As the posters for the new AMAZING SPIDER-MAN films show, it’s clear that the filmmakers are positioning romance as a big part of the production.
But that’s nothing new for ol’ Webhead. Peter Parker’s love life (and poor luck surrounding it) has long been a big part of the Spider-Man mythology. Let’s take a look at Spidey’s romantic history and see how your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man does with the ladies.
Spidey’s first love interest was Betty Brant, first introduced in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #4 (September 1963).
Created by original Spidey creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Betty was J. Jonah Jameson’s secretary at the Daily Bugle (and when you consider that Betty must have been old enough to hold down a full-time job while Peter Parker was still in high school, Peter must have been a little smoother with the ladies than he gives himself credit for). The problem with Betty was that she never seemed like much fun to be around, always moping about something or other. Naturally, early on she blamed Spider-Man for her brother’s death (which seems to happen to Spidey a lot, to be fair), but she soon comes around and accepts Spider-Man as a hero, much to her boss’s chagrin. Peter and Betty split up after she grew tired of Peter not being around when she needed him, which again, is an occupational hazard in the Spider-Man business. Betty later married Bugle reporter Ned Leeds, went a little insane when she learned he was the supervillain the Hobgoblin and was subsequently murdered, joined a cult, regained her sanity, cleared Ned’s name and began off-and-on dating Peter’s high-school bully/friend Flash Thompson. Betty’s had a rough life, even by Spider-Man standards.
Occasionally competing with Betty for Peter’s affections was Pete’s Midtown High classmate Liz Allan.
Liz first appeared in Spidey’s very first appearance in AMAZING FANTASY #15, as Flash Thompson’s girlfriend and one of “Puny Parker’s” tormentors, but within the first year of the series Liz has dumped Flash and begun to express interest in Peter Parker, particularly after she sees that an “older woman” like Betty is interested in him. Liz and Peter never really have any sort of real relationship, although Liz does manage to stay a part of Spider-Man’s circle of friends, first thanks to the criminal activities of her brother Mark Raxton, a petty thug transformed into the supervillain known as the Molten Man, and then when she marries Peter’s college roommate and best friend Harry Osborn (who of course, eventually follows in his father’s footsteps as Spider-Man’s archnemesis the Green Goblin).
Once Peter graduated high school and was off to Empire State University, things really began looking up with the love life, with the introduction of Gwen Stacy, making her first appearance in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #31 (December 1965) another creation of Lee and Ditko.
Although it was later artist John Romita that would give Gwen her trademark “bangs and headband” hairstyle…
Gwen, a fellow ESU science major, becomes the most significant romantic relationship in Peter Parker’s life, despite a rocky patch when Gwen blames Spider-Man for the death of her father, NYPD Captain George Stacy, killed by accident in a battle between Spidey and Doctor Octopus. Peter and Gwen weather that storm, and all is well, until June 1973, when arguably the most infamous murder in Marvel Comics history takes place.
In AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121’s “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” by Gerry Conway and Gil Kane, Gwen is kidnapped by Spidey’s longtime enemy the Green Goblin (actually Norman Osborn, Harry’s father), and knocked off the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. Spidey attempts to make the save, but with terrible results.
Gwen was dead, her neck broken by the sudden stop (a grim irony added to the story thanks to the addition of the “snap!” sound effect by the character’s neck).
Gwen’s death changed everything. Not only did it forever elevate Norman Osborn as the top villain in Spidey’s pantheon of foes, but it changed comics as a whole. Suddenly, heroes could fail, and fail big. Nothing was safe.
With Gwen gone moving to the forefront of the series was the other woman in Peter Parker’s life, Mary Jane Watson.
MJ had appeared all the way back in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #42 (November 1966) as created by Stan Lee and John Romita, after almost a year of build-up and mystery about the niece of one of Aunt May’s friends that May was trying to fix up with Peter. Once properly introduced, MJ took her place as the Veronica to Gwen Stacy’s Betty, frequently flirting with Peter while dating Harry Osborn. After Gwen’s death, Mary Jane settled down and became a little less flighty, and she and Peter entered into a longish, serious relationship, which ended with MJ turning down Peter Parker’s wedding proposal. When MJ returned years later, it was with a surprising revelation, that she knew Peter Parker was Spider-Man, and had known for many years. MJ then returned to Spidey’s supporting cast but only as a platonic friend. That is, until 1987, when the decision was suddenly made to have Peter and MJ get married in both the comics and the daily newspaper strip.
Although it came out of nowhere in the comics from a plot perspective, the Peter-MJ marriage was a staple of the Spider-Man series for twenty years, until Marvel higher-ups decided that a married super-hero was too limiting story-wise, and had the entire marriage undone with a wave of the hand in the ONE MORE DAY storyline, in which all memory of their marriage is wiped out by Mephisto (the Marvel version of Old Scratch himself) in exchange for saving the life of Aunt May. The less said about this the better.
After Mary Jane turned down Peter’s first proposal, he dated here and there, with one of the oddest and most disturbing relationships being Deb Whitman, a secretary at ESU first introduced in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #196 (September 1979).
Things seemed good for Pete and Deb at first, but when the usual pattern emerges of Peter running off with flimsy excuses when he’s needed as Spider-Man, rather than resenting it like all of Pete’s other girlfriends, Deb goes a bit off the deep end, with her beginning to have irrational delusions that Peter was putting himself in danger as Spider-Man. Which was more than a little ironic, since that’s exactly what was happening. Deb’s psychiatrist eventually asks Peter to put on a Spider-Man suit to shock Deb out of her delusions by showing her how crazy the deal was that Peter Parker was Spider-Man. It’s all very meta. Deb disappeared not long after than and hasn’t been seen much since.
Finally, there’s one more very significant relationship that differs dramatically from all the others. While all of these women had relationships with Peter Parker, there’s only one who fell in love with Spider-Man, and that’s Felicia Hardy, the Black Cat.
Created by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard, the Black Cat first appeared in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #194 (July 1979), as a cat burglar following the footsteps of her criminal father, but who begins to be swayed to the straight and narrow by an attraction to Spider-Man.
The relationship really blossomed in the pages of PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN in the early 1980s, as written by the great Bill Mantlo. When Felicia is critically injured helping Spidey save the city from Doctor Octopus, Doc Ock swears revenge and mounts a full-scale assault on the hospital where the Black Cat is recovering. Following the attack, Spider-Man realizes that he returns Felicia’s affections, and the two embark on a lengthy relationship (with only a slight hurdle that comes when Spidey unmasks, only to find that Felicia isn’t into him at all with the mask off).
Eventually, the relationship falls apart, first when Spidey obsesses over her safety when he realizes she doesn’t have any superpowers, and then when she goes to the Kingpin and asks for powers as payback for a theft she’d committed for him. Kingpin agrees, and soon Felicia was in possession of “bad-luck” powers which affected those she was fighting. However, the bad-luck affected Spider-Man as well due to his constant proximity to Felicia, as Kingpin had planned. Spidey and Felicia’s relationship eventually fell apart thanks to the secrets between them (but in actuality because of the sudden editorial mandate that Peter and Mary Jane get married). Nowadays, with the marriage of Peter and MJ undone, Felicia is once again an occasional temptation in Spider-Man’s life, showing up to complicate things usually at the worst possible time.