It’s Spider-Man versus Mister Negative, versus Cloak and Dagger, versus the Spider-Mobile driven by his bland new girlfriend.
One of the many quibbles I’ve had with Peter Parker’s current depiction as a jet-setting CEO of his own international high-tech company is it made Spider-Man too far removed from the “ground level” adventures he excels at. With “The Dark Kingdom,” however, Dan Slott had Peter take a reprieve from racking up frequent-flyer miles every single issue and placed him back in a story involving street crime. Even if it was the streets of Shanghai, China, instead of the streets of New York City, it did seem as though this three-part story would be a lot more focused than the madcap race around the world of the first five issues. Yet the story also highlights a rather huge drawback with this latest volume of The Amazing Spider-Man: we still have no idea how Peter or Parker Industries became such a huge success. Because of this and the “Eight Months Later” premise behind Marvel’s “All-New, All-Different” relaunch, there’s no real context to draw from. And because there’s no real context to draw from, there are no genuine stakes, especially when it pertains to other characters Peter supposedly has an emotional connection with.
Not to say that Amazing Spider-Man (2015) #8 isn’t structurally sound. Having found a cure for the morally-corrupting drug, Shade, Peter is free to get back to business in hosting an award ceremony for his potential business partner, Shen Quinghao, who is also the same man responsible for turning Martin Li, Mr. Negative’s alter-ego, into a life of crime. When Mr. Negative realizes Peter isn’t corrupted and thus his plan to “reveal” Quinghao’s “true face” fails, he, along with Cloak, Dagger, and his Inner Demons, attack the awards ceremony themselves. This, however, plays right into Spider-Man’s hands as he, and the police, have set-up an ambush for Mr. Negative at the ceremony. But just as things are starting to go Spidey’s way, his new girlfriend Lian Tang (revealed as the Zodiac’s mole within Parker Industries last issue) attacks him with the Spider-Mobile having been promised treatment from Scorpion for her mother’s cancer if she kills the Web-Slinger.
So yes, as a conclusion, all the narrative strands and plot points established at the beginning of “The Dark Kingdom” do seem to come together and neatly click into place. It’s also somewhat well paced, keeps your attention, and still be a brisk, easy read without being light on the dialogue; if anything, it overcompensates by having too much of it, a lot of which is also over-expository. You can even say this comic has a consistent theme about forgiveness as Spider-Man is willing to forgive Cloak, Dagger, and Lian, for their actions. Likewise, the chief inspector for the Shanghai police is willing to forgive Quinghao over his past as a gangster and slave trader, while Mr. Negative and Philip Chang cannot, nor are they able to come to terms with his sincere desire to atone for his sins.
Yet all of this means absolutely nothing if the story also doesn’t have a solid foundation upon which to build itself. It should come as no surprise that Cloak and Dagger become good guys again, even saving Spider-Man, Lian and Mr. Quinghao from falling to their deaths. Too bad the entire basis for their conversion back to the side of the angels is flawed from the outset. A quick and simple Google and Wiki search is all one needs to learn that although Mr. Negative inverted Cloak and Dagger’s color scheme, he didn’t turn them evil. They were still superheroes. So “Dark Kingdom’s” assertion Mr. Negative also corrupted them when he altered their powers, too, is just flat-out wrong. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Slott and the folks at Marvel needed a “reason” to revert Cloak and Dagger back to their classic looks, even if that “reason” contradicted other stories no more than three years old. And wouldn’t you know it, the bad guy gets away, promising our heroes he’ll be back and stronger than ever, while our heroes promise they will be there to stop him. You can’t tell me this isn’t a naked attempt in setting-up a new Cloak and Dagger spin-off title with Mr. Negative as their arch-nemesis.
Then there’s the matter of Lian being the Zodiac’s mole inside Parker Industries, which doesn’t work. At all. To begin with, it once again involves yet another employee at Parker Industries betraying Peter’s trust and confidence, as if we already didn’t have enough of this with Sajani Jaffrey. (Seriously, is there anyone at Peter’s company who either doesn’t hate his guts or isn’t scheming behind his back?) Another problem is the way the Lian subplot gets resolved. I can accept the idea that Spider-Man is someone who is willing to forgive others, even those who try to kill him; it’s when the implication is that somehow Peter brought this on himself is where I draw the line. Because taken within the context of Amazing Spider-Man (2015) #7, what we’re supposed to take away from this is Lian wouldn’t have been so desperate to turn to Scorpio if Peter wasn’t so busy being Spider-Man to ignore her. Never mind she could have brought this up any time she and Peter were together, including issue #6 where she was talking about her parents.
Which leads me to the main reason Lian’s betrayal doesn’t work: we don’t care about Peter’s relationship with her. And the reason we don’t care is because Slott never gave us a reason to care. As I mentioned in the Amazing Spider-Man (2015) #6 review, we never saw how Peter and Lian became a couple. We never saw what attracted the two of them together. And no, giving them a romantic picnic overlooking the Shanghai skyline, having her be the only other person besides Spider-Man capable of driving the Spider-Mobile, or giving Lian the cliched “parent is in the hospital dying of cancer and she can’t afford the treatments” motivation after-the-fact doesn’t cut it. Think of how much more Lian’s betrayal would mean if Slott had spent the time developing her as a character instead of bluntly introducing her as Peter’s new girlfriend without so much as warning? Instead, it looks as though Lian exists just so the story could have an excuse for Spider-Man’s new Spider-Mobile to attack him on the side of a skyscraper as wink and a nod to Amazing Spider-Man #160. Besides, one has to wonder how much of a viable character Ms. Tang really is considering how this issue has her first name as “Lian” when the last issue had her first name as “Lien.” (Great proofreading there, editors!)
Look, Slott has been writing comics and Spider-Man long enough to know (or at least he ought to know by now) that just because you introduce new characters and have Peter Parker react and respond to them in certain ways doesn’t mean the readers will react or respond the same way towards them. Especially if it’s someone we’re told Peter has a close, personal relationship with, who not only betrayed him but also tried to murder him. It’s the same reason there’s such a lack of interest in Parker Industries being this global industrial giant: we never saw–and still don’t know–how Peter became so rich and famous this fast. It’s why having such a large time-lapse in a serialized story, refusing to explain what happened in-between said time lapse, and then expecting the reader to “fill-in-the-blanks” themselves doesn’t always work. It doesn’t always create a sense of mystery or anticipation about what happened; if anything, it makes your readers confused, impatient, and annoyed.
At least Matteo Buffangi’s art is much improved compared to the last two issues, in part because such an action-heavy issue like this one gives him much more to work with. Here, Buffangi offers some genuinely good and arresting-looking visuals, especially once Spider-Man is under attack by the Spider-Mobile. Those scenes, with the help of Marte Gracia and the predominant usage red and blues, literally offer the most colorful panels in both this comic and all three issues of this story. The same applies to his depictions of whenever Cloak teleports someone, whether it be in his normal or inverted state, which uses textbook examples in use of light and shadow, and white against black. There are a few moments where his art still looks unpolished, however, and sometimes his figures and facial depictions look off. I have to admit that I couldn’t help but laugh at the scowling face of Mr. Negative when he first arrives at the award ceremony, or how stiff and frozen he looks when he’s shown in a martial arts pose.
But again, the problem with Amazing Spider-Man (2015) #8 and with “The Dark Kingdom” all stem from a failure to create empathy for the characters and the proceedings around them. Sure, one could make the case that this story is mere filler used to set-up bigger stories down the road, but that’s no excuse. Because the same narrative problems this comic has–the lack of genuine emotional weight and depth to what’s happening on the page, the sensation you’re reading items being checked off a “to do” list instead of an actual story with real characters and emotions–will continue to persist and fester if not corrected. If Slott genuinely wants his readers to have emotional investment in this current run of Amazing Spider-Man, then he needs to stop assuming they will simply because it’s The Amazing Spider-Man.
Stillanerd’s Nerdy Nitpicks (spoilers ahead)
- And right on cue, Dr. Yao Wu is complaining about Shade being an “American designer drug” even though, as Spider-Man tries to point out, Mr. Negative is Chinese. Of course, not once has it ever been brought up that Wu is employed by an American and using what is probably American technology for his research, including the means for counteracting said “American designer drug.”
- “Let’s go before people realize that [the Spider-Mobile] is just a really expensive elevator.” Oh I see, Mr. Parker! So you’re admitting that your eco-friendly car which runs on “the world’s greenest fuel” that you plan on mass producing in China is really just a colossal waste of time, resources and money? Wow! Is it too late for me to buy Parker Industries stock?
- “So what do you need to see Spidey about, Lian? I thought the two of you didn’t get along?” You mean that one single panel we saw in Amazing Spider-Man (2015) #1, where she tells Spider-Man he can only call her “Ms. Tang” and warns him not to scratch the Spider-Mobile? That’s the basis upon which we’re supposed to conclude Lian doesn’t get along with Spider-Man? Well, if she doesn’t get along with Spider-Man, then why did she agree to build a car for him?
- You know, it occurs to me that all Mr. Negative was trying to do was to get Quinghao to confess to his crimes on live television, and that Spider-Man and the Shanghai police are protecting a man who is guilty of human trafficking. So I ask you: who’s the real hero and villain in this story?
- So when Mr. Negative says, “It’s a trap!” my immediate thought was “there’s an Admiral Ackbar joke just waiting to happen.” And sure enough, Spider-Man alludes to it on the very next page. So what does that say about me being able to anticipate a Star Wars reference?
- Really? Spider-Man has homing tranquilizer darts as part of his arsenal now? Along with all the other convenient webbing for every suitable occasion to rival the content of Batman’s utility belt? And here I used to complain about how Spidey always seemed to be running out of web-fluid. Boy, those were the days.
- “Gotta admit. Did not see that coming.” Perhaps that’s because, once again, your spider-sense failed to warn you about Lian being a possible threat, despite all the times you’ve spent with her, until it was convenient to do so? And I guess the “Aunt May rule” didn’t apply to her, either.
- Oh hi, Mockingbird. Glad to you just randomly show up to tell Peter something he already figured out just to explain why Lian is betraying him, even you’ve had zero involvement in the story until now. Also, if you were able to follow Scorpio’s paper trail enough to figure out he was sending experimental cancer drugs to Lian’s mom–a single private citizen in a country of over a billion people, no less–how is it you didn’t also uncover Scorpio’s true identity yet?
- “You don’t get to win. Not by breaking the law.” Oh, you were speaking Mr. Negative, chief inspector, and not the guy who you know is guilty of selling your country’s men, women, and children into slavery? My mistake. Also, why didn’t you take the opportunity to shoot Mr. Negative instead of shooting at the camera? Then you wouldn’t have to complain to Spider-Man later about how Mr. Negative managed to get away from you and the rest of your police squad.
- Well, of course your spider-sense wouldn’t be tingling if Lian was in danger, Spider-Man. Because your spider-sense only tingles when you’re in danger. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work…in theory.
- “I know what it means to risk everything to help family.” Like selling your marriage to the devil to save your dying aunt, Spider-Man? Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.
- Um, Spider-Man, Cloak, and Dagger? You do realize it was only a recording of Martin Li, so he can’t actually hear your “badass boasts,” right? Don’t worry, because Martin Li had the same problem when watching a recording of Mr. Negative last issue.
- Also, I guess Cloak and Dagger must have learned Chinese after all? Because if they didn’t, they’re going have an awful tough time living in Shanghai for the foreseeable future.