Unlike the previous four issues which have played extremely fast and loose with Spider-Man’s origin in Amazing Fantasy #15, Ultimate Spider-Man is surprisingly faithful to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s story. The plot is virtually the same with the addition of Norman Osborn (now the Green Goblin) killing his wife and burning his house down and Mary-Jane comforting Peter on the last page. The scene with Mary-Jane is especially important because she is Peter’s closest friend and ally throughout the series. She knows his secret identity, falls in love with him, and most of all, is there to enjoy life with him. Their relationship isn’t the only thing that Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley develop in the concluding issues of their first arc, they build on elements from the first four issues to establish Peter Parker’s identity as Spider-Man.
As far as Peter Parker’s motivation to become a hero, Bendis doesn’t stray from Stan Lee’s original formula. Uncle Ben is killed, Peter goes after his killer, he realizes that he could have stopped the killer earlier, and that he must be responsible with his newfound abilities. However, the difference between Lee and Bendis’ origin stories is that Peter has more of a personal connection with Uncle Ben. The moments they shared from joking around in issue one to Uncle Ben dragging him home from a party in issue four cement him as character and validates Peter’s emotions. Bagley also weaves in flashbacks from Peter’s previous encounters with the robber and his talk with Uncle Ben to explore why he decided to be Spider-Man. The epiphany happens in a two page spread with vignettes of Spider-Man fighting crime that come together in an image of Spider-Man leaping into action. Bagley’s visuals work well with Bendis caption boxes that articulate Spider-Man’s realization that fighting crime to prevent senseless deaths like Uncle Ben’s is his life’s current purpose. Unlike Amazing Fantasy #15, Peter Parker says the words “With great power comes great responsibility.” This shows that he has taken his uncle’s advice to heart and followed it in both word and action.
Even though power and responsibility are at the core of Spider-Man’s character, he has character traits that make him an entertaining and enduring super-hero. Some of these attributes, like his homemade web fluid and quips while fighting crime, have been mentioned earlier, but Ultimate Spider-Man #6-7 flesh out the dichotomy between Peter Parker and Spider-Man. It also establishes elements of the Spider-Man mythos in the Ultimate Universe, like the Daily Bugle and his secret identity. These two issues put a final coda on the twisted “father/son” relationship between Norman Osborn and Peter Parker with Harry caught in the middle. Despite all these positive elements, the Norman Osborn/Green Goblin storyline ends abruptly, and Ultimate Spider-Man #7 is the first of several issues in which Spider-Man punches a villain repeatedly to the detriment of the character relationships and interaction that are the series’ primary strength.
The closing issues of Ultimate Spider-Man‘s first arc (especially #7 which is fittingly called “Secret Identity”) develop the dual nature of Peter Parker/Spider-Man that were previously touched upon in his inner monologue. There isn’t a complete contrast between Peter Parker and Spider-Man. They both are intelligent and use their ingenuity to solve problems. Peter Parker cracks the formula of his father’s molecular adhesive while Spider-Man uses the web fluid made from this adhesive to execute dangerous combat maneuvers against the Green Goblin. However, while Spider-Man is the consummate showman who kicks tail and makes jokes while doing it, Peter is much more reserved. But he is not teased by his peers for missing Spider-Man’s fight at Midtown High. They focus on Harry Osborn who is terrified and chants, “He’s come for me” as Flash and Kong drag the once carefree athlete away from his monstrous father.
And Ultimate Spider-Man #6-7 has plenty to say about Norman Osborn’s effect on other people even though the Green Goblin seems to only know one word. Issue five begins with Norman Osborn killing his wife as Harry looks on. Both Peter and Norman have lost loved ones due to the Oz formula’s effects. However, Peter’s situation isn’t as cut and dried. Uncle Ben could have shot and killed even if Peter never got spider powers. Peter might have died as well because he would have been at home. In contrast, Norman Osborn injected himself with Oz formula. There is no obvious reason why he would trash his own mansion and kill his wife, but like most testosterone supplements, the Oz drug enhances Norman’s rage and strength. The attack on Peter and Harry’s school brings Norman’s role as Peter’s “father” full circle. Peter is unknowingly fighting with the man who made him Spider-Man. They even share an embrace at the end of Ultimate Spider-Man #6. These issues solidify the familial connection between Peter and Norman Osborn that will persist until the end of the series. They both have great power, but only one uses his power for the good of others.
Bendis also does an excellent job of writing a properly traumatized Harry Osborn. Even though the fight between Spider-Man and Green Goblin takes up much of the page space, Ultimate Spider-Man 6-7 has some powerful scenes featuring Harry Osborn and his relationship with his father. Bagley lays the foundation for Harry’s physical and emotional torture by starting issue five with the fire at the Osborn mansion and makes him wear a sweater to hide his burns from the fire. All the cool that Harry exhibited in the earlier issues with Peter and the basketball team evaporates into fear and rage. His story ends with police carrying him off, but this isn’t the last the reader sees of Harry Osborn in Ultimate Spider-Man. Harry ends up being unexceptional (in comparison to Peter Parker and Spider-Man), but he has the gift of speech and friendship that the Green Goblin can’t experience any more.
Despite Bendis and Bagley’s success in re-telling Spider-Man’s origin and heroic calling, Ultimate Spider-Man 5-7 aren’t perfect comics by any means. The ending falls a little flat with Green Goblin disappearing into deep water, and the police giving up their pursuit of Spider-Man and declaring the Green Goblin dead. The Green Goblin is obviously not dead, but this ending seems anti-climactic. Even though he is a rookie crime fighter, Spider-Man dodges fireballs with relative ease and performs complex acrobatics. Norman Osborn has been built up as a major villain since the first issue, but he ends up being a poor Hulk imitation. But the fight scene shows Spider-Man putting Uncle Ben’s words about helping others with his gifts into practice. He takes the fight away from the school so there won’t be collateral damage and tries to reason with the Green Goblin. Despite his occasional clumsiness, Spider-Man has the heart of a hero.
Bendis and Bagley succeed at establishing Norman Osborn and Green Goblin as the dark mirror of Uncle Ben and Spider-Man respectively, but the ending lacks emotional punch. Little happens, except Spider-Man realizing that Norman Osborn is the Green Goblin, and that they are connected via the Oz formula. He does have a brief hug and chat with Mary-Jane as their friendship and romance continues to blossom. Their subplot (and conversations) is one of the most compelling things about the early Ultimate Spider-Man stories.
In Ultimate Spider-Man #1-7, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley had to re-invent Spider-Man for the 21st century while also respecting his earlier stories and characterization. They also had to work within the parameters of a story concept created by Marvel publisher Bill Jemas. Despite these limitations, Bendis and Bagley succeeded in revamping an icon for a new millennium. They gave Peter Parker a closer relationship with both Uncle Ben and Norman Osborn than in the early Stan Lee stories, which made Uncle Ben’s death and Osborn’s transformation into the Green Goblin much more poignant. Bendis also created a supporting cast for Peter Parker with distinct voices and potential for growth as characters. Peter and Mary-Jane actually had common intellectual pursuits and engaged in witty repartee that showed they could work as a couple. Other characters like Flash Thompson, Kong, ,Liz Allen, and Harry Osborn weren’t as fully developed, but Harry added an emotional component to the extended fight scene that was Ultimate Spider-Man #7.
Characters were and continue to be Bendis’ greatest strength in Ultimate Spider-Man, but he also did a good job re-establishing other elements of the character, like his costume, web shooters, and quips. The costume had the same wrestling origin as the one in Amazing Fantasy #15, but the clear eyepieces allowed Bagley to illustrate the dual nature of Peter Parker and Spider-Man as well contrast him with the Green Goblin. The web shooters allowed Peter to show his scientific acumen as well as connect him with his biological father, Richard Parker, who Uncle Ben invoked in his speech about using one’s abilities for the good of humanity. Bendis writes stand-up worthy jokes for Spider-Man and explains that Spider-Man’s one-liners keep him from cowering in fear. This sense of humor is his inheritance from Uncle Ben, who uses laughter to defuse the tension between him and his eventual killer. Bendis and Bagley retain Uncle Ben’s death and speech about power and responsibility as the cause of Peter Parker’s transformation into Spider-Man and build on these ideas as he takes on the Kingpin in the next story arc of Ultimate Spider-Man.