Since today is apparently Peter Parker’s 55th birthday let’s examine ASM #500, the finale of the ‘Happy Birthday’ arc.
ASM #500 is a milestone issues even among other milestone issues but I will be the first to admit it falls short of other centennial issues such as Spectacular Spider-Man #200 or Amazing Spider-Man #400. It should’ve been much more than it wound up being, but does that render the story itself honestly bad or ‘banal’ as certain fans have accused it of being?
Maybe, maybe not.
I’m not really interested in dissecting the entire issue. Rather taking a look at one particular scene specifically. I am of course referring to Peter’s reunion with Uncle Ben.
First lets look at the scene in question and give a little context.
Long story short an adventure involving Doctor Strange and Dormammu has resulted in Spider-Man being lost in time. He needs to get back to where he belongs in order to avert Dormammu’s arrival on Earth and thereby save the planet.
However by being displaced in his own timeline Spider-Man has witnessed a possible future for himself. Simultaneously though Peter is witnessing the moments leading up to the spider biting him and transforming him into Spider-Man.
In this future his identity has been compromised and he’s wanted by the law. Eventually he is ultimately killed in a last stand with the authorities.
Seeing this possible fate for himself, Peter considers altering his own past by ensuring the spider doesn’t grant him any powers. But relents because he realizes others will die due to him not becoming a hero.
From there Doctor Strange uses his magic to allow Spidey to travel linearly across his own timeline in order to get back to where he started in the present day.
In typical Spider-Man fashion the moments of his life he finds himself returning to are far from pleasant ones. They mostly amount to battles with various foes, or when he was trapped under machinery in Doc Ock’s underwater base, or even in the middle of his tragic battle atop the Brooklyn Bridge trying (and again failing) to save Gwen Stacy.
After the latter incident Spider-Man is gripped by despair but encouragement from Doctor Strange stirs him into continuing on fighting.
And when I say he has to keep fighting…I mean he has to do essentially relive EVERY one of his battles with EVERY one of his foes.
Towards the end of the issue Spider-Man opens up a box gifted him by Doctor Strange. Inside he finds a note saying he has just five minutes. And it’s a doozy because as he turns away from the note he finds none other than the bona fide Uncle Ben himself standing there! They consequently have a heart-to-heart.
Whilst perhaps underwhelming giving the milestone nature (and higher price) of the issue, there is a lot of clever writing and poignant points made in the issue.
At first glance the story might be dismissed as a mere clip show comic book or worse a Doctor Strange story in disguise. However the story’s re-visitations of Spider-Man’s past actually serve a deeper more meaningful purpose to the ending with Uncle Ben and what it says about Spider-Man as a person. Dr Strange and the magic he employs within the story are honestly more vehicles to facilitate what the story is really about on an emotional and character level. That is to say highlighting Spider-Man’s struggles, the cost of the costume and how Peter feels about his life (which he’s relived) at the end of the day. That’s what the story is really about and it’s not only squarely based on Peter but it is also most definitely by it’s introspective nature a Spider-Man story.
Additionally the good doctor’s words also carry more weight by virtue of his power and his place as Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme. Although beyond that honestly Dormammu and Doctor Strange could’ve been switched out for Doctor Doom and Reed Richards and it would’ve amounted to more or less the same thing.
Stopping Dormammu is the destination Doctor Strange is the vehicle getting us to that destination but the story is about the guy in that vehicle and his journey to reach that destination and what he feels about the journey once it is over.
And that journey happens to be an epic struggle wherein our hero is thrown into all of his old battles at random with little respite and endlessly fight and fight and fight some more, triumphing over each of them and getting back home to help save the whole damn world. It amounts to a pretty big feat of Spider-Man’s strength and willpower. It’s yet another ‘lift the wreckage off your back’ moment but done differently, something very much worthy (at least conceptually) of Spidey’s halfway point to #1000.
The story goes deeper though. For all the magic and the time travel the story is a personal human character piece.
Peter is tempted to give up, overwhelmed by seeing all the madness, violence, tragedy and loss in his life in such quick succession.
Through his conversations with Doctor Strange he reaffirms his beliefs and commitment to his life mission to simply use his powers to help, to make a difference.
And it is in this milestone issue more than arguably any story published before that we fully appreciate on a human level Spider-Man’s efforts.
He sees his own future might end badly, he has a chance to avert it and all the other struggles of his life but chooses not to because he knows people will die if he doesn’t.
Not only is this profoundly personal, but the degree of that sacrifice (a microcosm of the numerous ones he’s made over the years) is then put into context when Doctor Strange lays it all out. He lays out that it is something special to be able to make a difference just once in your life. But that our hero across the previous 500+ issues in events we’ve re-visited in this story (and many more we haven’t) has made that difference countless times.
It’s not merely showcasing Spider-Man as heroic because he’s performing heroic feats of power, it’s saying he’s a remarkable person because he’s helped so MANY people over the course of his career.
Which then leads into Peter asking if what he does has worth it, which granted isn’t unique to this story at all, but this story is one of the few times that we’ve gotten such a grandiose example of how, yes it absolutely is despite the burden it brings. This then leads into the climax with Uncle Ben where the real heart and brilliance of the story lies.
To begin with the scene flips the script from what you’d logically expect out of a scenario like this. The series is about Peter and presents things from his POV so in resurrecting Uncle Ben even temporarily we naturally think this will be about Peter getting baggage off of his chest to his father, specifically the guilt he feels over his death.
But instead of having Peter seek a lot of answers from Ben, it actually shows us that Ben has some things he wants to ask Peter.
This is ingenious because after 40+ years we are entirely aware that Peter misses Uncle Ben and wants to see him again. But the scene in ASM #500 makes the point that actually Ben would miss Peter too and would need to get a certain amount of closure from him, which I will get into a bit more shortly.
I think if Uncle Ben returned we’d all expect Peter to want to confess and ask Ben for forgiveness for his part in Ben’s death. And the thing is…he did that, or rather he tried to. Because JMS opted to take things a step further. He had Peter begin to ask Ben for forgiveness and for Ben to cut him off before specifics were said.
Again, ingenious. Let’s be real here, based upon everything we’ve ever known about Uncle Ben (and putting aside how the Ben in this story clearly is aware he’s dead), he’d obviously forgive his nephew for his lack of action when he was 15 years old, especially in light of all he’s done since.
What JMS did was subvert that expectation and have Ben not forgive Peter, but go further than that. To have Ben say to Peter that as far as he is concerned he doesn’t even consider what Peter did as something his nephew needs forgiveness for.
In one stroke Ben conveys to Peter and the reader that Peter is not atoned for his original sin but rather he never needed that atonement in the first place. Which had writers really paid attention, should have ended any BS guilt tripping Peter visited upon himself going forward when you think about it.
So off the top the issue addresses one of the major points of discussion everyone would’ve envisioned for this sort of scenario.
In fact, really as far as Peter is concerned what else is there really to talk about with Ben?
Remember by all accounts Peter and Ben had a very positive and fulfilling parent/child relationship. From what we know Peter and Ben’s last interaction wasn’t an argumentative or negative one like in Spider-Man 2002 or other adaptations. So there is no ‘unfinished business’ left to settle between them like there was between Harry and Norman when the latter was presumed dead.
What else does Peter, within the mere five minutes he has with Uncle Ben, really have to say to his uncle? Especially when you consider Ben is probably able to know or observe the stuff that goes on in Peter’s life from the afterlife. Why else would Ben be so casual about meeting Peter in an unknown location in the city and his nephew being an adult man not the teenager he knew? So Peter really doesn’t have to tell Ben he’s married, or that he’s a teacher or even that he’s Spider-Man (although he starts to with the latter point).
What else from a storytelling perspective does the specific character of Peter Parker need to say to Ben once the issue of his guilt over his death has been addressed? The answer is nothing really, at least nothing that we the readers really need to see him saying.
Furthermore JMS continued to subvert the expectations in this scenario by having Ben be the one who asks the questions. However, cleverly the focus is still on Peter. Ben is shown to be the one with concern for his son but in asking the questions we get to examine Peter as a person.
In addition to what I’ve talked about thus far, this is also brilliant because its touchingly realistic despite the fantastical scenario.
Whilst there are some unfortunate exceptions out there, most parents love their children, regard them as the most important things in their life and make their well-being their top priority.
In this issue we have a man who was an adoptive father to his blood nephew. Who involuntarily had to leave his son when he was just 15 and still in need of parental guidance as he grew up. Now for a mere 5 minutes he gets the chance to see his son again when he’s all grown up. Even ignoring how he’s literally dead, Ben’s window of opportunity to raise and shape Peter, his son, closed a long time ago.
So instead he assuages Peter’s concerns and proceeds to do what frankly most parents in that situation would do. He seeks reassurance. Not for Peter’s sake but for his own.
He asks Peter two questions, the first of which boils down to:
Have you tried to live a meaningful life?
Now granted, Peter somewhat lies in his answer.
When Ben asks if he ever walked away from what he believed ‘even once’ Peter says he never has. ASM #50, #100 and many other stories disprove that outright. But then again earlier on Ben did commented that we all stumble and I suppose when you get right down to it, it’s more important that Peter kept coming back to his responsibilities as Spider-Man than the fact that on occasion he walked away from it for at most a few months.
So Peter’s life is reaffirmed as one of meaning, which is a poignant question for a parent to have answered of their child. And also a poignant one for anyone to have to dig deep and answer of themselves as Peter did in that moment.
However it is not as poignant as Ben’s second question, one which goes to the heart of essentially every human being who’s ever lived.
Are you happy?
Let me break that down for you a little bit.
Uncle Ben is a man who never got to finish his job as a parent to his son Peter and never got to see the specifics of how his life unfolded.
Now in a very brief window of time he has the chance to find out first hand from his fully grown son if his efforts as a parent paid off.
And more pressingly he has the opportunity to know the thing virtually every parent across the planet and all time has wanted to know.
Is my child happy?
Is the person whom I love more than anyone in my life or in the whole world, the person whom I can’t help anymore after years of trying to do so, happy and content?
Can I go back to where I came from, where I can’t see them or interact with them, with my mind at ease knowing that they are okay?
This is an entirely realistic thing for Ben to ask and something that readers probably consider a Hell of a lot less than Peter’s side of the scenario.
But the real masterstroke and relevance of the scene is not in the fact that Ben as a parent would ask the question.
But that it makes Peter ask it of himself.
Keep in mind the context of the scene.
Peter has just relived his life, or rather all the crazy super hero parts of it. I.e. the parts which have caused the most pain and problems in his life, the parts which do mostly amount to violence that’s gotten under his skin and threatened to break him. The parts which he has recently learned might ultimately lead him down a dark path where he is falsely accused of a crime and killed by the very forces of justice he’s striven to help throughout his career.
And now Uncle Ben, his father, the man who’s death set him down that path which has cost him so much, the man whom miraculously he can see again for a mere five minutes and whom he would deny almost nothing to is asking him this question. The same question which, if you take a look back above, Doctor Strange was hinting at.
And it’s a question I think we’ve all asked of ourselves at one point or another. Hell you could go so far as to say it’s a question which hits right at the heart of life itself.
And in this milestone issue set in-universe on the anniversary of his very birth, Peter Parker’s answer to the one man he could never lie to (and by extension the readers as a whole) is…yes.
Actually, despite all his suffering and talk of the ‘Parker Luck’, he feels he is very lucky and ultimately happy.
Hardly ‘banal’ or ‘meaningless’ is it?
How on Earth could a scene which forces Spider-Man to take a hard look at his life, a life that he’d just revisited the worst highlights of, a life which had been published across 40+ years, and emerge saying that he is deep down happy and content, be meaningless?
How could it be anything even resembling banal?
That my friends is why for all its flaws Amazing Spider-Man #500 is most definitely a GOOD comic and a wonderful issue to celebrate the character of Spider-Man.
Happy Birthday Pete, here’s to the next 55 years!
Author: Alex Evangeli
I’ve loved Spider-Man, Spider-Girl and the Clone Saga since I were but a wee lad living in the United Kingdom. Glad to be here!