The Marvel Universe is populated with characters in search of redemption, from Avengers like the Black Widow to anti-heroes like Venom. That’s why readers who love a redemptive story arc cheered for Dr. Octopus, a.k.a. Otto Octavius, to change from the pre-eminent Spider-Man foe to a hero in his own right in a storyline that ran from 2013 until 2019.
As illustrated in the accompanying slideshow, after five decades of confrontation Octavius finally supplanted Spider-Man by trading consciousnesses between their bodies. Although Octavius’ mind occupied Peter Parker’s body, Octavius discovered that Parker’s powerful but lingering sense of responsibility compelled him down a heroic path. However, Octavius’ own egotistic obsession with proving himself “the Superior Spider-Man” complicated his success.
The storyline ended when Octavius cut a deal with the demon Mephisto to restore him to his original form to defeat a ruthless adversary and save innocent lives. After seven years of growth, Octavius was essentially back to square one.
This reversion is consistent with a directive set forth by Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee for future storytellers to create “the illusion of change” (David, 2012). Seemingly, characters may undergo changes like marrying—only to find the status quo subsequently restored. Although Octavius changed, the changes were finite. While that may not undo the entertainment value of the journey, it does diminish the significance of its message.
As Joseph Campbell reminds us, the heroic journey is about putting aside old—typically childish—ways and discovering a role of responsibility within the community. The story of Octavius’ journey as the Superior Spider-Man was that; but the regression to villainy seems to cheat the reader of the reward of finding that life’s growing pains lead to the rewards of maturity and communal acceptance. And that’s a crime . . . or perhaps an illusion.