“What if…?” The Many Identical Dimensions of the Superhero

Peter Park Spider-Man

A speculative Korean Spider-Man, Peter Park.

The concept of a narrative continuity seems fairly self-explanatory; a series of stories are told in a shared universe of characters, settings, and events, referencing themselves as a reliable record of the long arc of the narrative. That, however, is more or less the opposite of the way “continuity” is applied in superhero comics, which is maintained through a series of bizarre storytelling mechanisms. One of those mechanisms is an extensive multiplicity of forking narrative paths; more specifically, a multiplicity of alternate versions of the same characters, refracted through various prisms (I will refer to this proliferation of “alternate” characters, from here on, as alternality). At first, this seems to open up a potentially infinite range of possibilities to reimagine and reconfigure characters that have long been straight, white, and male. Superman can be black! Spider-Man can be Korean! Thor can be a woman! Batman can be a vicious vigilante who terrorizes poor people in the middle of the night!

Unfortunately, as those examples paradoxically show, alternality has not resulted in a genuine expansion of diversity in superhero comics. Superman, Spider-Man, Thor, and a host of other characters are still, or will return to being, white male characters. It is my aim to show, in this piece, that contrary to the intuitive assumption, alternality actually enables and enforces this homogeneity by constructing a convincing facade of aesthetic and moral diversity; alternate versions of characters seem politically and morally distinct, while simply painting a new aesthetic over the old constellation of characteristics that identify the “original” character. This, rather than asserting the ethical questions that might arise by positing different histories and decisions for a character, actually erases ethics from superhero comics by preventing choices – in the narrative and in the publishing realm – from having permanent consequences.

A “New” Coat of Paint

Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions is an action-platforming videogame released in 2010 whose central conceit was predicated on a massive indulgence in “What if…?” alternality; the game featured four different versions of Spider-Man (Amazing, Noir, 2099, and Ultimate), allowing you to experience a diverse array of gameplay scenarios and narrative asides. The game conjures a by-the-books Macguffin in order to motivate the conceit, and uses a trans-dimensional clairvoyant, named Madame Web, as a deus ex machina that facilitates this cooperation with little exposition.

Shattered Dimensions Spidermans

The Spidermen of Shattered Dimensions

But the formal diversity of this scenario is dubious; the Amazing, Ultimate, and Noir versions of Spider-Man are all variations of Peter Parker, with the 2099 role filled by Miguel O’Hara. The Ultimate Spider-Man is differentiated from the Amazing Spider-Man by the black symbiote-suit, granting Ultimate Peter more powerful attacks and a “Rage Mode” that allows him to attack even more powerfully. Noir Spider-Man is a version of Peter Parker from the 1930s, spouting noirish platitudes about darkness; his stages are largely stealth-based, the only substantively unique levels in a game otherwise awash in identical, beat-em-up action-platforming levels.

The game mechanics seem to conspire in blurring any potential differences between these levels. Aesthetically, the levels are only differentiated by separate color and lighting schemes. Amazing Spider-Man is colored in a bright, cell-shaded style, whereas Ultimate’s levels are more saturated and higher in contrast. 2099 Spider-Man is colored in glossy, “futuristic” blues and grays, with neon highlights flashing all over. Noir is shaded in alternating sepia and monochrome, indicating whether you are in shadow or light. But this is all undercut by the fact that Madame Web deliberately homogenizes their abilities: Noir is granted web-slinging abilities on par with his counterparts, 2099 is given the spider-sense, and Ultimate is inexplicably granted the ability to use the symbiote-suit without risking turning into a Carnage-like monster, as the suit threatens whenever it is worn in the comics. Parker-noir, despite inhabiting an environment where he must depend heavily on stealth, is routinely put in situations where he is encouraged – in fact, forced – to engage in more straightforward fisticuffs reminiscent of the other Spider-Men. The effect is to make switching between characters feel akin to repainting the same car over and over again, rather than driving a separate vehicle.

All the Roads Less Traveled

In the lecture entitled, “We are who we choose to be”, Eric Berlatsky writes on the topic of the “sadistic choice” presented in many superhero stories. The hero is usually presented with a choice between a selfish option to save someone close to them, or a selfless option to save a population of bystanders. However, numerous heroes are able to circumvent the need to even make a choice through their superpowers. Spider-Man, in the Sam Raimi films, is able to save both Mary Jane and a school bus full of children. Wonder Woman is able to save both Steve Trevor and Washington, DC from destruction-by-Nazi. And – in 1978’s Superman – Superman is able to save the town of Hackensack, NJ from a cruise missile, and then also rescue Lois Lane by using his powers to literally turn back time:

Part and parcel of this problematic, as mentioned, is the fact that the scenes described deny temporal progress in multiple ways. First, each scenario presents a fundamental spatiotemporal impossibility, the idea of being in two places at the same time. The Superman film acknowledges this most clearly when Lois is initially killed by the missile, prompting Superman to reverse the Earth’s rotation, improbably turning back time and saving her life. More metaphorically, the Spider-Man film also “turns back the clock” and brings the hero’s lover back from the dead by restaging the comic-book death of Gwen Stacy, which occurred some thirty years previous in Amazing Spider-Man #121 (1973). In the comic, as in the film, the Green Goblin hurls Peter Parker’s love interest from a NYC bridge. In the comic, however, Spider-Man is too late to save her. The film Spider-Man, then, succeeds not only in saving Mary Jane and the children, but also in metaphorically traveling through time to save Gwen Stacy. The fantasy of power in play in this alternate continuity, or “forking path,” is a fantasy of overcoming the progression of time and therefore overcoming mortality itself. Concomitantly, it is a fantasy in which ethics are not asserted, but abandoned. (emphasis mine)

Berlatsky is concerned, ultimately, with how the construction of “forking paths” allows DC and Marvel, as publishers, to present diversity as a consumer option. Straight, white, male Peter Parker can be preserved as the “original” Spider-Man, while Miguel O’Hara, Miles Morales, Jessica DrewSpider-Gwen, and numerous others are presented as a la carte alternatives, none of which challenges Peter Parker’s primacy as the Spider-Man. John Henry Irons briefly replaced Superman in Metropolis after his death at the hands of Doomsday in 1992, but was unceremoniously punted to the margins again when Superman came back to life; Calvin Ellis, another black Superman character, exists in Earth-2, explicitly labeled as an alternative – and subordinate – version of the character. The “female Thor” is subordinated to her male predecessor, even by the moniker itself – the female “Thor” is actually Jane Foster, and “Thor” is the given name of the God whose powers and duties she has assumed. Even calling her by that name marks her as merely a flavor of a character that is, resolutely and by default, male.

JLAxis, Justice League as Nazis

The Justice League as Nazis

Even deeper ethical issues exist with this approach to alternality than homogeneity. As I joked in the intro, numerous alternate versions of Batman have been conceived throughout the years. Many are entertaining, innocuous asides, such as the Green Lantern Bruce Wayne and the Gaslight Batman. But several seem to follow a particular pattern; namely, these alternate versions hyperbolically exaggerate Batman’s power, dark nihilism, or violent tendencies. Examples include vampire Batman (who brutally murders most of his rogue’s gallery), Owlman (a monstrously nihilistic and transparent villain), and Azrael-Batman (who takes over for Bruce Wayne during the Knightfall saga and demonstrates a willingness to kill). Most notable – and obscure – is Leatherwing, a version of Batman as a Nazi in service of an alt-Third Reich that triumphed in World War II. The effect with virtually all of these alternate characters is to bring the “original” Bruce Wayne’s morality into relief by demonstrating a hyperbolically excessive alternative, but the demonstration is illusory. The “original” Batman already uses a range of lethal-by-design military hardware – he’s a megalomaniacal vigilante crusader who stalks and assaults strangers in the middle of the night in order to terrify them into abandoning criminal activity. His activities fit the most strictly legalistic definition of terrorism, but comparing him to a bloodthirsty vampiric version of himself who wantonly murders even his closest friends is a sleight-of-hand that makes the “original” look highly moral by comparison. The fascist alt-Batman, Leatherwing, is a particularly dishonest red herring, masking the violent and racist contours of our world, where the Nazis were beaten, by standing up a veritable Potemkin village of hyperbolically blunt authoritarianism.

No Choice At All

Shattered Dimensions crystallizes the regressive tendencies of superhero alternality, demonstrating how “alternate versions” are used to erase ethical choices from consideration, even as the mechanic appears to enable profound ethical explorations. The 2099 version of the character is particularly galling in this respect; he exists in a world that has seen events so cataclysmic that most of the continental US is uninhabitable. These events have led to the formation of three separate nations out of what remains of the US, but instead of exploring any fundamental shifts in culture or politics or aesthetics brought about by such a drastic disaster, the 2099 Marvel universe manages to turn Miguel O’Hara into yet another imprint of Peter Parker.

O’Hara’s own backstory involves a “genetic splicing device” that he was using, on behalf of the evil Mega Corp, Alchemax, to give a human being certain attributes of a spider. This was in the hopes of creating a Spider-Man that the company owned, but events conspired to give O’Hara these powers, and he uses them to thwart Alchemax. Spider-Man 2099 is, as a result, not a fantasy of a world where Spider-Man’s political stance is repositioned, but a fantasy where exactly such a repositioning is thwarted.

Doctor Octopus 2099

The Doctor Octopus of the late 21st century is almost her own woman

Every in-game biography in the 2099 world involves some sort of nostalgic reference to the Amazing Spider-Man’s era/version, known in 2099 as “the Heroic Age.” Miguel O’Hara drew his inspiration to become “Spider-Man” directly from some past Peter Parker, but his enemies have looked to the same time period for their own inspiration. The first super-villain you face is Hobgoblin 2099, a Frankenstein’s monster of futuristic tech and genetically engineered capabilities, whose sole goal is to kill Spider-Man 2099. His in-game biography tells us, “…the mastermind behind his creation drew inspiration from historical accounts, which stated that [the] Spider-Man of the Heroic Age often encountered enemies that assumed a “Goblin” alter ego…”. The second villain that O’Hara encounters is a 2099 version of Scorpion. The final villain is a 2099 Doctor Octopus, and although she has her own name, Serena Patel, her bio states that, “…she patterned [her ‘assault armor’] after the one worn by her idol, Dr. Otto Octavius, who according to historical records, may have possibly destroyed the Heroic Age’s Spider-Man in a climactic final battle.” At every turn, the 2099 universe replicates the “original” constellation of characters in Spider-Man’s mythos. The fact that superficially distinct characters develop a “retro” aesthetic that specifically recreates the characters and aesthetic of Marvel comics of the early 21st century is obviously a plot device devised to allow the writers to paint the flagship Spider-Man comics with a “futuristic” brush. You would expect that stories set in a distant, cataclysmic future would speculate about new ways to live; all the 2099 universe wants to do is pine for a very narrow segment of the past.

Spiderman Noir Green Goblin Norman Osborne

Norman Osborne as an actual goblin

Numerous other examples abound in Shattered Dimensions. The Noir dimension features three villains even more closely modeled on the “original” Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery, including Hammerhead/Joseph Lorenzini, Vulture/Adrian Toomes, and the Goblin/Norman Osborne. No effort is made to generate even a pretense that these are supposed to be different people, by giving them names distinct from their Amazing universe counterparts; they are merely sepia-toned copies of the “originals”. Even some of the alternate costumes reinforce this homogeneity. They include numerous versions of the classic red and blue getup, as well as some unique looks from particular stories (the Electro-proof Suit and the Secret Wars outfit are notable), but they also include the Peter Parquagh Spider-Man from Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 (incidentally, Comics Bulletin’s review of Gaiman’s book called it, “a glorified ‘What If?’ series”). Miguel O’Hara’s alternate costumes include Flipside, an android built in the early 21st century that was designed to emulate Peter Parker’s superpowers, and the Spider-Armor, a materially authentic replica of an armor created by Peter Parker that O’Hara used as a Halloween costume. One alternate costume is the Scarlet Spider, Ben Reilly, who was a central character in the Clone Saga, which involved half a dozen or more literal clones of Peter Parker. At every turn, Spider-Men with their own, supposedly distinct identities serve merely as replicas of the Amazing Spider-Man/Peter Parker.

“The Changing Same”

The consequence of this approach is that alternate versions of a character not only don’t challenge the prevailing version’s primacy as the original, they encourage and enforce it through the very notion that the “alternate” character is a flavor, of sorts, of some fundamental essence of the character. Osvaldo Oyola uses Paul Gilroy’s notion of “the changing same” to describe how comics characters are often identifiable over long periods of time, despite wild variations in tone, canonical events, etc. Oyola sees the identity of Spider-Man in particular as, “a developing diverse set of possibilities bound together at any given point by a shared set of collected signifiers that have come together to represent the character.” Such signifiers might include the inclusion of Uncle Ben and Aunt May (especially the former’s tragic death), the “sadistic choice” presented by the Green Goblin, and his residence in Queens.

Spiderman tortures Sandman

Spiderman tortures Sandman with acid

Citing Gilroy, Oyola is immediately concerned with Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man, which depicts a scenario in which Doc Ock’s consciousness has taken over Peter Parker’s body. Oyola sees this as a clever effort by Slott to resolve the tension between many different contradictory characterizations of Peter Parker, which have resulted in a character that, at times, is shockingly brutal, sociopathic, and manipulative. Slott himself has contributed to this issue, by penning a story in which Peter Parker engages in brutal torture. It is in this context that:

Slott attempts a potential rehabilitation of Spider-Man not by trying to put the genie back in the bottle and writing a Spider-Man that annoyingly clings to a classic and pollyanna notion of his morality, but by going in the other direction. He gives us a Spider-Man who adopts the dubious code of the contemporary superhero, who does the things that so many fans want their “heroes” to do and gives us the piling consequences to such an approach. In other words, the Superior Spider-Man blurs the line between the behaviors of heroes and villains in the superhero genre by muddying the very identity of the hero within the narrative itself, rather than by creating a new character (like Spawn) or a parody of an existing character that exists in a separate narrative space (like Lobo was supposed to be to Wolverine).

Spider-Ock immediately distinguishes himself from Peter Parker by engaging in a range of decisive and morally dubious actions. In the final tally, the Superior Spider-Man murders multiple villains, doxxes another, blackmails city officials to gain certain real estate holdings, establishes a massive, personal surveillance network, and gives no second thought to the potential immorality of sleeping with Mary Jane under an assumed identity. In other words, “he acts decisively, aggressively and without a thought to the consequences. He is always sure that what he is doing is right, and if not unambiguously and morally right, then at the very least justified.” Where Peter Parker was often racked by indecision and doubt over the consequences of his decisions, Spider-Ock has (at least initially) no such compunctions. He is always convinced that he is, on balance, righteous. The premise has genuinely fascinating promise as a rumination on the ethical stance implied by Spider-Man’s most iconic catchphrase, “With great power comes great responsibility,” whereby the platitude can be understood not as compelling the powerful to do good, but as admonishing the powerful to consider the scope of their impact on their surroundings. Spider-Ock is convinced that he uses his power righteously, but as the dilemmas and contradictions created by his actions spiral out of control, the story demonstrates that there is no righteous decision available, only responsibility for the consequences.

However, that insight is fundamentally undermined beyond salvation by the implicit assertion, at the end of the arc, that Spider-Ock isn’t the “authentic” Spider-Man:

Unable to deal with the multiple moral quandaries set up by the Green Goblin, Octavius makes the noble sacrifice. He erases his own memory and consciousness from Peter Parker’s body, allowing Parker’s psyche to take over again. In that moment the story becomes not about responsibility, but about some essential Peter Parker-ness that makes him best suited for the job. Boring. In fact, it is worse than boring: the manifestation of Parker’s spirit or psyche or whatever (don’t ask me how it is supposed to work) makes a defining statement that actually makes his perspective indistinguishable from Octo-Parker’s. He says, “When there’s time, you weigh the options. When there’s not, you act. And you always do the right thing.” But isn’t that basically what the Superior Spider-Man has been doing for the 30 issues before this confrontation, because he was sure that his every choice was right?

Peter Lectures Superior Spider-Man

Peter lectures Octo-Parker on how to be a hero

The idea that Peter Parker is “the” Spider-Man, that he is somehow unique in his capacity to inhabit the role, completely erases the concern for ethics. As Oyola, points out, Parker doesn’t outline an ethical stance substantially different from Octo-Parker’s, he merely parrots the latter’s own confident self-righteousness. Neither is there any consideration that, “a returned “real” Peter Parker/Spider-Man will still be responsible for whatever ills caused by Doc Ock assuming his identity, just as he is still responsible for everything done by previous versions of Peter Parker/Spider-Man who made poor choices because of the thread of shared identity…”. Asserting that Peter Parker possesses some essential “essence” of Spider-Man that makes him suited for the character actually sidelines the ethical considerations of power and responsibility in a 30-issue series. By denoting that Octo-Parker is merely an alternate possibility to be discarded when convenient, the story actually fails to draw any distinction between  the “real” Peter Parker and Octo-Parker, rendering Peter a self-righteous sociopath as a result. The Superior Spider-Man, a compelling premise, is rendered into a sleight-of-hand akin to Nazi Batman. Octo-Parker becomes a way to displace and disguise the potentially disturbing morality of the “original” character.

All These Things That I Have Done (Or Not)

Through this lens, the almost complete absence of plot in Shattered Dimensions becomes understandable. Insofar as there is a narrative, it is simply a handful of Macguffins, deus ex machinae, and pre-packaged villains duct-taped together as an excuse to inhabit the multifarious body of Spider-Man. At the end of the game, the various Spider-Men go their separate ways, each proclaiming that he is “the best” Spider-Man, but it’s almost impossible to imagine the grounds on which such a determination could be made, other than the obvious and superficial aesthetic ones. No ethical daylight exists between them, no substantive differences in behavior or political effect. There is merely Peter Parker’s masked face, printed and repainted, and periodically relabeled Miguel, Miles, Jessica, or Gwen.

So it is, as well, with Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Thor, etc. Alternality produces a kind of speculative tar pit that traps our ethical imaginations with the sticky, drowning dominance of the “original” character, against which no sin of revisionism can even be committed, much less tolerated. Nazi Batman is lying in wait, just off the page, to draw scorn and moral abhorrence that might otherwise fall upon Batman himself, just as the Superior Spider-Man draws the fire of disapprobation away from Peter Parker himself, who spouts the former’s same shallow and self-righteous platitudes about always doing “the right thing.” Perhaps there is some beautiful superhero universe without white supremacy, patriarchy, or systemic violence of any kind, where Superman is black and the gods are all women. As long as those ethical possibilities are just flavors to be indulged, a la carte, we will never have a chance to find out.

Petar Duric
About Petar Duric (19 Articles)
Petar Z Duric is a cisgender straight guy of ambiguous whiteness from Northern Virginia. He grew up wanting to be a theoretical physicist, under the impression that such people study really big explosions. He ended up settling for studying Computer Science, because robots are cool, he guesses. As a hirsute child of foreigners with frightening accents, he has developed an abiding taste for meat that is actively bleeding. He is an aspiring vegan, and a lifelong aficionado of useless bullshit.
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