Whenever we think of a certain superhero we admire, we often think of them through a specific lens by which we have come to understand them. That lens tends to comprise a distinct tone, one that we associate with the demeanor of the character. In regard to a character such as Spider-Man, it is safe to say that most people perceive him to be of a light-hearted nature. Various interpretations of his character in live-action, animation, and comic book mediums have often maintained vibrant, buoyant tones. Various, but not all, which is why it is worth revisiting J. Michael Straczynski’s SPIDER-MAN: BACK IN BLACK in the first place.

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SPIDER-MAN: BACK IN BLACK cover. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

The Breakdown

Back when Marc Webb’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN films were being released, many criticized the franchise for its darker tone. Many believed Spider-Man could not possibly embody a gritty style, that it ultimately was not true to his character.

Say what you want about THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, but the argument that one is incapable of telling a dark Spider-Man story simply because that would compromise the authenticity of the character is inaccurate.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #539 through #543 comprises an arc entitled BACK IN BLACK. This arc challenges every aspect of not only the Spider-Man symbol but Peter Parker himself. Peter’s humanity has always been an anchor for his superhero alter ego, and this run reminds us why. Although, it also depicts how that humanity can bring a whole new, bleaker meaning to your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #539 page 3. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

The Shot That Killed the Spider

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #539, the first installment of SPIDER-MAN: BACK IN BLACK, begins in incredibly dramatic fashion. Peter Parker cradles Aunt May, who has just been shot through the heart by a sniper hired by Wilson Fisk aka the Kingpin.

The issue immediately dives into the chaos, shocking us in the process.

Now, it is worth noting that, at this point, the world knows Peter Parker’s identity as Spider-Man due to the preceding events of CIVIL WAR. Thus, one may wonder why Kingpin had his sniper shoot Aunt May rather than Peter himself.

Why not eliminate the person who has beaten him time and time again?

Though Kingpin later explains his motives, one can infer that there is a certain pride Kingpin attains in traumatizing someone who has obstructed his ambitions. Kingpin wants to break Peter. He wants to destroy the symbol Peter has established as Spider-Man and rob Peter of the confidence he has in himself as a hero.

By killing someone Peter loves, one shakes the very foundation Spider-Man is built upon. Vengeful, angry sentiments engulf Peter’s mind as he doubts the staunch moral code he has spent his career abiding by.

Eventually, Kingpin affirms this perception of his actions when he states,

“Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad.”

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #539 page 5. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Mad World

Thus, immediately following the shot that struck Aunt May’s heart, Peter Parker grits his teeth and repeatedly cries, “No more!”

These are the only words Peter seems to muster while cradling his beloved aunt, but what do they mean?

One interpretation may be that Peter is referring to the violence he devotes his life to fighting, the violence that has perpetuated into his own family. Perhaps Peter’s cries refer to the end of his Spider-Man persona, the one that inspired hope and optimism in civilians. Perhaps, in this moment, Peter has lost faith in that symbol. His unwavering positivity has been displaced by relentless guilt, doubt that his symbol has actually done any good.

How could it if all his efforts have led to the potential demise of his aunt?

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #539 page 18. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

The Resurrection

Consequently, Peter feels responsible for what has just transpired. He feels as though his attribution towards a moral code has facilitated this sniper’s actions on behalf of Kingpin. Now, Peter cannot help but feel that keeping Kingpin alive all these years has culminated into a tragic mistake.

If Kingpin was dead, Aunt May would have never gotten hurt. Though, that may be too simplistic of a thought process. However, for the majority of BACK IN BLACK, Peter does not do much constructive thinking at all. So, that simplistic mode of thought makes sense in the context of Peter’s state of mind.

Therefore, Peter now believes the only way to truly bring those responsible to justice is if he takes on a new tactic: brutality.

Additionally, Peter throws all his rules out the window, even in a simple of act of web-swinging. Following the shot, Peter rushes Aunt May to the hospital. He swings through the city completely unmasked, to the grave concern of Aunt May.

This sequence is particularly upsetting when you consider the fact that Aunt May’s initial concerns are not even about her health. Rather, she expresses great worry that Peter Parker is exposing himself to the city. Even though the world knows who Spider-Man is, Aunt May worries about the vulnerability being Spider-Man presents.

The mask, though thin and redundant now that Peter’s identity is public, did instill a layer of protection between Peter and his enemies. They could never witness his fear, his hesitations, because the mask obscured it all.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #539 page 23. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

The Killer in Me

So, that semblance of safety no longer matters to Peter.

His subconscious now operates on a single track: revenge. As a result, a fear of his enemies and hesitation to take action upon them is no longer on Peter’s radar. In fact, he currently believes his enemies should fear him and what he is now capable of doing to them.

There are a variety of archetypes that often define a hero. Accompanying those archetypes are certain characteristics that contribute to a hero’s moral compass. Guilt is among those characteristics.

In the context of BACK IN BLACK, Peter blames himself for the shooting of Aunt May despite the fact that he was not the one who pulled the trigger. However, his sense of duty towards protecting loved ones such as Aunt May has total authority over his own perception of himself.

As aforementioned, Peter’s humanity has served as an anchor to Spider-Man. Thus, his humanity is the very reason why he wants to get revenge. His empathy has catalyzed his vengeful desires because the shooting of Aunt May has agonized him so.

Therefore, after leaving Aunt May at the hospital with Mary Jane by her side, Peter vows to find those responsible for the shooting in order to do what he believes he does best: hurting people.

Throughout the arc’s series of events so far, Peter’s perception of himself has obviously changed quite drastically. Sure, the symbol of Spider-Man is still grounded in humanity, but it is now also grounded in pain and retribution as a result of Peter’s empathetic nature.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #540 page 4. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

The Killer in You

Perhaps most significantly, Peter has come to realize that he is a violent hero. Though he has never killed anyone, he has a history of using his fists to resolve conflict. As a result, Peter has come to ask himself, what makes him different from those he puts behind bars when he too has hurt people?

His answer?

There is no difference, and he may not be completely wrong.

There is a newfound apathy Peter maintains towards criminals after he vows to find those responsible for Aunt May’s condition. This is first exemplified when he goes to interrogate some gun runners. He fights them in an unhinged manner, a byproduct of his current “one track mind.”

In addition to this mindset, Peter presents a new interpretation of Spider-Man to the world as he dons the classic black suit. Interestingly, Peter is aware of the connotations that come with the black suit. Yet, that is exactly what he wants.

Peter wants to provoke fear, intimidation.

He no longer wants to don the hopeful red-and-blue suit because that suit is no longer an accurate representation of what he is carrying internally. His hope and optimism were shattered with the bullet of the sniper.

As he takes down criminals, including Jake Martino, the sniper himself, Peter never displays his customary quips and witty comments. Rather, he showcases the violent streak he always curbed as he brutalizes Martino without wearing a mask. Thus, Peter’s anger is put on full display, and it is quite terrifying.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #40 page 15. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

What Could Have Been

Peter enters this confrontation with Martino wishing to kill him. Ironically though, before Peter can make that fatal move, Martino gets killed by a sniper. It is interesting to consider whether or not Peter would have actually killed Martino. Perhaps he would have hesitated. Perhaps he would have gone through with the killing, only to find himself immediately regretting it.

I find myself inclined to believe the latter due to the fact that Peter’s murderous attitude derives from a traumatic event and rash actions. Throughout this arc, he has not stopped himself to plan his next move. He simply goes on impulsively.

So, I believe that if he were to kill Martino, the red that has overcome his mind would have cleared, and he would have been horrified by his own actions.

Of course, this scenario never happened.

Martino dies before Peter has a chance to kill him. Yet, Martino’s death does not satisfy Peter completely. For Peter, there is still one person left who needs to die: Wilson Fisk.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #540 page 19. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

The Curtain Call

In fact, Peter tells Kingpin himself that his days are numbered. Interestingly, Kingpin maintains a collected response to Peter’s threat. Kingpin clearly believes Peter’s assertion to be ineffectual. He believes Spider-Man’s current hostile state of mind to be a byproduct of a series of rash actions, which is not totally wrong. Therefore, to Kingpin, Spider-Man does not truly maintain the audacity to become a murderer. Rather, Spider-Man’s threats to kill derive from fury rather than design and calculation.

Ultimately, Kingpin believes Spider-Man was not built to be a killer. He believes Spider-Man’s humanity to be a barrier that constrains the urge to kill. As of now, Peter Parker is seeing red. Once that red fades away, he will remain the individual he was before, just more guilt-ridden.

To bolster this perspective, Kingpin states that if Peter were to kill him, the act would violate the laws of nature. Wilson Fisk perceives himself as Peter’s contrast, the evil balance to Peter’s good, which is another reason why he believes Peter lacks the audacity to kill.

Thus, there is a sense of foreordination Kingpin is playing at. He perceives his role, and that of Spider-Man’s, to be inscribed in nature and time. As a result, Peter cannot become a killer because he is simply not destined to become one.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #540 page 25. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

A Tale of Two Predators

Now, what Kingpin has not considered is the blur between the binaries of good and evil, the blur between the respective roles Kingpin and Spider-Man have played over the years.

Perhaps Spider-Man is not wholly good. Perhaps he is not a total contrast to who Wilson Fisk is.

Their relationship thus exemplifies another characteristic of the archetypal hero: the concept that a hero needs an antithesis, an opponent to challenge them. Through this challenge, the hero proves to be the light contrast to their opponent’s dark, the good that is capable of overcoming all evil.

In the context of BACK IN BLACK, one can ultimately perceive Kingpin’s perspective of this concept as a misinterpretation.

Sure, he and Spider-Man fought against each other on opposite sides of the “heroic” spectrum a multitude of times. Additionally, Spider-Man may truly not have the audacity to kill.

However, Spider-Man is still capable of becoming a murderer. His humanity is no longer barring his vengeful desires. Rather, it is facilitating it. Today, Peter Parker is not trying to abide by the principles that have defined his heroism throughout his career.

Today, Peter Parker is simply seeking revenge. Therefore, Spider-Man now perceives himself as a predator. He wants to bring pain and blood to those who have crossed him.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #542 page 8. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Blood on His Hands

As aforementioned though, much of the blood Peter spills in this new state of mind derives from rash actions.

This ultimately crosses over into his conflict with Aunt May. During her time at the hospital, it is revealed that her condition is only worsening. Consequently, Peter makes yet another impulsive decision. He decides to give May an unauthorized blood transfusion, using his own blood. Peter displays complete awareness that the transfusion has a high risk of failure. However, his desperation reigns supreme as he goes through with the transfusion anyway.

Desperation is a state one falls into once they have been deprived of some condition that sustains them as a human being. The critical state Aunt May is currently in contributes to that loss Peter is experiencing. However, he has lost various other aspects including the stability that once existed within him. Kingpin has thrown Peter off balance, which was his intention.

Therefore, that loss of balance contributes to a loss of direction, which is why Peter succumbs to impulsive actions rather than collected planning.

Following the procedure, Peter does not take a moment to breathe nor does he sit to consider his next move. He simply tells himself he has to get back to the fight.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #542 page 15. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

The First Stage

It is safe to say that Peter’s absorption in this personal mission to defeat Wilson Fisk also derives from a desire to delude. Peter’s current reality is a bleak one, one that he is constantly depicted to be avoiding through fighting. He states that he cannot linger by Aunt May’s bedside because it runs the risk of people becoming aware that she is in fact related to Spider-Man (as Peter and Mary Jane admitted May to the hospital under an alias).

Yes, that may be a reason for Peter’s continuous departure. Though, it is worth pondering that Peter is seriously trying to avoid the truth.

Aunt May is dying. Peter is grieving, and perhaps succumbing to a more intense form of violence is the only way he can manage the truth about his loved one, the only way he can live with himself for what he believes to be a failure to protect her.

Peter does what he feels as though he must do, even if it is not the healthiest way to cope.

As a result, Peter goes to Kingpin, prepared to kill him.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #542 page 22. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

The Death of Wilson Fisk

This confrontation between Spider-Man and Kingpin is undoubtedly the climax of SPIDER-MAN: BACK IN BLACK. It’s a grand event. Kingpin dons his iconic white suit as Spider-Man wears the black suit once more. Before an audience of prisoners, Kingpin ridicules Spider-Man. He scoffs at Spider-Man’s previous, relentless faith in the law and in the common individual. Now, of course, that faith has been broken.

Ultimately, Kingpin ridicules Spider-Man’s naivety, his weakness in believing in the good in people. Thus, Kingpin believes he has won this battle since he has broken Spider-Man’s faith.

Yes, Spider-Man is broken for he is grieving. Spider-Man is enraged by the deplorable actions of people. However, the battle is still not over because Spider-Man continues to be driven by the rage Kingpin inflamed within him.

So, Spider-Man removes his mask, informing Kingpin that Peter Parker has come to kill Wilson Fisk.

Peter then proceeds to strike Kingpin over and over again.

He does not hold back. Peter wants to embarrass Kingpin. He wants to beat him to a pulp in front of an audience so that he may kill Fisk’s pride. Additionally, Peter takes this moment as a prelude to what he believes to be inevitable. Peter vows to Fisk that he will not kill him until Aunt May has died.

When that moment comes, Peter promises to grant Fisk a slow, painful death.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #543 page 13. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Spider-Man, No More

So, no, Peter does not kill Wilson Fisk in SPIDER-MAN: BACK IN BLACK. Yet, one cannot deny that though Peter did not cross this line, he did exemplify a Spider-Man persona that deviates greatly from his common characterization. Kingpin was wrong about Spider-Man. He believed that if Spider-Man lost his characteristic hopefulness, his humor, his light-heartedness, there would be nothing left.

Kingpin was wrong.

The man behind the Spider-Man mask maintains an aspect of humanity common to every person: darkness. Some people’s darkness goes deeper than others, but it is shared by all simply because every person experiences tragedy, disappointment, and doubt.

Peter Parker is no exception.

Thus, the shooting of Aunt May catalyzed a suppressed aspect of the Spider-Man persona, an aspect Wilson Fisk did not believe to exist.

Ironically, Fisk believed the event would contribute to Spider-Man’s complete downfall. Ultimately, it contributed to Fisk’s colossal embarrassment, an event Spider-Man will feel absolutely no regret for.

Following the battle with Kingpin, Peter goes to visit Aunt May. For the first time, he takes a seat and talks to her. Granted, Peter attempts to keep the conversation light, another indicator of his avoidance in accepting the reality at hand as we come to learn that the blood transfusion he conducted failed.

Even with the failure, Peter continues to assert that there must be some way to save May, even though the options have essentially run out.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #543 page 3. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Nine.

Despite that reality, Peter has Mary Jane assist him with one, final desperate act. They work together to get Aunt May transferred to another hospital. In the process, Peter amasses a number of felonies, adding to the list that has grown since THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #539.

The first comprises his failure to report on a gunshot wound after Aunt May was shot. His second felony came when he assaulted a police officer, his third came when he wrongfully imprisoned that same officer.

The fourth? Fleeing the scene of a crime. The fifth? Grand theft auto.

The sixth comprises Peter breaking and entering the hospital he transferred May too. Felony count #7, reckless endangerment, occurred when Peter riskily transferred May. Her heart even began to falter in the process.

Finally, felony counts #8 and #9, forgery and fraud, were committed through the counterfeit documents Peter formulated that permitted May’s transfer in the first place.

Now, after successfully transferring May, Peter finally takes a breath.

He goes outside, not in a web-swing but in a stroll. He reflects on his actions, his list of crimes.

Peter finally takes a long, deep look at his reality and accepts the truth.

He accepts the fact that Peter Parker is a criminal, and that truth has become his reality.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #543 page 25. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

What Lies Beyond

Peter Parker may technically be a criminal. However, one must question whether his crimes were committed for a heroic purpose. Of course, that does not disassociate him from the criminals he fights as they often justify their actions through the same reasoning.

Ultimately, the heroes we may perceive as light-hearted are completely capable of succumbing to darkness. They are capable of remorse, mistakes, violence, doubt, confusion. They are capable of blurring the lines between hero and criminal. Basically, they are capable of exposing their human self.

Everything Peter Parker did in the events of SPIDER-MAN: BACK IN BLACK derived from his empathy for Aunt May. His anger, grief, and repudiation came to the surface because of his human nature.

These sentiments do not necessarily make Peter Parker any less Spider-Man. Rather, they exemplify a facet of Spider-Man Peter suppressed. His actions in BACK IN BLACK surely blur the lines between hero and criminal as he exemplifies both personas in this arc.

Though, it is worth pondering, if we as human beings would have acted any different if we were to be in Peter Parker’s shoes.

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