching about this. With The Death of Spider-Man, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley get to tidy up Peter Parker’s character arc. Over the course of one-hundred-and-sixty issues, fans have watched the character grow and develop – evolving into a hero and struggling against all sorts of odds. The character has had all manner of wacky adventures, encountered all manner of people, and done all sorts of wonderful things.

Norman keeps the home fires burning...

Norman keeps the home fires burning…

Comic book characters don’t normally get endings. It’s the nature of the medium. These are characters in a serialised narrative. They will be the subject of stories written long after any of the current writers have left the books. They are stuck in a perpetual now, a constant present that is set so firmly that their past is prone to shift and change in order to make it fit. These characters might play to familiar themes or ideas, but they can’t really have character arcs spanning the entirety of their publication history – because their publication history is infinite. There is no end point, no culmination for a grand character arc.

That’s what makes The Death of Spider-Man so fascinating. It is an end-point. It is the closing chapter in the life of this character who has been written by the same author for all of his publication history. This sort control over a major character generally doesn’t happen outside of an independent publisher. After all, Bendis has rotated through countless high-profile assignments while writing Ultimate Spider-Man. So this isn’t just an opportunity to close out a character’s arc, it’s an opportunity to close out a character’s arc as guided by one single creative force. Peter Parker was never going to retire, so death it had to be.

Are foes electric...?

Are foes electric…?

Bendis re-teams with Mark Bagley, who illustrated over one-hundred issues of Ultimate Spider-Man and helped to create this alternate version of Peter Parker. There’s a sense of symmetry here. Bendis and Bagley team up for this, just as Otto Octavius and Norman Osborn reunite to close the book on their creation. In fact, Otto even seems to give voice to some creative uncertainty about the endeavour. “We birthed Spider-Man into the world. We did. We should take insane pride in that and leave it alone.”

To be fair to Bendis, he doesn’t milk this as much as he might. The Death of Spider-Man is structured as tragedy, but it’s a decidedly low-key tragedy. Bendis tips his hand quite early. “Prelude to Death of Spider-Man” comes branded across the top of the issues even before the story itself have begun. Marvel’s marketing machine went into a predictable frenzy about the event months before the storyline even began. In this market place, it would be impossible to treat the death of Peter Parker as a sudden story twist, and it’s to the credit of Bendis that he embraces this.

Osborn again?

Osborn again?

Even without all the stuff happening around the comic, it’s quite clear that things are heading to a very dark place for Peter Parker. After all, things seem to looking up for the web-slinging superhero, which is never a good sign. He makes his peace with Gwen. He starts dating Mary Jane again. For the first time in what seems like years, Peter Parker’s personal life seems to have stabilised, which means that things will inevitable go to hell.

It isn’t just Peter’s personal life that seems to be stabilising. J. Jonah Jameson figures out that Peter Parker is Spider-Man and… decides to help. He gives Peter a nice job with a lot of freedom, and provides the kid with a scholarship to college. Tony Stark even promises him a job in the years ahead. “Kid, seriously, I want you working for me,” he insists. “When you think you’re ready… come find me.” Peter’s irony-sense should have been tingling.

Stark raving mad...

Stark raving mad…

Indeed, even S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to be stepping up to the plate – realising that Peter Parker has been doing all of his hero-ing on his own time with no training or support, the Ultimates decide to try and train Peter properly. This is something that probably should have been done quite some time ago, and it’s almost inevitable that S.H.I.E.L.D. only seems to realise how far out on a limb Peter Parker is operating shortly before his untimely death.

That said, perhaps the most damning thing of all is the fact that the list issue directly before The Death of Spider-Man takes place during Peter Parker’s sixteenth birthday party. Given that time hasn’t seemed to pass for Peter Benjamin Parker over the previous decade of publication time, this major milestone set alarm bells ringing. Bendis creates a rather palpable sense of unease, a sense of inevitability to everything unfolding.

Man of Mysterio...

Man of Mysterio…

And yet, despite all this, Peter Parker’s death is surprisingly mundane. Peter Parker dies fighting Norman Osborn and a cadre of classic foes. Pitting Parker against Osborn creates a sense that everything has come a full circle – that we are back where we began – but the stakes are surprisingly low. Peter doesn’t die saving the city, or even the world. He doesn’t die between the skyscrapers of Manhattan or in the depths of the Triskelion.

He dies in the street, right in front of his house. He dies protecting innocent by-standers from villains who have no grander objective than trying to kill a sixteen-year-old kid. And he dies happy, knowing that he saved Aunt May, as if finally earning atonement for his failure to save Uncle Ben all those years ago. The fight is brutal, and well-illustrated by Mark Bagley. There is a sense of brutality to the confrontation. However, it all feels rather small and low-key, in the grand scheme of things.

Leaping into action...

Leaping into action…

Bendis emphasises this low-key approach in a number of ways. The crossover with Mark Millar’s Avengers vs. New Ultimates does seem a little bit cynical – two high-profile books tying in for some cross promotion. The plot impact between the two titles is somewhat minimal. The two stories overlap geographically, with Peter getting caught in the crossfire. However, after that necessary plot point happens, both stories continue on their own separate ways. (The Ultimates even leave Peter Parker for dead on the bridge.)

However, the crossover with Avengers vs. New Ultimates does give The Death of Spider-Man a sense of scale. It underscores just how small Norman Osborn’s vendetta is in the grand scheme of things. Nick Fury and the other superheroes are off playing for the fate of the world, while Peter Parker is stuck fighting a pointless battle with his old foes in Queens. The comic makes a point to stress how empty this whole thing is.

Never a dull moment...

Never a dull moment…

“What’s the plan, Osborn?” Peter taunts during their throw down. “I’m dying to know… what next? You kill me, then what next?? Your son you killed won’t magically come back to life!! Your world as a captain of industry won’t magically go back to the way it was!!” In short, Osborn isn’t trying to accomplish anything beyond killing a sixteen-year-old boy who humiliated him. It won’t change anything. It won’t make anything better. It probably won’t even help Osborn to feel better, at least not for long.

(Indeed, there’s something quite sad in the way that Otto Octavius’ self-awareness leads to his death. He points out that trying to kill Peter Parker will not accomplish anything, and suggests that the escapees try to find new lives for themselves. He wants to continue his – undoubtedly amoral – scientific research, and wants nothing to do with Osborn’s vendetta. When he voices this opinion, Osborn promptly kills him.)

The devil you know...

The devil you know…

That said, it does feel like The Death of Spider-Man could use a bit more room for its supporting characters. In particular, Norman Osborn’s new faith feels like a bit of a weird character beat. Escaping from custody, he boasts, “You have no idea how close to God I have journeyed to do this.” He names his new Sinister Six as “men of God.” There’s the implication that Norman has simply gone crazy, but it’s also possible he’s had a near-death experience or found faith through the loss of his son.

Unfortunately, Bendis never really delves into it. The closest we get is the Tinkerer’s horrified reaction to Osborn’s new-found fanaticism. “Where’s the man of science in there?” he asks. “Come on.” It seems to suggest that Osborn has rejected science for religion, which is a bit of a stereotypical character beat, particularly if Bendis isn’t going to flesh it out. Considering how well Bendis has written Osborn before – both in earlier arcs in in Dark Avengers – it does feel like a bit of a shallow take on the bad guy.

A new look at the newspaper man...

A new look at the newspaper man…

The other benefit of the crossover with Avengers vs. New Ultimates is the way that it underscores the idea of Peter Parker’s heroism. Peter Parker is the only unequivocal hero in the whole story. He gets shot by the Punisher while trying to save Captain America’s life, only to be left for dead by the so-called heroes. He wryly notes this on waking up, long after they have moved on. “And I would like to… thank the other super heroes…. for either leaving me here because they thought I was dead. Or leaving me here to bleed to death.”

While the Ultimates and the Avengers play out their turf war and political mumbo-jumbo, a teenager is left to fight for his life against five convicts who broke out of government captivity. Peter is the character who winds up on his own, without any support or back-up, with nobody even noticing what is going on around him. Peter Parker is a character who always does the right thing, with little regard for “the big picture” or other euphemisms.

Going against the grain...

Going against the grain…

The prelude to the story opens with Carol Danvers reflecting on Peter’s brand of heroism. “The diamonds he saved were worth, I’m told, book value, $11,000. Property damage? I hear the city’s looking at $2.7 million. Dollars. American.” Yes, there’s an argument that Peter could use more training – but his heart is very much in the right the place. He saw a crime and he tried to stop it. Maybe he didn’t stop it in the most pragmatic or effective manner, but he still tried to hep.

In contrast, Bendis portrays the Ultimates as rather disconnected from all of this. Captain America is reluctant to allow Peter Parker to continue as a superhero, but he is openly neglectful in training; he leaves Peter unattended during a city-wide crisis. Thor has no experience with human teenagers, and can only speak from the Asgardian experience. (Despite this, it’s Thor who has the most sensible idea of any of the Ultimates, suggesting they train Peter.)

Touché...

Touché…

However, Tony Stark is perhaps the hero most disconnected from Peter. Born into wealth, surrounded by bodyguards, living in luxury and adored by the public, Tony has no frame of reference for understanding Peter Parker. He doesn’t even seem to realise that Peter has a secret identity, arriving in front of Aunt May’s house in full view to begin his training session and completely oblivious to why this might be a problem for the family.

Iron Man has no idea how to train Peter, no sense of the skills that Peter might need. When Peter suggests “with great power comes great responsibility”, Iron Man is quick to capitalise on what he sees as an opportunity to impart (or at least reinforce) wisdom. “Yeah, you know what? That’s not bad. You should — you should try to live by that motto. That’s a good motto to live by.” It appears there is nothing that Tony can teach Peter that he doesn’t already know. In fact, while on their training evening, Peter saves Tony a number of times, demonstrating his effectiveness as a hero.

Peter-ing out...

Peter-ing out…

That’s the bitter irony of The Death of Spider-Man. Peter Parker never needed lessons on how to be a hero. He just needed support. He needed assistance. He needed to know that there were people he could count on to assist him. The failure of these characters to assist Peter in any meaningful way is a pretty catastrophic indictment of the other characters inhabiting the Ultimate Universe, and a strong endorsement of Peter’s heroism.

The Death of Spider-Man is a fitting a reflective closure to the life of the Ultimate Peter Parker, a testament to the heroism of Spider-Man and a fitting way for Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley to close out a story they started telling over a decade earlier.

Holding on...

Holding on…

Of course, a new chapter would start soon enough, but this is a fitting end point for Peter Benjamin Parker.

We have reviews up for all of Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Ultimate Spider-Man, in case you’re interested in checking it out, the rest can be found here:

2 Responses

  1. I think that the death of Spider-Man, particularly the fact that he’s not coming back, gives me hope for the comic book industry.

    • Yep. Although there is an argument to be made that the death of Ultimate Peter Parker is less risky when it seemed quite clear that the Ultimate Universe was on its last legs, so to speak.

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