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Ultimate Spider-Man’s Relaunch Heralds a New Age of Heroes

When the Ultimate Marvel line launched 24 years ago, it wanted to bring Marvel’s heroes back to their roots, a modern world for modern titans to shape. In the last two and a half decades it lived, thrived, died, and was quietly reborn—but only now is Marvel taking the reigns on what shaping that rebirth should be, in a world with very different wants and needs than the last new Age of Heroes.

The sense of yearning for something subsumes this week’s relaunch of Ultimate Spider-Man #1, written by the architect of the X-Men’s radical Krakoan age, Jonathan Hickman, alongside art from Marco Checchetto and Matthew Wilson, and lettering by Cory Petit. We knew going in to expect a very different Peter Parker to the one we met in Ultimate those decades ago—not a teen who would one day give his life as the Amazing Spider-Man, but an older man, a father, happily married and navigating his place in a world of job pressures, bills, and the trauma that comes of any kind of lived, human life. But almost every page of the issue drips with tension, as both we the audience and Peter himself know that something is not right. Something has been lost, that should be there, and is terribly missed.

Image for article titled Ultimate Spider-Man's Relaunch Heralds a New Age of Heroes

Image: Marco Checchetto, Matthew Wilson, and Cory Petit/Marvel Comics

This is more literal than the fate of Spider-Man in many of Ultimate Spider-Man’s concerns. Set in a contemporary world where, two decades prior, the Maker (Ultimate Marvel’s sinister answer to Reed Richards, and already famed meddler in multiversal events) altered the fates of the Ultimate Earth’s destined heroes to never come to pass so he could rule from the shadows, the new Ultimate Marvel universe is also one rocked with unnecessary grief. When Tony Stark uncovered the Maker’s machinations, Richards unleashed a devastating coup to ensure his world kept turning: pinning a massive, horrifying terror attack on Tony Stark to destroy his legacy as the Iron Man forever, but also to ensconce the would-be heroes of this world in grief and regret.

In this reality, Ben Parker’s death didn’t define the life of his nephew, but May’s—lost in the Maker’s attack along so many—and there was never a radioactive spider to impart the great responsibility that would come with its great power. The Peter we meet here, on the anniversary of May’s death, is older, and is tired. Tired of the hurt he shares with his uncle, still devastated by the loss of his wife decades later. Tired of his life at the Daily Bugle, going through the motions under the wings of both J. Jonah Jameson and Ben himself, here the paper’s managing editor. Tired of watching the people in his life pass him by, defined by the fear that comes with fatherhood, the need for stability that both keeps him afloat and restrained—but knowing, feeling deep down, that he should want something more.

Image for article titled Ultimate Spider-Man's Relaunch Heralds a New Age of Heroes

Image: Marco Checchetto, Matthew Wilson, and Cory Petit/Marvel Comics

This Peter Parker isn’t the nerdy tween outcast most origin stories for Spider-Man present to us. He is just… a man. With each change to what we know of Spider-Man’s most-told stories presented and tweaked here, Peter and MJ’s family, May’s death, Ben’s life—itself upended when the Kingpin himself makes moves at the Bugle, ousting both the elder Parker and Jameson in an editorial reshuffling that will, perhaps, make any journalist covering this issue for work wince a little too hard—within this lingering trauma and sense of loss that suffuses New York beyond this one family, we are constantly reminded of that fact, and the offness of it. But there’s also that offness in Peter too, one that feels in part metatextual, but also reflective and earnest of a man who has lived the life he has up to this point largely unseen to us. It’s still the relatability that defines the characters that have Spider-heroism thrust upon them, but a very different feeling one, one that meets fans who grew up with Ultimate Marvel all those years ago in the here and now.

But the reason that yearning is in part at least metatext is a reveal from the last few pages of the first issue; it sets a very different tone for what’s to come in Ultimate Spider-Man. In flashback after the end of Peter Parker’s long, wild, sad day, it’s revealed that the night before, he was visited with a mysterious package claiming to be Tony Stark from six months into the future. Revealing the Makers’ plan, Tony offers Peter, as he seemingly has many other would-be heroes of the Ultimate Earth, a chance: become the heroes they were fated to be, as they are now, and usher in a new era of superheroes into a world that has spent its re-existence up until now with out them. And Peter Parker wants it.

Image for article titled Ultimate Spider-Man's Relaunch Heralds a New Age of Heroes

Image: Marco Checchetto, Matthew Wilson, and Cory Petit/Marvel Comics

We are used to Spider-powers being thrust upon our protagonists—after all, that is the point of Ben Parker’s lesson, to learn that the sudden arrival of this power requires its bearer to wield it with a responsibility that is just as superhuman in and of itself. To be presented with a Peter Parker that has lived the life our own has craved for pretty much his entire publication history in fits and starts—peace, love, happiness, family, and yes, loss, but the loss that comes inevitably of a life long lived—who is practically vibrating as Stark’s package opens to reveal a test tube holding a radioactive spider in it opens a fascinating well of potential for this new era to usher in. What does it mean to have a Spider-Man who chose? What does it mean to have a Spider-Man whose balance of his superheroic and personal life will be so much more different, having forged the relationships he has at this point in his life?

We have had older Spider-Men, we have had ones with happy lives alongside their webswinging alter-ego. We’ve had ones prescribed by fate, we’ve had ones who’ve seen that fate ripple out and connect them to others across the web of Marvel’s myriad realities, to be able to define in some sense what it means to be a Spider, not the. But we’ve rarely had this combination—a life lived but one yearning for change in any form. And what Ultimate Spider-Man #1 lays out for that choice is filled with such potential that we cannot help but likewise yearn to see this Peter Parker, this Spider-Man, take his first steps into a growing world of great power.


Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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