Superior Spider-Man, that story where Doc Ock’s mind is living in Pete’s body. I’m sure there’s a good number of people who don’t like this arc, but to those people I’ve got something to say: the idea is great. It’s genius actually, but it’s just the initial execution that’s awful. Despite some pretty grotesque moments with Ock inhabiting Peter’s body, it is still one of my most favorite Spider-Man stories.
At no point does the story say, “Hey, look, Doc Ock’s a superior Spider-Man, he should totally be Spider-Man now.” Well, Doc Ock definitely says that, but the entire story is about him failing at it. The whole point of the story is that while he’s a more efficient Spidey, a more vicious fighter, more ruthless in the pursuit of goals, and more focused on progressing aspects of Pete’s life that Pete himself is usually bad at (he finishes Pete’s doctorate and gets a girlfriend), he’s ultimately not as good a Spider-Man.
The power of Spider-Man isn’t, at the end of the day, in the web-swinging and wall-crawling, but in Pete’s goodness. The things that make Spider-Man great are the traits which Flash Thompson cites as inspirational: he never quits, he always keeps going, he always does the right thing, no matter if everyone in New York hates him, and even if he never gets the thanks that he deserves. He’s going to go out there and try to do what he believes is good, and stop other people from getting hurt.
True, Pete’s a bit of a mess in other aspects, but although Doc Ock does some things that could increase the amount of good that Spider-Man does if he chose, by the end of the story it’s clear that Doc, lacking Pete’s moral compass and heart, could never be a better inspiration to others. He can’t be your “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man”, and while he does do certain practical tasks better than Pete did, he also ruins (or risks) a lot of the personal connections that Pete built up over the years by virtue of being the fundamentally good person that he is.
That’s the key: Superior Spider-Man used a villainous character in the role of a hero we love to examine why we love that hero, and why it’s the person, not the suit and powers, that makes him the hero we love. And it did so without ever trying to sell readers on any “this is the new status quo now and forever and what you used to read and love is a lie” nonsense. It’s allowed to tell a unique story with interesting ideas outside of the main Spider-Man continuity.
As a fan of both this run and Otto Octavius as a character, I can honestly say that it makes up for all the times I wished that Peter would be more brutal, less passive, maybe a little less obsequiously devoted to his responsibilities, and more reliant on his own power. It would certainly have made things easier for him over the years. However, that isn’t who Spider-Man is, and I love and respect him enough that I wouldn’t actually have him changed at any cost. But Otto…he can give me the brutal Spider-Man that I want. The tech upgrades. The genetic tampering. All the science Peter would never touch, coupled with the cold perspective towards crime that he’d never allow himself to have.
You’re not supposed to root for Otto, although you might find yourself doing so midway through the run despite yourself. I have several issues with this run that I won’t get into here, but the concept of Octavius embracing the mantle of Spider-Man simply because he wanted to be a good guy for once is one of the best-told stories in the Marvel Universe, with so much potential. You might say that’s being too forgiving, but call it whatever you want, you really don’t need to like Octavius to read and appreciate this story. In fact, you can just as easily applaud his failures. That’s the point: he sucks at this. The things that make Spider-Man truly unique elude him and he knows this, but he keeps at it anyway. Pete lacks Frank Castles brutality and Matt Murdock’s cynicism, yet Otto slides a mixture of both into his personality, giving readers an utterly different take on Spider-Man that is unique in its own way.
It’s easy to recognize in what ways Octavius “improved” on Spider-Man, but at the same time, it’s even easier to see where he went wrong. Case in point, the first thing he does upon arriving in San Francisco is to threaten Count Nefaria’s family. While an undoubtedly scummy move, it’s effective at getting attention, although Superior is a little outclassed when it comes to fighting a well-known Doctor Strange baddie. But you can honestly say you don’t know this man in the mask, and the great part about it is that the characters within the book come to that same realization.
Love it or hate it, Doc-as-Spidey is coming back, and I can only pray it’s executed in a better way than before – a way deserving of the brilliant concept. Octavius has a long way to grow as a hero, and while not isn’t entirely unfamiliar to him, it isn’t something he’s used to. Heroes will always look at him sideways. Villains he used to run with will side-eye him. They all know who he is, but they don’t know what he’ll do.