This is the latest installment in my series exploring romantic archetypes in literature and in life through Spider-Man comics. So far I’ve used Peter’s relationship with the Black Cat as a lens to examine our relationships with the people we can’t stop flirting with even though we know it’ll be trouble yet we passionately jump in anyway. Then I used Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane to consider the idea of a Soul Mate as well as the experience of finding and losing “the one.” This time I’m looking at the alternate reality comic series The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows as a way to contemplate the romantic idea of the “What if…?” person (or people) we all have in our lives.
Created by Dan Slott, continued by Gerry Conway and Ryan Stegman, and concluded by Jody Houser, The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows was a “Secret Wars” (2018) tie-in series that quickly took on a life of its own. Running from August 2015 through November 2018, the series was set in an alternate universe (Earth 18119 specifically, if you want the hardcore nerd knowledge) where the events of 2007’s still-controversial “One More Day” storyline never occurred. Here, Mary Jane and Peter never sold their marriage to Mephisto. Instead they continued to grow as a couple, ultimately having a (superpowered) daughter, Anna-May Parker. Slott’s original “Secret Wars” tie-in series delivered a dystopian tale where a supervillain named Regent had killed the Avengers (and any other superheroes standing in his way) on his rise to power. To protect his family, Peter decides to allow Spider-Man to “die” as well, retiring from the hero life for good. But trouble comes for the Parkers as Annie’s powers begin to manifest with increasing strength in a world where Regent kills, imprisons, or conscripts anyone with powers. To save his daughter, Spider-Man will swing into action once more to defeat Regent. The twist is Mary Jane and Annie suit up alongside Peter! Annie uses her own spider powers while Mary Jane uses Regent’s power-stealing tech to “share” Peter’s spider abilities. It’s all a very clever, very fun story.
Readers took to the concept immediately so Marvel naturally turned it into an ongoing monthly series after the initial five issue “Secret Wars” miniseries came to a close. As the regular series moved on, Conway quickly dropped the dystopian vibe and the city and world of Renew Your Vows began to feel just like the regular Marvel Universe, albeit with twists. Here Peter is still taking pictures and trying to sell them to the Daily Bugle (no PhD or Parker Industries here) and Mary Jane is running MJ’s, a boutique in SoHo. While Peter struggles to find new ways to snap engaging pictures of Spidey (and does a little substitute work as a photo teacher), Mary Jane’s business is steadily growing after the endorsement of some influential fashion bloggers.
Annie is eight-years-old, as of issue #3, and will be sixteen by issue #12, after the series does an eight year time leap. The most central feature of this series, even beyond superheroics, is family. Renew Your Vows drops us right into their day-to-day life, letting us see how Mary Jane and Peter manage their finances, take turns making dinner, attend kids’ birthday parties, struggle just to stay awake some days, and – of course – indulge in “family fun nights.” They wrestle with where Annie should go to school, debating between leaving her in her public school or sending her to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters to learn to use her powers alongside other mutant children. (In a fun twist, Wolverine and Jean Grey are married in this universe (with their own daughter!) and running the school.) Most of the major players from Spidey’s life (at least from the late ‘70s through the mid ‘90s) are here too. We see J. Jonah Jameson, Glory Grant, Liz Allen, Betty Brant, etc., all in roles that aren’t too far from those classic Spider-Man story molds.
We get to see the Parkers do everything a normal family does…and, you know, fight crime together.
After the battle with Regent, the Spider Family becomes “a thing” and New York City gains two new web-wearing protectors. Mary Jane becomes “Spinneret” and Annie, much to her chagrin, gets the name “Spiderling.” One of the series’ best running jokes is how the ridiculous overabundance of spider-themed heroes makes it impossible to come up with any good spider-related names XD. Together they fight everyone from the Mole Man to Magneto. Some of the best battles are the ones we only see glimpses of while their family banter/plan-making plays out over top of it as though battling the villain of the week is as average for the Parkers as grocery shopping or sorting the mail.
The series is light, fun, and a li’l wacky in all the right ways. BUT you’re probably sitting there wondering what any of this has to do with romantic archetypes. Well I had to set the stage people! You see, this series is a perfect comic book example of the “What if…?” person in our lives.
This, I think, is a universal experience. We all have this person (or people) in our past. You know the one. Maybe they were someone we liked but never found a way to connect so we pined for them from a far. Maybe they were a friend with whom we had a few romantic sparks but never found a way to fan those sparks into a full-fledged flame. Maybe they were someone we started dating but life intervened, as it so often does, and it all came undone before it really got started. Or maybe they were someone with whom we had a real relationship, spending significant time and building real memories together, but it still didn’t work out in the end. Whatever relationship (or lack thereof) we had with this person, they are the one we often turn to when our minds wander and we begin to wonder – What if things went differently? What if we had ended up together after all?
Again, I feel this is universal. Sometimes this wondering is driven by unhappiness in our current romantic situation, turning to the pleasure of imagined alternate paths when life is filled with less frustrations or ambiguity. But, more often than not, these imaginings are born of an idle mind and curiosity. We are designed, biologically, for community. We are designed, theologically, to love. Our loving relationships (romantic but also familial, platonic, and – if we’re really good – agapic) are the most important things in our lives. In loving relationship, we are literally doing what we were made to do. We’re also imaginative creatures. So it’s only natural that we’d wonder, from time to time, what life would have been like if we made some different choices or if some things had turned out differently.
In those idle moments where our minds wander and create, the longer we let them go the more we may imagine. What would it have been like if the relationship started? What would it have been like if it went longer? What if we had gotten married? What if we had kids together? What would my life be like now, so many years later, if we’d gotten together or were still together? And THIS is exactly what The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows is about! These questions form the very foundation of this series. Heck, in this light, Earth 18119 is a literal alternate reality built from the what-might-have-beens of Earth 616’s Peter and Mary Jane. (Earth 616 is the main Marvel Universe in the comics (sorry if the numbers are making this more convoluted (I invoked them to make that point a little clearer but now I’m not sure if it helps (it may actually hurt (but I’ve already opened this many parenthesis to consider it so I think I’m just going to leave it, close ‘em, and move on)))).)
In showcasing all these what-might-have-beens, the series offers a very idealized version of family life. We don’t see any major fights or problems within the Parker clan. Sure they talk about their budget but they don’t really ever struggle. Mary Jane worries she’s too much of a burden on Peter with no powers of her own (a point that leads to MJ inadvertently allowing herself to join with the Venom symbiote in one story arc) and they both worry about Annie in combat, but all those would-be issues are quickly talked out and resolved. While this Hallmark movie approach to storytelling is certainly comforting and entertaining in its own way, it doesn’t really speak to reality. In Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows there’s hardly any tension between Peter and MJ, certainly not any problem that isn’t resolved within a few panels – an issue at most. The most consistent struggle they face is Annie’s desire to be treated with more responsibility and independence when it comes to the use of her powers and, recurring an issue though it may be, it is always solved with a Full House-esque chat and hug. Not that I’m complaining! In a time of increasingly dark narratives (and with a character like Peter Parker who’s always plagued by his horrible “Parker Luck”) this all makes for a wonderfully bright and enjoyable read.
It’s also part of why The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows is so perfect an illustration of the “What if…?” person! When we let our minds wander down those roads of what-ifs and what-might-have-beens, we tend to find idyllic visions of our life. I mean who imagines what their life might’ve been like arguing about how much to put in the savings account or why the dishes are always left in the sink with someone from their past?? No one! Why would anyone do that?!? When we think about what might have been we imagine the good things we may’ve had together. We imagine the best. It’s only natural. And I love how this series gives us that!
Of all the major relationships in Peter Parker’s life – Betty Brant, Gwen Stacy, Felicia Hardy/the Black Cat, Mary Jane, Cindy Moon/Silk, Carlie Cooper, Bobbi Morse/Mockingbird, etc. – Mary Jane is the most significant. She’s been with Peter the longest (in real time and in comic book narrative time) and she’s been through the most with him (as the only girl Peter’s ever married (in the 616 universe) and the only one Peter’s faced the trials of pregnancy and the pain of miscarriage with). Given this history and the central role MJ plays in Peter’s life, she’s the obvious choice for Peter’s main What if…? person. If Peter (in the 616 universe (the main Marvel Universe (where he is currently not with Mary Jane (well, they’re together but not married (ugh, these parenthesis aren’t really helping the way they normally do (anyway…)))))) was to let his mind drift off and imagine what might have been with one of the women in his life, Mary Jane would probably be his foremost contender. Heck, doing just this very thing led him to try and reconcile with MJ at the beginning of Nick Spencer’s run.
This series however takes that idea and runs with it, allowing readers to get a glimpse into what Spider-Man’s life could have been like if he didn’t sell his marriage to the devil (…ugh) and became father to a superpowered daughter. It’s the Spider-Man we all know and love with the life many of us have always wished for him! We all play these little imaginative games in our own lives, our minds all creatively wander from time to time. But with The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows we get to see what Peter’s might have been could have been like.
Some comic book series (The Amazing Spider-Man, The X-Men, Action Comics, Detective Comics, etc.) will never end. Others do. The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows came to a close with issue #24. While I loved the series, I didn’t mourn it’s end. In fact, I was happy it ended. This was a series that had to end. Why? Well, no matter how enticing our “What if…?” person may be, at the end of the day, we’re just imagining what might have been. It may be perfect and fun and intriguing and, sometimes, a nice break from reality. But we can’t stay lost in our imagination forever. Following the same way model, Peter’s what might have been in the form of Earth 18119 couldn’t last forever either.
And that’s okay. In the BRILLIANT 2009 film (500) Days of Summer (seriously, it’s probably my favorite film about love ever (and that’s saying something)), Matthew Gray Gubler’s character Paul has a small scene where he’s talking to the camera about his “dream girl” in comparison to his wife, Robin. He says, “The ‘girl of my dreams’ would probably have, like, a really bodacious rack, you know uh, maybe different hair. She’d probably be a little more into sports. But, um, truthfully, Robin’s…Robin’s better than the girl of my dreams. She’s real.” Just as our imaginative trips eventually come to an end, so too did The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows, reminding us, in all it’s complexity and confusion, what we find in real life is always going to be better than all the half loves we can imagine – no matter how creative, happy, and enticing they may be.
Want more of my li’l series exploring romantic archetypes using Spider-Man comics? Well you’re in luck! Check out:
Spider-Man and Black Cat: Flirting with Perfection to see how the Black Cat represents those people we know may be wrong for us and/or we know it won’t work out with in the long run…but we’re drawn to them all the same and we seemingly can’t stop flirting with or the pursuing them no matter how hard we try :).
Spider-Man and Mary Jane: Soul Mates? (Y/N/Maybe) for an examination of Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship, with a focus on the question of Soul Mates as well as the classic romantic tropes of the will-they-won’t-they and best-friends-first relationships.
Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy: All the Beautiful Angst of First Love to consider how Gwen Stacy has far more significance than just “the girl who died” and how her relationship with Peter perfectly presents all the awkward, cringy, and still oh-so-magical moments of the first time we fall in love.
Spider-Man and Silk: You Gotta Love A Physical Attraction looks at Peter and Cindy Moon’s relationship as an example of those people who inexplicably turn us on. The attraction, the draw to these people, is like a force of nature, completely beyond our control. It’s fun buuuut complicated without romantic feelings, too.
Spider-Man and Captain Marvel: The Super Friend Zone which uses the one date Peter and Carol Danvers went on as the frame to examine the friends we’re attracted to, the nature of “the Friend Zone,” and what we do when, consequences be damned, we start to feel a li’l romantic chemistry percolating in a platonic pairing.
Spider-Man and Betty Brant: Complicated Affairs of the Heart uses one of the oldest characters in Spider-Man’s character history to explore everything from first crushes and first dates to the confusing pull of falling in love with someone who’s married.
Spider-Man and Michele Gonzales: Hook-Ups, Hang Ups, and Bad Habits and explore how all the personal problems and issues and baggage we have that we refuse to acknowledge/own/see can hurt our ability to make it work with a really fantastic partner, as well as what happens when we meet someone who calls us on all our shit.
Spider-Man and Mockingbird: The Allure of the Workplace Romance looks at Peter’s relationship with Bobbi Morse during his time as CEO of Parker Industries to consider why we are so drawn to the workplace romance…and what awkwardness may be waiting for us if it doesn’t work out.
Spider-Man and Jessica Jones: Harkening Back to the High School Crush opens the door to reminisce about allllllllllll those awkward, anxiety-filled high school crushes we had and could never find the courage to act on while also considering the influence we may have on all the people we hardly know who come in and out of our lives.
Spider-Man and Jean DeWolff: The Lonely Echo of Unrequited Love is a sort of mirror to the cute-anxious experience of the crushes we don’t voice in high school, as it examines the very real pain we can carry in our hearts when we love someone who has no idea how we feel nor loves us back in the way we love them.
Spider-Man and Debra Whitman: Substitute People and Surrogate Relationships explores the toxic relationships we find ourselves in when we don’t articulate our boundaries and advocate for our own needs within our relationships, why we may struggle to do so, and briefly considers the nature of abusive relationships as well.