As moderator of the CBR Spider-Man boards, I have noticed that Ben Reilly has a few fans. Recently Marvel has been hinting that he may return in some fashion, so this has resulted in a fair amount of discussion.
For those unaware of the character, Ben Reilly was introduced in the Spider-Man comics in the Mid-1990s as Peter Parker’s long-lost clone. For about an year, he became the Scarlet Spider. Then it was revealed that he was the real Spider-Man and that the Spider-Man in the books since the 1970s was actually a clone. So for about an year, Ben Reilly became Spider-Man. Then it was revealed that Ben was the clone after all. He died during a battle with the Green Goblin, dissolving in Peter’s hands, as proof that Ben Reilly was not the real Spider-Man.
For a while, Marvel barely referenced the Clone Saga, although that’s changed in recent years. In 2009, there was a four-part story pitting Spider-Man against an enemy of Ben Reilly. Kaine, the first clone of Spider-Man, also returned to the books. The Jackal, the villain who created Ben Reilly and Kaine, returned as one of the masterminds behind the current Spider Island event. Marvel also published a six issue mini-series based on their initial plans for the Clone Saga.
The editors at Marvel have consistently said that they have no interest in bringing back Ben Reilly. But they’ve also started hinting that the Scarlet Spider’s coming back in some form. It started with a teaser image of the Scarlet Spider hoodie burning. It’s an unusual visual if the story doesn’t involve Reilly’s return in some form, as the simplest explanations for the image would be that Ben Reilly is back as the Scarlet Spider and someone hates him, or Ben’s back but he’s no longer the Scarlet Spider. Ben Reilly’s been dead for a while, so there currently isn’t much of a reason for anyone to care enough to burn his costume, even metaphorically.
This got me thinking about hype in general, along with the morality of teasing the customers, and the circumstances under which it’s effective. I completely understand that hype is sometimes necessary, as is misdirection. But in this case, it may not be very productive.
Misdirection is most effective if the truth is something customers would have found satisfying, had they known about it in advance. An example would be if a studio were to hint that Christopher Nolan will be directing a movie, when it’s actually going to be Martin Scorcese. It can also work if you give the buyers something they didn’t know they want, though there’s always the risk that you’ll have failed to accurately gauge their interests. It’s least effective if you’re trying to cheat the customers, tricking them into buying a product they weren’t going to want.
If there’s a new Scarlet Spider character, there are several possible people under the mask that would get more attention than Ben Reilly. It could be Eddie Brock, the former Venom. It could be a regular Marvel Universe version of Miles Morales. Or it could be Mary Jane Watson, who recently developed spider-powers in Spider Island. Even Kaine might get more attention, considering his role in some recent major Spider-Man stories. But in those situations, the identity of the new Scarlet Spider is more appealing than the idea of a new Scarlet Spider.
The people who see these teaser images and get excited would be fans of Ben Reilly, hoping that it means that one of their favorite characters is returning. Anyone indifferent about the character will likely be indifferent about the teaser. This is why hinting at Ben Reilly’s return when it’s someone else is a bit deceptive. You do have the editor going on message boards flat-out saying that it’s not Reilly, although this sends a mixed message as the promotional material suggests otherwise, and more readers will be exposed to that than the editor’s denials.
I can appreciate that misdirection is sometimes essential to preserve surprises, and that hype is part of that. If Ben Reilly returns, everyone will see it coming, which might suggest that someone else will be the Scarlet Spider.
Anyone advertising a work of fiction will have to find the right balance between revealing enough to get customers interested, and keeping enough secrets so that the final product will include some surprises, without disappointing the customers by hinting at a possibility that is more intriguing than the final product. One trick would be making those speculating about the story think that there are only two possibilities, when there’s another option. That could be happening here.
Readers are thinking that either Ben Reilly is back or someone else is the new Scarlet Spider, when there is a possible compromise: Ben Reilly could be in the book, but he might not be the Scarlet Spider. I doubt that the readers interested in his return care about what his secret identity is, and it allows Marvel an opportunity to surprise readers without disappointing the fans of a cult character.