‘How come (insert superhero here) doesn’t just kill the bad guys? Then the bad guys wouldn’t be able to get out and hurt more people,’ inquire many comic book fans. Ok, enough with the straw man. Comic book heroes who don’t kill people shouldn’t start, and I can think of no better example of why than issue five of “Superior Spider-Man” (2013–2014) from Marvel Comics. Taking place in the larger context of the “Superior Spider-Man” story arc, Peter Parker’s mind has been hijacked by longtime nemesis Doc Ock, who has resolved to be a more effective crimefighter, while Peter’s consciousness can do little else than occasionally give minor input or allow one of his greatest enemies to access his memories.
The issue picks up after a mass shooting at a fast-food joint that has been dubbed the “Burger Town Massacre.” No, you didn’t read that wrong. Spider-Man is fighting a mass shooter, bearing the aptronym “Massacre.” While the shooter is not without his fantastical elements (he does have a visible metal plate sticking out of his head), Massacre is a shockingly real villain. He’s not a guy with the ability to control water, and he can’t fly — he’s just really good at killing people with guns and bombs. He doesn’t see people as targets — he sees them as resources — which Spider-Man discovers when he finds a group of five hostages strapped to explosives early in the story. The real emotional gut-punch, though, is the issue’s ending. After tracking Massacre to Grand Central Station, the villainous Spider-Man beats him quickly, though does little to slow the carnage. Ultimately, he catches Massacre off guard and picks up a gun himself, pointing it at Massacre’s head, execution-style. While I’m not queasy when it comes to guns, there is something deeply unnerving about Spider-Man holding an assault rifle. This is the point, though, and we see Peter’s inner strength personified in a ghostly vision of himself that begs Spider-Man not to go through with it. Massacre himself, who up to this point has been shown as devoid of emotion, begins sobbing and saying it’s the first time he’s been afraid in a long time. All the while, Spider-Man asks the crowd what he should do, with one bystander even screaming for him to “do it.” After almost three agonizing pages, Spider-Man pulls the trigger, his mask lit up by the muzzle flare.
Superior Spider-Man’s fifth issue is a departure form the superhero formula, taking on several weighty concepts and juggling them all effectively. It asks a lot of readers, more so than almost any other issue of the book that succeeds it. Writer Dan Slott had a debate over the extremes of Spider-Man’s brand of vigilante justice, its effectiveness, and addressed the mass shooting epidemic all in an issue of one of Marvel’s flagship titles. If nothing else, issue five deserves to be remembered as a daring leap that sticks a landing that introduced a welcome shade of realism to the typical Spider-Man canon.