Marvel: Who Is Spider-Woman?

Phase 4 of the MCU may be getting a slower start than anticipated after movies like Black Widow and Eternals as well as shows like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier were delayed thanks to COVID-19 related shutdowns, but that doesn’t mean every plan has hit pause. In fact, it would seem the behind-the-scenes work at Marvel is still full-steam-ahead with the recent announcement that Olivia Wilde will be joining the MCU to direct a movie featuring a new-to-live-action character in the Spider-Man family: Spider-Woman.

This, of course, begs the question: Who is Spider-Woman? And perhaps more importantly, what could her introduction mean for the MCU?

First things first–the codename Spider-Woman has been used by a handful of heroes, and we’ll briefly touch upon all of them, but for the sake of clarity (and because its the most likely outcome) we’re going to focus predominantly on the original, Jessica Drew.

Though her codename may invite you to assume she’s just a female spin on Peter Parker, origin story and all, the truth is actually much, much weirder. Rather than getting her powers by a radioactive spider bite, Jessica was first introduced in 1977 as–wait for it–an actual, literal spider that transformed/evolved/comic book logic’d itself into a human being. This was partly because the concept of Spider-Woman wasn’t supposed to really be anything substantial–the ’70s were a fraught time in the rivalry between Marvel and DC and creating characters was less about coming up with cool ideas and more about racing to nail down copyrights and trademarks as quickly as possible. Spider-Woman was part of that race–Marvel just wanted to stake a claim to the name so that DC couldn’t take it.

However, things quickly deviated from the plan after Jessica’s debut issue, Marvel Spotlight #32, actually sold extremely well. This prompted an almost immediate overhaul (and some real thought) to be given to her in the form of an immediate origin retcon. Goodbye fancy human spider, hello, uh, superhero who had been sort-of brainwashed into having false memories of being a spider. Because we really just couldn’t let that part go just yet, apparently. This is important, if only because it establishes one of the weirder repeated tropes of Jessica’s character: She’s pretty frequently the victim of brainwashing or identity theft. It’s a whole thing. We’ll get to that more in a second.

Eventually, Jessica was given an origin story that was considerably less absurd, as well as a set of actually defined powers. She was the daughter of a scientist who became gravely ill thanks to prolonged exposure to uranium and, to save her life, her dad injected her with an experimental serum that was actually based on radioactive spider “blood.” (Spiders, like most bugs, don’t actually have blood, but this is comics.) Unfortunately the serum also required an “incubation” period, so Jessica’s dad popped her into a sort of scientific Easy Bake Oven intending only to leave her there in stasis for a few months. It didn’t exactly go according to plan and Jessica was accidentally left in for decades. She remained 17-years-old and became empowered with the sort of cool abilities one might associate with being injected with a radioactive serum and then microwaved for years (if one reads a lot of comics, at least). She was super strong and fast, incredibly durable, and could zap people with bio-electric energy or manipulate them with pheromones.

Unfortunately, before she could really do anything, she was captured, brainwashed, and turned into a HYDRA agent named Arachne. She later encountered Nick Fury, had a big fight, had a few major revelations about HYDRA’s evil, tried to defect, and then was captured and brainwashed again. Her original solo series, which ran from 1977 to 1983, mostly covered Jessica grappling with her identity and her place in the world while simultaneously establishing herself as a crack private detective and spy to put her HYDRA training to good use. Most of the run has since faded into obscurity or been retcon’d out of existence.

In the late ’80s, Jessica had been largely forgotten or relegated to side-character status in other books. Briefly, a woman named Julia Carpenter took up the Spider-Woman mantle (and later the Arachne mantle, and then the Madam Webb mantle). Julia was then shuffled off, out of the spotlight after a very brief solo series and replaced with Mattie Franklin, who got her start by impersonating a then-retired Spider-Man. Mattie had a similarly flash-in-the-pan solo career as Spider-Woman before she, too, was replaced, this time by a villain named Charlotte Witter.

Jessica didn’t actually return the codename or to any sort of prominence in Marvel stories until the early ’00s, when she was introduced as one of the core members of the New Avengers. This return to prominence came with a brand new origin story that significantly downplayed the more absurd parts of her original take (no more scientific Easy Bake Oven or decades-long stasis, for instance, and no more spider blood serum) but kept the HYDRA brainwashing. In this new version, Jessica was also trained by Taskmaster in addition to having the full roster of her abilities.

Jessica remained a prominent feature of the Avengers team and, while not fighting against major superheroic threats, returned to her private detective side hustle. And yes, she did become friends with fellow PI Jessica Jones in the process.

Things proceeded largely business as usual until the Secret Invasion crossover event when Jessica was caught up in a Skrull scheme (disguised, initially, as a HYDRA scheme) and replaced by the shape-shifted Skrull queen Veranke. Veranke, passing as Drew, managed to infiltrate the team and sow distrust between the Avengers and SHIELD in an attempt to destabilize Earth’s protection. Eventually, after the truth was uncovered and the invasion prevented, Jessica found herself struggling to regain any sort of trust with her former comrades–though she did wind up receiving a personal invite to a newly formed Avengers team from Steve Rogers himself, which helped course-correct her ongoing existential crisis.

Much later, following the shuffling of the multiverse and time-skip of Secret Wars, Jessica had a son (via sperm bank donor) who inherited her abilities. She also got her first ever costume update and a brand new solo series following her adventures as a mom, a detective, and a hero.

So what does any of this mean for the MCU? The short answer is that there’s no way to tell. Jessica’s history is fraught with change and all sorts of mind-bending and brainwashing, making for an especially strange and exceptionally varied set of potential inspirations. With all her connections to HYDRA, it could be easy to spin her out of some of the leftover plot threads in the Captain America franchise–or perhaps ones that we might see tee’d up in the upcoming Falcon and the Winter Soldier TV show. Her Skrull connections make her an obvious pick for a tie-in to Captain Marvel, and her spy background means she’d also be a fit for a Black Widow link.

Of course, there’s also no reason to limit her to connections to existing properties. She may just be a completely clean slate for a future MCU phase–after all, with Phase 4 not yet officially started, the future seems wide open.

And that’s all assuming that the Spider-Woman in question will actually be Jessica. Though her main continuity replacements were all temporary and largely forgotten at best, alternate universe takes on the character have included big name characters like Mary Jane Watson, who took the name in the Marvel Mangaverse and in the multiverse-hopping Exiles title; and Gwen Stacy, who was the main Spider-hero of Earth-65 during the Spider-Verse crossover event.

If there’s one thing that the Spider-movies have proven in the last few years, it’s that the fans are ready and willing to accept all sorts of crazy multi-versal changes in their favorite web-slinging heroes.

Disclosure: ViacomCBS is GameSpot’s parent company

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