I’m concluding my run of “stand up and cheer moments” with what I hope will be an obvious choice – one of the most famous and iconic moments in Amazing Spider-Man history, and perhaps the visual that has best come to emblemize Spider-Man’s “it” factor that truly makes him stand apart from the rest of the super-powered hero pack.
The “If This Be My Destiny” three-part storyline in issues #31-33 is widely considered the apex of ASM’s premiere creative team of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. And rightly so. If someone who never had read a Spider-Man comic book came up to me and asked to see something so he could understand what has made the character such a pop culture phenom, I would hand him these three issues, lock him in a room, and not let him out until I heard some legitimate cheering and fist pumping. Because this storyline is just tremendously effective at demonstrating the range of despair, angst and exhilaration that comes with being a fan of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Lee and Ditko capture Peter at both his lowest point and his most triumphant in one spectacular swing for the fences. The duo manages to raise the stakes so high, that it looks quite possible that a superhero may fail, thus making his eventual success that much more rewarding.
I have mentioned yet how pivotal this moment is, not only for Spider-Man enthusiasts, but comic book enthusiasts across the planet? Yeah, I thought so.
To briefly summarize, Peter’s elderly but beloved Aunt May has become seriously ill, primarily because of a blood transfusion she received from Peter (whose blood has been tainted by the radioactive spider-bite that made him Spider-Man, remember?). Peter already has tremendous guilt issues due to the death of his Uncle Ben at the hands of a criminal who Peter had a chance to apprehend but willfully ignored. So just by using this premise, Lee and Ditko already place Peter in a very vulnerable position – if he never became Spider-Man, would Aunt May, who is widowed because of his own arrogance, be on the verge of death herself?
Simultaneously, this all happens against the backdrop of Peter starting at Empire State University. There he meets new people, including an attractive woman named Gwen Stacy, who “can’t help feeling attracted” to the guy. The perpetual wallflower now has a shot with a girl who would have been way out of his league in high school, but who has time for dating when his Aunt’s life is on the line.
Then enters a villain named the Master Planner, who ends up being Spider-Man’s (arguably) most important bad-guy of the era in Doctor Octopus. Peter has a chance to get a vial of serum that could save his Aunt’s life and of course, Octopus interferes and attempts to take the serum for himself. During a battle with Doc Ock, Spider-Man becomes pinned by tons of heavy machinery and the vial of serum just out of reach. He has two choices: give up and surely die (and kill May by proxy), or dig as deep as he possibly can and find every last ounce of strength he has, to lift himself out of this mess.
While it’s easy to look back at the moment and call it either clichéd or conventional – of course the hero is going to succeed, that’s why he’s the hero – Lee and Ditko do such a masterful job of storytelling here, throwing every piece of moral, emotional and physical trauma they can at Peter before literally burying him alive with the machinery. The moment is just so perfectly symbolic: Peter can either just let the weight of being Spider-Man crush him or find some source of untapped strength to life this load of his shoulders and embrace his destiny as a superhero. The fact that Peter chooses, and succeeds, at the latter is a character trait that would define him for decades to come. Simply put, the four aforementioned “Stand Up and Cheer Moments” do not feel as genuine without the “If This be My Destiny” arc. That’s because never before, to this point, had Peter faced and overcome such insurmountable odds, with so much at stake.
If this moment doesn’t make you stand up and cheer, then I truly question your claim as a Spider-Man fan. Personally, I had been reading Spider-Man comic books for years before I had a chance to read this arc in full, and even after thinking I was a pretty ardent superfan, this moment just gave me a whole new perspective on the character. When you’re reading a story nearly 40 years after it was first written and it can still alter how you think about something, you know that it’s truly powerful stuff.