I know some of you out there might find a statement like this illogical, but I truly believe in all things in life — including superhero comic books — you can have too much of a good thing. Even the most exhilarating, pulse-pounding story can be overwhelmed and in effect, nullified by “too much:” too much exposition and plot, too many conflicting ideas, too many characters competing for screen time. This is an idea (or maybe better put, an opinion), my cohort-in-crime, Dan Gvozden, and I and Marvel/Amazing Spider-Man’s lead creators and editors have seemingly clashed over time and time again (or maybe any “debate” exists only in our heads and the tweets/interviews being conducted just happen to coincidentally address our criticisms all the same). And just because the dominant force in Spider-Man comics for the past decade, writer Dan Slott, is ending his tenure on the book next month, doesn’t mean that we still don’t expect the “too much” conundrum to disappear or be “off the table” for debate over these final issues.
Amazing Spider-Man #799, from Slott and Stuart Immonen, is a great case study in how an otherwise compelling story can get overburdened by the creative team simply inserting “too much” into the issue. Throughout this entire comic, which is setting up what is expected to be an all-out barn-burner in the jumbo sized ASM #800 in a few weeks, the drama and tension is palatable and unnerving. As has been noted in the previous two installments of this series, the marriage of Norman Osborn and the Carnage symbiote is the stuff of nightmares (in the best way possible for a book like this).
And yet, instead of closing this issue wondering “how in the world is Spider-Man/Peter going to get himself out of this” (as was the case when I reached the end of ASM #699 more than five years earlier), I find myself debating certain narrative twists and how they inadvertently set up major plot holes within the series. Or which of the assembly of new or established characters that were introduced truly demand my attention, or which are red shirts/canon fodder. It feels like all of these moving pieces and planted seeds has caused this story to go off the rails a bit, taking which should be an exhalatory experience and devolving it into something far more exhausting and “hard.”
Part of what made last year’s Spider-Man/Norman Osborn encounter (as well as the first two parts of “Going Down Swinging”) so compelling, was the personal nature of the storyline Slott was building. After years of big bombastic stories involving every corner of the Marvel and/or Spider-verse, readers were finally getting a good old-fashioned blood feud, Spidey versus Gobby, this time for all the marbles. Classic stories featuring these two like “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” or “The Revenge of the Green Goblin” never needed the addition of long-lost dead spouses, or spider-heroes from another multiverse (or Clayton “Clash” Coles) to work, because the joy of these stories is rooted in their simplicity: Norman does an unthinkably evil thing to Spider-Man and the audience needs to see how he responds and recovers. That exact scenario is set up at the end of ASM #798: Spider-Man has been savagely beaten and humiliated by Norman and is forced to give up the mantle of Spider-Man. So Peter vows that while Spider-Man may be down and out, Norman still has to contend with Peter Parker. Sign me up. Let’s do this guys.
Except in this issue, contending with Peter Parker entails Peter playing the role of Spider-Oracle, sending the likes of Miles Morales, Silk, Human Torch and CLASH of all people (where we even get a trite “yeah I know you’ve been a bad guy, but here’s your chance to help me out and be good” exchange between the two characters), into battle against a reimagined villain with no perceived weaknesses. Not only does this “plan” from Peter seemingly fly in the face of the “I need to go it alone and without the webs” rallying cry he put forward at the end of the previous issue, it also appears to violate the “deal” he struck with Norman in ASM #798 (except Norman here exposits that the deal wasn’t “technically” violated — because I guess murderous supervillains are drawing very strict contracts with their superhero adversaries these days).
Just to give you another example of the slippery slope “too much” creates, here’s a hypothetical for you: If the Norman Osborn/Carnage alliance is as unholy as Peter believes it to be (and to Slott/Immonen’s credit, this story, at no point, shortchanges the threat level of the Red Goblin), why not just call in the Avengers to help him take care of business, rather than a ragtag group of buddies and Spider-people. It’s not like “Earth’s Mightiest” have had zero experience with Norman.
(Honestly, I’m not trying to play the Monday Morning Quarterback game here and create some fan fiction for your entertainment, but these are some of the plot holes that started to present themselves to me over the course of this issue).
To the issue’s credit, these scenes are beautifully rendered by Immonen, as he captures the diverse assembly of powers and personalities with imagination and wonder. The pace briskly moves almost like a big budget Marvel movie as Osborn turns back every attack with a frightening lack of effort until he makes his ultimate intentions known — escalating the long-running Osborn family drama involving Harry, Liz Allan and Normie, and thereby introducing yet MORE plotlines to the mix (including one, involving Normie, that we’ve seen multiple iterations of over the years).
Meanwhile, after Peter’s ill-conceived plan to outsource all of his superhero protection needs to his Spider-buddies, falls apart, he happens about a potential solution to overcoming the unbeatable foe by happenstance — and through no credit or ingenuity of his own. As a result, the “exchange” between Spidey and Anti-Venom feels completely unearned, not to mention unoriginal, as things appear to be set up for yet another Slott epic to be resolved via the powers of his more than a decade-old creation, Anti-Venom (I get that creators have a rational attachment to their creation, but Slott’s frequent reliance on the Macguffin-like Anti-Venom feels tired and played out by this point and I honestly expected something better — and hopefully will get something better — for his swan song).
Ultimately, none of these factors makes ASM #799 a “bad” comic by any stretch, but it is unquestionably a frustrating and disappointing one — and the “letdown” I was fearing was possible after a steady build over the past few issues. Slott and Marvel obviously have ample time and room to redeem this story in ASM #800, but in doing it, they’re going to need to embrace an idea that has otherwise been anathema to them, “less is more.”