Any longtime Spider-Man fans would be forgiven for sighing after watching the first trailer for Madame Web. Not because of its PG-13 horror tones or soap opera vibes (both familiar parts of superhero comics).
No, they cringe because of the movie’s big bad, Ezekiel Sims. Throughout the trailer, Dakota Johnson’s Cassandra Webb finds herself hunted by what appears to be a black-suited Spider-Man, whom she eventually recognizes as researcher Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim). For most viewers, the trailer serves as their introduction to Sims. But fans of the Spider-Man comics might recall him from the days long before guys like Paul drove readers nuts.
Ezekiel Sims debuted in The Amazing Spider-Man #30 (2001), written by J. Michael Straczynski and penciled by John Romita Jr.. Straczynski reimagined Spidey’s origin not as a fluke accident when a random radioactive spider bit Pete on the hand, nor even as a larger conspiracy. The spider acted as part of a mystical, supernatural order that put Spider-Man within a larger food chain. According to this storyline, Spider-Man attracted so many animal-based villains — the Lizard, the Vulture, the Scorpion, etc. — because he became the Spider-Totem, which pulled him into conflict with other types of Totems.
Spider-Man learns this secret history from Sims, a man who had been studying the Totems since young adulthood. Sims even attempted a ritual to become the Spider-Totem, which did successfully infuse him with powers similar to those of Spider-Man, but did not make him the true Spider-Totem. However, it did give Sims knowledge vital to Peter and Cindy Moon (aka Silk, a woman bit by the same spider that bit Parker) about Morlun. The vampiric Morlun and his family hunt Spider-Totems across the multiverse, feeding on their energy.
As that last line suggests, Straczynski’s run did pave the way for the comic book crossover Into the Spider-Verse, in which Morlun served as the big bad, which in turn inspired two excellent animated movies featuring Miles Morales. Straczynski also tried to do something different with the Spider-Man mythos, heightening the tension between regular kid Peter Parker and his great responsibility by bringing it to cosmic heights.
However, the shift proved too audacious for most readers. All of this talk of Totems and cosmic webs drew Spider-Man too far out of his friendly neighborhood and diminished the personal choice he made to use his powers for good. Peter became less a good kid who continues to make the right choice to atone for one bad choice, and more an avatar of a cosmic battle beyond the ken of some guy from New York.
That problem reached a climax during an event titled “The Other,” which also crossed over into ongoings Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and Marvel Knights: Spider-Man, and involved writers Peter David and Reginald Hudlin along with Straczynski. This storyline finds the Totem overtaking Peter and making him more beastlike, eventually becoming a literal giant Spider.
He gets better, of course, and gains movie-appropriate organic web-shooters in the process. And some might argue that the story once again affirms Peter as a guy who never gives up and makes the hard, but right, choice. But it leaned too far into body horror, too far from the character’s strongest roots to resonate with readers. Fans at the time rejected the premise and eventually, he returned to the familiar status quo.
Given how little access Sony Pictures has to Peter Parker, we need not fear a similar fate for Spider-Man in Madame Web. Sims seems more intent on complicating things for Madame Web, a character who also received backlash when she debuted in The Amazing Spider-Man #210 (1980), written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by John Romita Jr. (he’s penciled lots of Spidey stories people like! I promise!).
But even with these assurances in place, Spider-Man and his fans know that nothing good comes with Ezekiel Sims. That said, this villain’s presence will surely be balanced out by a star-studded cast that also includes Sydney Sweeney and Celeste O’Connor as different versions of Spider-Woman as well as Isabela Merced as Anya Corazon aka Araña. It remains to be seen how Madame Web’s time traveling hijinks will not only tie these characters together but also whether it will connect the larger big-screen Spider-Verse.
Madame Web hits theaters on Feb. 16.