Please be forewarned that in order for me to get into critical detail of this comic, I have to get a little spoilery. If you haven’t read Amazing Spider-Man #796 yet and want to be surprised, I recommend holding off on reading this review.
It’s personally difficult for me to view each of the three installments of the Amazing Spider-Man “Threat Level: Red” arc (which concluded this week in the pages of ASM #796) through anything other than the most schizophrenic lense possible. In a vacuum, these were all perfectly cromulent one-and-done stories that slowly but surely (and in a fashion that Dan Slott might as well own a patent for as he has used it so often in his 10 years on ASM) have built to a very intriguing larger arc (the rise of the Red Goblin). And yet each of these comics contain some individual moments that are so vexing in their sloppiness and haphazardness, it is difficult for me to come to any kind of consensus of what I actually thought of the issue.
I know, I know: reviewer’s problems. AmIrite?
Let’s start with the main story itself, since it’s probably the most innocuous part of the issue. The story, which is plotted by Dan Slott but scripted by Christos Gage again, moves deftly between Spider-Man the web-slinging superhero and a down-on-his-luck Peter Parker that it could have easily been published during the ballyhooed Roger Stern or Tom DeFalco runs on the book without feeling a bit out of place. ASM #796 finds the main hero in his version 1.0 format, i.e., his most classic. At his core, Spider-Man is the everyman hero who occasionally finds himself overcoming the odds in such amazing fashion that it lends credence to the idea that he might be good at this whole superhero-ing thing. And yet, those who truly know the character, understand that watching him bumble and stumble is often the most entertaining part of that journey.
In this instance, the comic introduces an excellent subplot of Flash Agent Anti-Venom Thompson beating Spidey to crime scenes and one-upping him in the field – even performing triage of a victim who has suffered a horrible wound at the hands of another bungler, Boomerang. Feeling Spidey’s frustration drip from Gage’s script is so familiar (in a good way), it essentially negates some of the brand new 2018 noise that is weaving in and out of the narrative, like the book finally acknowledging that J. Jonah Jameson knows Spider-Man’s secret identity over in that OTHER comic a few months back.
The only thing holding a lot of these moments back from pure Spider-Man comic nirvana is the Mike Hawthorne/Terry Pallot art team, which struggles in the depiction of a critical element of this story: the out-of-costume supporting cast. Spider-Man, Venom and the Goblin Army all look better than fine during their action sequences, but Peter, Liz Allan, Mary Jane Watson, Betty Brant, et al, feel loosely composed. It’s something that wouldn’t be as noticeable in an issue that’s full of blockbuster hero vs. villain sequences, but it is far more distracting when nearly half the book’s plot is driven by the non-costumed character moments.
Meanwhile, Norman Osborn’s slow evolution into a Carnage/Goblin monster is being unveiled at a perfectly nuanced pace (now if only speculative buyers could show similar restraint). After three appearances of Osborn and the Carnage symbiote, it still remains unclear exactly what kind of unholy alliance is about to be unleashed on Spider-Man and his supporting cast. But in this instance, the slow-burn mystery is a very good thing. Osborn/Carnage is absolutely terrifying in just how quietly the character’s new layers are being pulled back by the creative team. And yet, the character’s internal power struggle is already setting the stage for a probably achilles heel that can be exploited by Spider-Man (or maybe Slott just intends to kill Peter Parker again in his final issue).
However, in the midst of all of this well-executed unfurling, the past few issues have also featured a rearranging of a number of pieces on the game board in terms of Spider-Man’s supporting cast, that are far more questionable and flummoxing. In ASM #795, readers were inexplicably treated to an off-panel break-up of Peter and Bobbi Morse/Mockingbird, which was executed with as little grace and tact as possible (especially when considering the possible union of the two of them had been teased and built up within the pages of ASM since the first issue of volume #4 in 2015). That stumble was seemingly one-upped in ASM #796, when MJ — with absolutely zero cause or justification — decided to unfreeze Peter from his persona non grata status and not only welcome him and superheroic hijinks back into her life, but invite him in such a fashion that involves the privacy of a closed door.
I’m sure there are a contingent of fans who are desperate for any kind of reconciliation between these two characters. And while I tend to agree, the book is more “fun” when MJ is a part of the story in some fashion, the setup of this issue smacks of a creative team just cramming the subplot in, and worry about the details later. Considering how Peter/MJ (in the mainstream Marvel Universe) has been the third rail of Marvel Comics since “One More Day” in 2007, one would think that even a tease of the two of them doing something “romantic” would have a little more build-up than the slapdash presentation we got in this issue. If for no other reason than it’s just the appropriately dramatic thing that good storytellers do with characters people care about. I hate dwelling on something like this, but like the Peter/Bobbi break-up, the growing collection of mishandled ASM scenes are egregious enough to ruin entire issues/arcs worth of an otherwise decently told story.