I feel I write about Spider-Man and his being a member of the Avengers tangentially in a lot of posts. It’s often an aside, here or there. Honestly, I’ve never been a fan of Spidey being an Avenger (or part of the Fantastic Four’s Future Foundation or anything). I’ve always seen Spider-Man as a solo act, Peter Parker’s character not readily lining up with the whole “super team” thing. Plus, is swinging around and sticking to things really the type of small-time power set you want when battling Thanos, Kang the Conqueror, Annihilus, or Ultron? Still, that’s my bias and it’s anchored in my preconceived notions. So I decided I wanted to sincerely look at the idea of “Spider-Man, Avenger” with an open mind. The time to make an informed decision had come!
To do this, I treated myself to reading much of Brian Michael Bendis’ run writing the Avengers. He made Spider-Man an official Avenger and he featured prominently on the New Avengers (as well as the main Avengers team, for a time). So I read Bendis’ New Avengers (2004) #’s 40-64 and New Avengers (2010) #’s 1-34. I also read his Avengers (2010) #’s 1-16. Those were the issues where Spidey was on the main/priority/proper Avengers team and they fell in the middle of his time with the New Avengers.
Before I get into those comics, I want to clearly state my biases. The reason I’ve never liked Spider-Man as an Avenger is he never felt like he fit there to me. Reading comics as a kid, Spider-Man was never on a superhero team. Sure, Peter Parker once tried to get on the Fantastic Four (back in The Amazing Spider-Man #1 in 1962!) but that was to try and get a paycheck. While he’d always stand alongside the heavy hitters – your Fantastic Four, your X-Men, your Avengers – when the Marvel Universe was in danger, he was a solo act. In fact, in many ways he scorned the establishment. Peter Parker was always the outsider, the loner, and Spider-Man carried that, too. One of the things that bothers me with Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is how desperately he wants to be an Avenger. That wasn’t Spider-Man! Ever! In the comics, even as a teenager he was never prone to hero worship. In fact, he rejected an Avengers membership on several occasions. Spider-Man didn’t seek the approval of others! Rather, he sarcastically mocked everyone – especially those who didn’t freely accept him. He was who he was and you could take him or leave him, thank you very much.
His powers don’t seem a fit for the world-saving, universe-saving, reality-saving battles the Avengers always find themselves in, either. Reading the first 100 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, all written by Stan Lee himself, I saw he was solely a neighborhood hero. Peter spends most of his time dealing with organized crime – the Kingpin, Silvermane, the Schemer, Hammerhead, etc. – and he fights bank robbers, muggers, gangsters, and hired muscle as often as supervillains. All the supervillains he faces are localized threats, too. Sure, they may cackle about “taking over the world” but it’s always with a ray gun they lifted from some lab or the bonds or jewels they stole in a briefcase or out of a bank truck or something. So it’s clear Stan Lee never envisioned Spider-Man to be an Avengers-level hero. He was the everyman. He was a kid and then a young adult who was always hard on his luck but when he donned his webs he became this colorful costumed outlet for all his angst. He didn’t need or want your acceptance and his focus was the neighborhoods of New York. This local feel very much shaped all the Spider-Man stories I read in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. Then when I returned to reading comics in 2015, the first I heard about Spider-Man ever being an Avenger was when Deadpool harassed him for quitting the team in Spider-Man/Deadpool #1.
So for me Spider-Man was never an Avenger. The idea of him being on the Avengers in fact felt very antithetical to the core of his character.
Brian Michael Bendis would see a very different vision of the web-head though and Peter Parker would become a foundational part of the New Avengers. In the immediate wake of the “Secret Invasion” (the big Marvel Universe crossover event where like a zillion Skrulls had infiltrated every conceivable level of society including super teams), a hushed call went out to form/reform the New Avengers as a sort of secret, underground team.
Norman Osborn, the infamous Green Goblin, had played a decisive role in stopping the Skrulls and as a result the security for the planet was handed over to him. S.H.I.E.L.D. was torn down and recast as his H.A.M.M.E.R. organization. This would begin the “Dark Reign” (another crossover event). He gathered a team of supervillains together to take up the mantles of classic heroes to do his bidding as his own Avengers team (aptly referred to as the “Dark Avengers”). This is what drives the New Avengers underground. Hunted by those in power, they would oppose Osborn and his Dark Avengers at every turn until they could expose him for the monster he truly is.
I actually loved seeing Spider-Man as part of the New Avengers! I would go so far as to say Bendis’ New Avengers became one of the best titles I’ve ever read. So, while I came to it well after the original hype, I see why the title has the reputation it does. This team will spend the majority of their time battling demons and supernatural threats, the Hood and his crime gang, and (of course) Norman Osborn and his Dark Avengers as he comes to power, falls, comes to power again, and so on and so forth.
The threats felt more “localized” than what I traditionally associate with the Avengers and the team certainly had a more “neighborhood” feel to it with heroes like Spider-Man, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and eventually Daredevil all playing such significant roles in the series. Squirrel Girl was even the nanny for Jessica and Luke’s daughter Danielle! But this wasn’t what made me like the series nor what made me love Spider-Man joining them.
First, he’s just funny and Spider-Man’s humor – especially his use of humor to diffuse tension – felt welcome alongside the sorts of threats the Avengers normally face. Also, it’s something I’ve realized I do sometimes, use humor to avoid addressing a more serious issue, take a compliment, or diffuse tension or discomfort. So seeing that there made the team feel more real to me…if that makes sense. There were many moments as I read where I found myself thinking, “Yep, if I was facing a demon horde that’s probably exactly how I’d react.” So I appreciated that.
But second and far, far, far, far, faaaaaaar more important was alongside the New Avengers Peter Parker found a family. He found a place to belong. Yeah, I’ve always seen Spider-Man as a solo act and, for much of his comic career and almost all of my time reading his comics, he was just that. But in reading New Avengers I realized in stark clarity how CRAZY UNHEALTHY it is to shoulder all those sorts of burdens all by yourself! Sure, Peter Parker is the consummate outside/loner but who wants to live that way?? In seeing Peter join the New Avengers I got to see him let his guard down, accept help, and share the ridiculous load of guilt and grief he always so obstinately carried on his own. I got to see him grow from the teenager and young adult who refused to let anyone in into an adult who can admit he needs help, can’t do it alone, and is willing to let others in to find the love and support he needs.
Reading that made me so happy! I saw this character I’ve loved since before I could even read finally, finally, finally find people who would accept him and help him. Watching him willingly unmask and share both sides of his identity with his teammates was a surprisingly moving experience for me. And in doing that they became more than just his teammates. They became natural supports. They became confidants. They became family.
I’ve often said one of the greatest truths I’ve learned in life is that family is the most important thing in the world. Family are the ones who are always there for you, no matter what. However, “family” has nothing to do with blood. Blood is all about who you’re related to. Family are those to whom you are bonded in and through love. We may share that loving bond with our blood relatives. It’s great when we do! But family is forged in love and it’s in love where we find true strength, support, compassion, and care. After reading decades of comics where I’d watch Peter lament how nothing he does ever works out and how being Spider-Man only brings pain and heartache to his own life and the lives of all those he loves, I FINALLY saw Peter let others in and let them help him carry the burden of being a superhero. It was beautiful! The stories were fun and funny and exciting too, but their power lied in the beauty of Peter reaching out in trust to others and, in so doing, beginning to face some of his own limitations and trauma.
In his essay on Spider-Man in his text Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes, Ben Saunders blew my mind with his analysis of Peter Parker:
To put it another way, if we look at what Peter is repeatedly made to do by his creators, rather than what he is sometimes made to say [“With great power, comes great responsibility”], then both his feelings of guilt and his crime-fighting can seem to have an obsessive-compulsive quality about them. His expressions of self-loathing and guilt with regard to Ben’s death start to appear more neurotic than heroic. For example, his constant cry – “It’s all my fault!” – simply doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. He didn’t actually shoot his uncle, after all, a burglar did, and yet he seems compelled to take on more responsibility than belongs to him. He is getting something from all that delicious guilt…Time and again he resolves to stop. But, like an alcoholic returning to the bottle, or more accurately, like a co-dependent, resentfully but perpetually riding to the rescue, he always finds himself donning his Spider-Man costume again.
…Bruce Wayne does not go through nearly as many bouts of agonized indecision in relation to his Batman identity, after all; nor does the Green Lantern constantly wonder whether the universe needs him to police it; Wonder Woman never seriously considers abandoning humanity and returning to Paradise Island; and so on. Only Spider-Man is so driven to renounce his heroic identity, and then take it up again, in an endlessly repetitive cycle. And that cycle, I am suggesting, is inherent in the particular mechanism of trauma and guilt that shape and drive his story.
….But when Gwen dies, despite and perhaps even because of his best efforts, the relationship between guilt and responsibility central to Peter Parker’s self-understanding is exposed as a self-protective fiction – keeping at bay the awareness that we live in an unpredictable universe where Bad Things happen that no one can prevent. Thus, Peter and his readers were forced to face the possibility that, in taking up the mantle of “hero,” he had only replaced one self-serving fantasy (that his powers set him apart from involvement with ordinary humanity) with another (that his powers allow him to always save others from harm). With Gwen’s death, the true cause of Peter’s neurotic guilt over Ben’s murder was inadvertently revealed. His exaggerated sense of responsibility served not only to compensate for Ben’s loss, but also (and perhaps more important) to sustain a comforting illusion of safety and control in a profoundly uncertain world.
Right? RIGHT?? MIND. BLOWN. I’ve been reading Spider-Man comics for decades and I never saw this!!!! But this strikingly accurate, character-redefining frame shows how all the more important Peter joining the Avengers is. In this act, he surrounds himself with natural supports. He is living with and working alongside people who understand the unique burdens of being a superhero. People to listen to him, to advise him, to help him succeed and to help him deal with the grief when he can’t. We live in a “profoundly uncertain world” where “Bad Things happen that no one can prevent.” And in joining the Avengers, Peter Parker is both practically and symbolically relinquishing some of the unhealthy responsibility he can never meet, forged by trauma, that he’s always carried alone.
I should note, Bendis’ Avengers title was fun, too. It saw Spider-Man alongside some “heavier hitters” and more “classic” Avengers and they had to deal with Kang, time travel, the Maestro (a future, warlord version of the Hulk), Ultron, the Infinity Gems being gathered by the Hood, and a bunch of other high stakes issues. I dug seeing Spider-Man as part of those adventures, too. But those titles lacked the sense of family New Avengers provided and, as such, felt like your more “basic” Avengers stories.
I enjoyed seeing Spider-Man on the Avengers “priority” team but I LOVED him on the New Avengers. Ever since I heard that Marvel had put Spider-Man on the Avengers I rebelled against the idea. I thought it was just a blatant cash grab move. I saw a boardroom meeting where someone said, “Hey, you know who people love? Spider-Man! What if he was on the Avengers? I bet we could sell even more comics that way!” I saw it as a perversion of the core of his character. I resented it. I thought it was ridiculous at best and insulting at worst.
But I was wrong. I’ll say it. I’ll own it. I was wrong. The Avengers is the perfect place for Spider-Man. It feels somehow appropriate that today, on my birthday, I’m admitting this. I’m growing, just like Spidey.
In Brian Michael Bendis’ hands, Spider-Man joining the New Avengers represents some of the most significant character growth Peter Parker has ever seen. He realized he couldn’t do it alone. He let others in. He trusted. He embraced a family in which he found – and could also provide – deeply needed natural supports. Peter Parker made positive progress with the guilt and grief-induced self-loathing that so defined him for so, so long. He saw – at least in part – how unhealthy the “high” he was getting from his terrible choices was and began to try and correct it. It’s brilliant. It’s beautiful. And they are really good superhero stories, too!
I realized, as I read, my struggle with Peter Parker joining the Avengers was only ever tangentially about who Spider-Man is for me. Really, the real question was who the Avengers were to me. When I saw them just as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” it seemed odd this guy who could stick to stuff would fit in there. But when I saw them as a group of individuals who stand together to do an impossible job – a family, when they are operating at their best – then it all made sense. Bendis, weaving an “oral history of the Avengers” through both titles, addresses this by having the Avengers themselves “talk to the camera” in a fashion. He clearly makes this point. It’s not about the “caliber” of the hero or their power level or anything. It’s about how, when we come together, we become so much more than we could ever be on our own.
We aren’t made to live alone. We’re stronger together. And yes, that’s a cliché. But things often become clichés because they were truths we kept repeating! And we are stronger together. The reason I’ve come to love Spider-Man on the Avengers is because he needs them in his life and he is better for letting them in. It shows he’s growing. In that, Peter Parker is far more inspirational than in all his speeches about power and responsibility combined. In seeing what Spider-Man joining the Avengers really means, I’ve found my childhood hero still has a few important lessons left to teach me, lessons I need always be mindful of in my adult life as well.
 Ben Saunders, Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Religion, and Superheroes, (New York: Continuum, 2011), 79.
 Ibid., 80.
 Ibid., 85-7.