How Marvel Zombies Gave Us The Purest Version Of Spider-Man
When you think about Spider-Man, you probably think about the jokes, the quips.
You probably don't think about how he's a guilt-ridden sadsack whose whole existence is centered around waging a shameful war against events that he cannot change.
Yes, Spider-Man embodies many things, hope, and willpower. Bugs.
But, underneath all of that, you really have to remember that Peter Parker, Spider-Man's primary motivation, is the guilt he feels for failing his loved ones.
Sure, he first donned the mask to wrestle and appear on TV for selfish gain, but it wasn't until Uncle Ben died at the hands of a burglar that Peter Parker indeed became Spider-Man.
While other heroes out there might fight for honor or revenge or glory, Spider-Man is mostly motivated by knowing that he could have been better.
This gets dealt with a lot in Spider-Man comics, but in a surprising way, the zany, weird high concept Marvel Zombies actually reveals the most authentic version of Spider-Man.
What do I mean by that?
Well, let's get a little context first.
While the Marvel Zombies series quickly and erroneously be dismissed as just another cash-in during the Great Zombies Gold Rush in the mid-2000s, the mini-series along with its multiple sequels set the stage for a clever recontextualization and reexamination of a plethora of Marvel characters.
And most pertinent? Spider-Man.
A couple of notes here: The Marvel Zombies don't always present things linearly, so I'm going to shuffle them around for ease of making my point.
And secondly, it's essential to realize that these are bleak, bleak, dark books.
The series takes place on an Earth well within the throes of a zombie outbreak.
The hope of stopping it is futile; the dead rule the world.
But, you may not recognize the core cast of Marvel characters as your typical zombies.
They're intelligent; they still have their powers; they know what they're doing.
It's just that their entire existence is dictated by a ceaseless hunger that will never be sated.
Linearly, this is where we find Spider-Man first, turned by Cap, and then immediately set upon the two characters closest to him, literally and figuratively Spider-Man eats Aunt May and Mary Jane.
This is a genuinely shocking moment, not just because of who is getting destroyed, but because Spider-Man is a character who is understood to be pure of heart and incorruptible.
But here he is, engaging in an act that's so fundamentally repulsive to the idea of who Peter Parker is that it demands the character be examined under a new light.
Spider-Man finds himself in a cycle of hunger, shock, and shame.
One minute he may be getting a mouthful of J Jonah Jameson, and the next moment is losing his mind over his own horrid deeds.
And it's not to say the other heroes in the story don't feel guilty over their deeds too, none of them would have WANTED this, but the difference here is that they settle into their new identities as the human hungry living dead, while Spider-Man doesn't.
He's spent his whole life as a superhero challenging himself to be a better person than the person who let down his loved ones, and he's not stopping any time soon because he's a stinky dinky corpse.
It's notable that this entire time, his mask stays on.
In a world overrun by the dead, it seems that his mask would be without purpose -- but far from it!
Previously meant to hide his identity from bad guys to protect his loved ones; in this hellscape, the meaning of his mask is inverted.
He's trying to hide his own identity from himself.
To catch his reflection would mean he would have to fully accept that he, Peter Parker, is responsible for the terrible acts against his loved ones.
And it stays on as Marvel Zombies concludes it's an initial arc.
Silver Surfer arrives at Earth to herald the arrival of planet-eating Galactus, only to find an assortment of, you know, much hungrier folks.
HIs shiny space flesh imbues a team of zombie heroes with cosmic powers, so they can live out the dream of any zombie and set to the skies like a swarm of galactic locusts with the clear implication that these former heroes intend to consume all life in the universe.
Yes, even Spider-Man.
But things don't end there.
I mean, how could they?
Yes, Marvel Zombies 2 confirms that they do eat all of the existence over the next forty years, but this only opens the new chapter in the saga of Spider-Man's guilt.
When we pick up the story, the flesh-hungry horde is about to open up a new dimension to keeping the endless feast going.
Spider-Man has been kindling the small flame of self-flagellating humanity that remains in him, while shamefully acknowledging like, you know, Chris Evans in Snowpiercer, that he knows that human flesh tastes best.
And thus, the gang agrees to tear open a dimension to travel to another Earth for another new.
All You Can Eat buffet of human filet mignon.
But as it so happens, this journey takes time, and over time some begin to realize that the hunger inside is actually kind of quelled.
You know how sometimes you feel hungry, but then you eat like a little snack or have a glass of water, and you think "maybe I was just bored" or "I don't need to eat the whole universe and then another dimension on top of that" it's kind of like that feeling.
Just, you know, more severe.
A little bit.
It's with this newfound clarity that Spider-Man is able to get himself under control.
While other zombies like Hank Pym are getting excited to turn New Wakanda into a breeding camp so they'll never run out of food, Spider-Man's guilty conscious doesn't let him forget they're the villains.
This is huge for the character.
Sure, we've seen him sacrifice himself in all kinds of meaningful ways in ordinary stories to protect people, but here we have a crystal clear display.
Spider-Man fights for the things that aren't remotely in his self-interest, because ultimately he knows what's right and what's wrong.
And the things that he and his buddies are doing. They're wrong.
Only Spider-Man can feel guilt so intense, so persistent, so prevalent that he'd overcome being. A zombie.
So yeah, maybe he gets ripped in half a little bit by Gladiator, but his spirit is indomitable.
He's able the good fight and even rescues people like Luke Cage back to the side of good.
Spider-Man pulls himself back from the abyss.
And things, well they look great.
Remember, the flip side of Spider-Man's guilt is hope.
Hope that he can do better than the past, hope that he can right wrongs, and make life suitable for as many people as possible -- and we have that, a new peace, a world rebuilding,
zombies that no more prolonged hunger.
Everything seems okay.
But, this is a story about addiction - Addiction to human flesh, yes, but addiction none the less.
And when Spider-Man relapses, he relapses hard.
Ever smell something that kind of makes you instantly hungry?
Well, for a cannibal, what can be more appealing than the musky musk of the human-animal himself, Kraven the Hunter?
Despite his best efforts to contain his hunger, those good Kraven pheromones drive Spider-Man over the edge, and he tears into the guy and The Sinister Six. And then they all kind of go bananas on MJ and Harry Osbourne and Gwen and they all get caught up in the fray, and they get... eaten.
This one moment of weakness has enormous consequences. Spider-Man's guilt is pushed further than it has ever been pushed before.
He's solely responsible for this, for not keeping the badness inside himself contained.
For this first time, he removes his mask.
It's his way of finally accepting responsibility, forcing himself to confront that Peter Parker is the one at the root of all of this.
He can't disassociate.
So he does something even more extreme.
In a purely hideous display, he rips Peter Parker's face and skin from his body.
The gruesome panel, reminiscent of the painting Saturn Devouring His Son, is his admission of total defeat.
He leaves his flesh behind in a trash can, a clear homage to the distinguished panel from Spider-Man No More.
This is the lowest moment for the character in any story.
He shamefully murders the identity of Peter Parker but leaves his unchecked power and bloodlust to live and run rampant.
But somehow, that's not the end.
We know Spider-Man too well for us to give up hope that there's still some goodness left in him.
Yes, he's lost two Mary-Janes and Aunt May, and so much more.
But his guilt is too persistent for him to give in to his unholy addiction entirely.
Spider-Man is able to once and for all weaponize guilt, and you know, Sand Man's body, to end the onslaught for which he feels responsible.
We've seen Spider-Man run the ringer several times, whether it's Uncle Ben dying or Gwen Stacy or his best friend's Dad becoming a monster -- The bad things that happen around him that make him feel guilty are never really his direct action.
In Marvel Zombies, they are.
This is the kind of shot to the core shame that should end a lesser person, but he's still able to rise above and challenge himself to be a better person with every moment.
When it's at its hardest, he just has to try even harder.
At the end of all things, it's not Spider-Man's rotting body that refuses to die in Marvel Zombies; it's his will to do good.