When Spider-Man 3 finally arrives in theaters on May 4th, the eagerly-awaited film will culminate a cycle of hype initiated over a year ago when a single image surfaced on the internet. The picture, purportedly plucked from Sony and featuring a rain-soaked Spider-Man locked in a contemplative pose, seemed innocent enough, save for one key detail: Spidey was dressed in black.
To comic book aficionados, the event was nothing less than earth-shattering. As the fanboys struggled to regain the ability to speak, those of us unfamiliar with the Spider-Man mythos were left wondering: What’s up with that black suit? Where did it come from? Has Spider-Man gone goth? Did Tobey Maguire put on too many pounds after Spider-Man 2, forcing producers to opt for a more slimming costume? As expected, the folks at Sony, content to watch their viral marketing work its magic, refused to divulge any details.
The story of the black suit begins simply enough. As is the case with all great ideas, it started out as a marketing gimmick, conceived over 20 years ago — 1984, to be precise. The nation was ebullient, having triumphantly emerged from recession with newfound confidence, basking in its superpower status.
But not everyone shared in the renewed optimism. Over at the hallowed halls of Marvel Comics, all was not well. Interest in their products, most notably the flagship Spider-Man titles, had stagnated. The character, once a counter-culture icon, had grown a bit stale after 20-plus years as Marvel’s venerable cash cow. The time had come for a change.
And so it was decided: Spidey would recieve a makeover. After all, he’d been swinging around New York City clad in essentially the same red and blue costume since his introduction in 1962. It was time for the web-slinger to don new wardrobe, one more suitable for the go-go 80s — something with attitude, something with style, and, most importantly, something to help sell a new line of toys based on Marvel’s prominent titles. Lo, the black suit was born.
Artist Mike Zeck’s original designThough Spider-Man debuted the suit in May 1984 for issue #252 of Amazing Spider-Man, it wasn’t until several months later that a story was concocted to explain the new duds. According to the official storyline, the change occurred during the Secret Wars, a mammoth crossover series in which a nearly omnipotent being named The Beyonder whisked all of Marvel’s prominent heroes and villains to an alternate world for massive battle royale. After his outfit got shredded in battle, Spidey searched for a way to mend his mangled suit, having apparently lacked the foresight to bring along a few extra backup suits. With sewing machines understandably scarce in deep space, Spidey opted to use what he thought to be a high-tech “fabric replication” device. Seemingly responding to his thoughts, the mysterious machine spat out a big black ball of goo that engulfed his entire body, eventually molding into a snazzy, form-fitting outfit, perfect for both crime-fighting on weeknights and clubbing on weekends.
New Suit = New Powers:
In addition to looking cool, the new suit held a number of advantages over the old one. It came on and off automatically according to his thoughts, eliminating the annoyance of changing out of work clothes. It also produced its own webbing (at the time, the comic book Spider-Man had to manufacture his own web fluid) and heightened his existing abilities. Perhaps most importantly, it could change form in order to store things Spidey picked up during his adventures, overgcoming what was arguably the old costume’s greatest flaw: a lack of pockets.
The black suit ignited a firestorm of controversy, with many hardcore comics fans decrying it as tantamount to sacrilege. Spider-Man’s traditional red and blue costume was iconic, they argued, on par with those of his D.C. rivals Superman and Batman. The negative response was puzzling for a medium where constant change is the norm: characters are regularly killed off and brought back from the dead. (Captain America is the latest superhero to fall prey to this common industry practice.)
Despite the uproar (or perhaps because of it), sales of Spider-Man titles soared — at least temporarily. For the next few years, Spidey dressed in black exclusively as he battled the bad guys, but he never quite succeeded in winning over the die-hards.
As the new suit’s novelty ebbed, Marvel opted for a compromise of sorts, dressing Spider-Man in the traditional suit by day and the black one at night. By then, the writing was on the wall, and the decision was eventually made to ditch the black suit permanently.
The Birth of Venom:
So Marvel took lemons and made lemonade, crafting an ingenious storyline that turned a discarded gimmick into perhaps the greatest Spider-Man villain of all time. As the story goes, the suit turned out to be an alien symbiote with a mind of its own — an evil one at that — and it wanted control of Peter Parker. Spidey Back in Black
After an epic struggle, Spidey eventually broke the symbiote’s powerful grip and cast it aside, where it found a much more agreeable host in the form of Peter Parker’s photojournalist rival Eddie Brock (portrayed by Topher Grace in Spider-Man 3). Brock fused with the symbiote, becoming Venom, a dark, snarling beast that lived only for Spider-Man’s destruction.
Ah, but the story doesn’t end there. Marvel brought the black suit out of storage in February for Amazing Spider-Man #539, just in time for the run-up to the release of Spider-Man 3. (They dubbed the return “Back in Black”.) Never fear, Spidey purists: it’s only temporary.
Or so they tell us.