“I wasn’t going to buy Renew Your Vows,” I told my wife. “But I couldn’t resist seeing a married Spider-man again.” To which she said, “Why’s that?” “Spider-man’s marriage,” says I, “was the most important thing in comics.” To which, unsurprisingly, she replied, “What?”
Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada ended Spider-man’s marriage to Mary-Jane Watson back in 2007. There was no divorce, no death. Quesada wiped it from history, so that it never happened. Such a thing is commonly called a retcon, and comics are full of them. But I believe this is the biggest, and the worst, retcon of them all. Because of two aspects of his character, Spider-man’s marriage was the most important thing in comics.
I consider Spider-man the everyman of Marvel heroes. Amongst an A-list roster of billionaires, super-soldiers and gods, Spider-man is a regular New Yorker who got bit by a spider. Like us, Spider-man struggles to make ends meet, to find a work/life balance, to take care of his loved ones, to just make his life work already. Readers can empathise with Spider-man in ways they can’t empathise with other characters. And nothing proves that more than how Marvel positioned him during the Civil War debate: torn between both sides, just like the readership was.
In the Breakout storyline, there’s an enormous battle in a prison filled with super villains. And the next day, Captain America visits Peter Parker and says, “You didn’t take the day off? You went right from last night to work?” And Peter replies, “Kids need a teacher.” This, to me, is proof positive that Spider-man is the moral heart of the Marvel universe. Captain America is a close second. But it’s easy for a super-soldier to say and do the right thing. He lives for the fight. But Spider-man has to fight the good fight, and then he has to scrape together what’s left and go to work. Teach kids. Put food on the table. And that takes much more heart and much more resolve.
Now here’s where Spider-man’s marriage is important to his character.
Some people think Spider-man’s core is the unacknowledged, awkward, wise-cracking teenager. I believe Spider-man grew into his core when he got older, wiser, and married. Everyone knows Spider-man’s motto is “with great power comes great responsibility”. And I’ve never felt so responsible as I did the day I got married. I became responsible for two people: my wife and myself. I had to provide for her, keep her happy and safe, and I had to look after myself in order to fulfill those duties. A marriage requires responsibility, morality, a hero and an everyman all at once. A marriage is a near-perfect symbol for Spider-man.
Of course, you can be responsible for a partner without marrying them. That said, you can end things with a partner, but you have to divorce a spouse. And I don’t think Spider-man could contemplate divorce, as a character or as a property of a enormous American company. So if Spider-man’s married, it’s a very different kettle of fish. It’s responsibility that he can’t walk away from.
So when Spider-man did, in fact, walk away from his marriage, he walked away from that responsibility. Gave up his core. It sent a clear message: a moral heart does not grow or change. Its understanding cannot evolve. A teenager’s idealistic, binary morality is right. A tempered, matured, complicated morality is wrong.
And this undoes Marvel in three ways.
It makes the universe shallow. It removes a nuance of his character and makes the superheroes just a little more interchangeable. There’s one less thing differentiating a guy in spandex with superpowers from the others.
It undermines Spider-man. By giving up his marriage, his purity of heart is blemished. No matter the good he does, he will always be the man who did a deal with the devil.
This undermines the Marvel universe. Spider-man’s stained moral heart undermines other characters when they continue to look at him the same way (because the reader knows he’s not the same). And, not only is the moral heart stained, but it is simplified. It damages their ability to tell stories where right and wrong aren’t clear-cut, because their moral heart willingly gave up on complicated morality in favour of a simplistic one.
I didn’t stop buying comics after Spider-man’s marriage was dissolved. But it wasn’t the same anymore. Comics felt hollow. Lacking. I’d seen dozens of reboots and retcons. But now they had proven a willingness to get a new-issue-one moment by disregarding decades of character and story. When DC announced the New 52, I didn’t have the will or the heart to go through it again. I was done.
Perhaps Spider-man’s marriage wasn’t the most important thing in comics. Perhaps Spider-man’s marriage was just my most important thing in comics. And they retconned it away. That’s why I couldn’t pass on Renew Your Vows; it’s chance to see a married Spider-man again, yes. But it’s also a chance to pretend comics don’t get retconned and erased and reworked over and over.
But it turns out Renew Your Vows contains something even more important than Spider-man’s marriage. But more on that next time.