As a Cartoon Art Museum volunteer, I'm on the front lines of the mass Spider-Man frenzy as we rush to assemble our 'Web-Slinging and Wall-Crawling' show. By now, the merest glimpse of black-and-red fishnet sends me into a panic. And yet not even this constant immersion in all things Spider-Man can dilute my feelings for one of the key players in the Spidey saga, a man who rises head, shoulders, shoulders and shoulders above others in his demanding field.
I love Doctor Octopus.
Dr. Otto Octavius, atomic physicist and madman, is one of the most eye-catching figures in the Marvel Universe. A laboratory accident forces him to soldier through life with four powerful but unwieldy steel tentacles welded to his midriff. Poor fashion sense drives him to complement his extra appendages with thick goggles, a bowl haircut, and lime-green uniforms. He belongs to a proud tradition of supervillains who somehow present a credible threat despite having 'powers' that look like a huge pain in the back. Literally, in his case.
In the movie Unbreakable, a character says, 'You know how to recognize the villain in a comic book? He's the exact opposite of the hero.' This is almost never true. Batman's arch-nemesis is the Joker, and the opposite of a bat is not a clown. The Flash, the fastest man on earth, feuds with Gorilla Grodd, a talking gorilla, whereas in real life runners and gorillas almost never fight. The Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus antagonism, by contrast, invokes a pleasing symmetry. In the natural world, two different animals known for their eight-leggedness would surely want to duke it out.
Okay, it still doesn't make sense. But Doc Ock matches Spider-Man more neatly than most of the hero's other foes, a grab bag of oddballs encompassing various goblins, an illusionist with a fishbowl on his head, a flying senior citizen (actually, he can only glide, but I'm trying to be kind), and his own alien pants. Doctor Octopus is also one of several middle-aged villains introduced early in Spider-Man's career, the idea being that a teenage superhero should fight stodgy adults - and yet Peter Parker and Otto Octavius, two lonely science wonks with alliterative names, have a lot in common. Doctor Octopus is the bitter middle-aged man Spider-Man worries that he'll grow up to be.
In the course of his long career, Doctor Octopus has founded the fearsome crime team The Sinister Six, nearly destroyed Spider-Man while posing as the Master Planner, and come close to marrying Peter's beloved Aunt May. He's so devoted to his work that he once nursed Spider-Man from a near-fatal injury so that he, and no one else, could be the criminal responsible for Spidey's eventual death. On top of all this, he's figured out that Spider-Man is Peter Parker, but, at this point, who hasn't?
And yet, despite his genius and mechanical arms, Doctor Octopus seems plagued by personal setbacks. For one thing, he has trouble with women. His engagement to Aunt May ended in disaster. His virtual-reality girlfriend, Stunner, died to save his life. Then there's his assistant Carolyn, who became Doctor Octopus II while he was dead... but mentioning her would just make things confusing. Doctor Octopus has also had more than his share of mental disorders, even by mad-scientist standards, such as a catatonic fear of spiders. But he's overcome all these challenges, including that pesky bout of death.
In tragedy and triumph alike, Doctor Octopus shines. He's got everything I admire in a man: brilliance, enthusiasm, a streak of madness, and glasses thick enough to conceal his eyeballs. He's a born romantic; while Peter has never dated any but the shapeliest of beauties (and married the prettiest and most airheaded of the bunch), Doctor Octopus pursued Aunt May with purehearted devotion, blind to the fact that she was twice his age and resembled one of those dried-apple dolls at craft fairs. Some cynics hiss that he only wanted her uranium mine, but they're jealous. Let the tongues wag! Otto knows it was love. And he knows not to let anything - be it private misfortune, public disdain, death, or the accursed Spider-Man - stop him from stretching his tentacles toward the stars.
Forget Spidey. Doc Ock is (sorry) my knight in shining arms.