The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters for “What If? Punisher #1.” Enjoy!
Every Wednesday, a new batch of comics comes out and for comic fans like me, it’s the biggest highlight of the week that doesn’t involve ice cream and whiskey. Within that batch of comics, it’s hard find the gems that really stand out. That’s why every week, I pick out a comic that I feel warrants extra praise.
This week, my quick pick is “What If? Punisher #1.” Now, this may seem like an odd selection. In fact, this comic is very much an anomaly. There was once a time where Marvel had an ongoing “What If?” series that basically offered alternate history takes on iconic characters and stories.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about how these stories are handled. For the most part, they’re hit or miss. They’re either really good or really bad. Rarely, if ever, are they fleshed out stories.
“What If? Punisher #1” finds a way to stand out because it does more than speculate on what would happen to Spider-Man if he chose a slightly different path. It actually explores the entire premise that with great power comes great responsibility. It even makes the case that the mainline Spider-Man in the long-running “Amazing Spider-Man” series is wholly irresponsible in his methods.
This is an idea that I’ve actually explored before. I once made the argument that Spider-Man is the most inept hero of all time. I got a lot of hate for that piece, mostly by long-time Spider-Man fans. I don’t blame them for a second. However, this comic actually takes some of the concepts I discussed and puts them into a cohesive story.
It doesn’t radically reinvent Peter Parker or Spider-Man. It also doesn’t radically alter his origin. He still fails to stop a burglar that goes onto murder his Uncle Ben. From that tragedy, he learns that critical lesson about power and responsibility. The only difference in this timeline is that great responsibility means killing his enemies, just like the Punisher.
It’s a line that the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man doesn’t dare cross most of the time. In nearly every famous iteration of Spider-Man, Peter makes clear that he does not kill. However, “What If? Punisher #1” makes the case that not only is this irresponsible. It actually played a part in hurting his loved ones.
How that happens and how it makes this case is something I won’t spoil. Since this is a “What If?” comic, though, there’s not room to dig deeper. There are more than a few gaps and oversights, but most of that is due to logistics rather than merit. At the very least, this comic asks some pretty damning questions about how Spider-Man approaches power and responsibility.
Even though most “What If?” comics are quickly forgotten and have no impact on the actual canon, this issue is worthy of my pick because the concept is so intriguing. It’s too brief and very much incomplete, but the ideas it presents are pretty remarkable. Not all Spider-Man fans will like it, but it’ll definitely get them thinking.
Whenever I talk about comic books and superheroes on this blog, I generally try not to single one particular character out unless I’m trying to make a point. I find that singling out one too many characters is like pointing out all the plot holes in a Michael Bay movie. It just becomes too frustrating and futile in the long run.
That means if I’m going to dedicate a post to a character, it better be for a damn good reason. They must be a uniquely compelling sex-positive female character or a potential prelude for future female villains. Well, after talking about why most superheroes are incompetent by design, I feel compelled to single out one particular character who is, within this context, the worst offender.
That character isn’t some obscure, little-known sidekick from a bygone era either. In this case, the worst case of inept superheroes who take their incompetence to the next level is one of the most recognizable superheroes of the past 50 years. He’s had multiple movies, multiple cartoons, and multiple actors play him with varying degrees of success and/or failure.
Yes, I’m talking about Spider-Man, also known as Peter Parker. He is, by far, the most recognizable and iconic of Stan Lee’s many creations. He’s also, by a ridiculous margin, the most profitable superhero in terms of merchandise sales. He makes enough money for Marvel every year for them to eat caviar every day off diamond-encrusted gold plates.
So why, then, is he so incompetent as a hero? Why is Marvel’s most iconic character a case study in how not to operate as a superhero? Well, some of it has to do with the built-in incompetence I mentioned before. Spider-Man can’t be too competent, otherwise his overall narrative just wouldn’t be as compelling and his toys wouldn’t sell.
However, compared to the many other orphaned heroes who get their powers through accident or tragedy, Spider-Man sets himself apart by not just screwing himself over, but also by undermining the very principles of power and responsibility that he espouses. That doesn’t just make him an incompetent hero. It just makes him misguided, albeit not on purpose.
So what exactly makes Spider-Man inept by both the standards of a superhero and the standards that he sets on himself? Well, that has everything to do with his tactics and how he goes about them. If you’ve ever read a Spider-Man comic, seen a Spider-Man movie, or watched a Spider-Man cartoon, you know those tactics well. It goes like this:
This is Spider-Man’s primary method for dealing with crime and irresponsibility. It is the primary structure of every major battle he’s ever fought, be it the Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, or Venom. While he wins/survives many of those battles, and even goes onto marry a supermodel for a while, it’s only when you step back and scrutinize the larger picture that you see how he loses his war against irresponsibility.
First and foremost, it’s important to establish that Spider-Man is one of those heroes who doesn’t kill. Like Superman and Batman, he goes out of his way to prevent the loss of life, be it innocent life or that of his enemy. That’s an understandable position to take. Killing is one of those unambiguous moral lines and many superheroes define their heroics by respecting that line.
For Spider-Man, however, this moral stand against killing is a major liability and the catalyst for his ineptitude. Granted, it’s not intentional, but the byproducts are unavoidable and those close to him have suffered as a result. Just ask Gwen Stacy.
Now I’m not saying Spider-Man is directly responsible for such suffering. Like all heroes, his intentions are good. He wants to help people. He wants to save lives. The problem is that, with his tactics, he’s doomed to hurt far more people than he helps.
This is because his tactics essentially guarantee that he will be a target, his loved ones will suffer, and his enemies will become stronger as a result. This isn’t just because Spider-Man refuses to kill them, although that is part of it. It’s because of the very persona that Spider-Man creates that his efforts are so inept.
Spider-Man, unlike Batman or Daredevil, doesn’t present a very intimidating presence. He’s many things, but intimidating isn’t one of them. His costume isn’t that intimidating. He doesn’t operate in the shadows or anything. He’s actually a well-known public figure, thanks largely to his own efforts and those of his boss, the ultimate blowhard that is J. Jonah Jameson.
This is a huge problem because it ensures that Spider-Man’s presence isn’t considered a major threat or danger to his enemies. He’s more of an annoyance or inconvenience. Whether they’re the Green Goblin or a simple mugger, they know Spider-Man isn’t going to kill them. He’s not even going to seriously wound them. He’ll just fight them, tie them up, and give them over to the police.
Even for those without access to overpaid lawyers, that’s not so much a threat as it is a frustration. On top of that, Spider-Man doesn’t really have meaningful conversations that get people to rethink their choices. He’s just cracks jokes, makes lewd comments, and generally carries himself with the maturity of a 13-year-old. Granted, this is part of his charm as a character, but it also ensures his tactics are doomed to fail.
It’s one thing to anger and annoy an enemy in the heat of battle. That can work to a hero’s advantage. However, the problems with Spider-Man manifest after the battle is over.
By annoying and angering his enemies, all he does is give them more incentive to fight him and hurt those he cares about. On top of that, he wears a flashy, distinct costume that’s easily recognizable in both night and broad daylight. It’s also well-known, thanks to his own efforts at taking pictures of himself and selling them to a newspaper.
Even before the era of smart phones and Twitter hacks, that’s putting a pretty big target on his back. He makes himself an identifiable figure on which his enemies can focus on. Even if they don’t know his identity, they know the source of their frustration. Since Spider-Man doesn’t scare them, they have every possible reason to fight him.
To make matters even worse, he gives his enemies a common threat to rally against. Anyone who knows anything about social psychology, or has just been to a Taylor Swift concert, knows that nothing unites people better than a common cause. He doesn’t just make his enemies stronger as individuals. He makes them stronger as a team. How is that responsible?
In essence, Spider-Man doesn’t intimidate his villains, doesn’t do anything to deter their irresponsible decisions, and gives them a common enemy to really around. If being responsible is deterring the kind of criminals that killed his Uncle Ben, then he’s the most irresponsible hero of all time.
I’m not saying Spider-Man has to start killing like the Punisher. I’m saying that his own tactics undermine his goals. Now you could make a similar criticism to characters like Batman or Daredevil because they don’t kill and their enemies constantly escape to torment them. However, there is one key difference that sets them apart.
Batman and Daredevil, despite their gaudy costumes, are intimidating. In fact, intimidation is a key tactic of theirs. Batman said it himself in the early scenes of “Batman Begins.” He seeks to strike fear in those that prey on the fearful. In this sense, he does succeed.
You could make the argument that because of Batman’s presence, there people in Gotham City who choose not to enter a life of crime. The prospect of dealing with Batman is scary. Fear is a powerful deterrent. Only the truly deranged criminals dare to enter this life and take on Batman. In that context, it makes perfect sense that the kind of villains he faces are the exceedingly deranged kind.
Spider-Man can’t make that claim. He can’t claim that he scares or intimidates people into not choosing a life of crime. If anything, his tactics may annoy ordinary people who wouldn’t otherwise consider such a life, but try it anyways just to shut him up or make a name for themselves.
Every hero is different. Every hero has their own set of tactics, goals, and ideals. However, no hero is as inept, incompetent, or irresponsible as Spider-Man. So long as he keeps doing what he’s doing, and Marvel has a huge financial interest in never allowing it to change, he’ll continue emboldening his enemies while guaranteeing that everyone around him suffers.
It’s both an irony and a tragedy. In his efforts to be responsible with his powers, Spider-Man conducts himself in the most irresponsible way possible. Even if it’s indirect and unintentional, the results are the same. He can still call himself a hero because of his principles. He just can’t call himself a very competent hero.