Few Marvel characters exemplify the ‘90s more than Ben Reilly, the Scarlet Spider. He was, in many ways, the epitome of comic book trends of the era. First, the Scarlet Spider was popularized in a major “status quo-shaking” Marvel Comics event. Second, he was an edgier version of an iconic hero. These were key ’90s comics ingredients. Now, Scarlet Spider has made his big screen debut in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, voiced by Andy Samberg. But who is Ben Reilly, the infamous alternate Spidey? And why were folks so excited to see him return? Here’s the lowdown on Peter Parker’s broody clone, the Scarlet Spider.
The Scarlet Spider’s Groovy ’70s Marvel Comics Origins
The roots of the Scarlet Spider didn’t actually begin in the ‘90s. They went back even further, to 1975. In that year’s Amazing Spider-Man #149, Peter Parker’s college professor Dr. Miles Warren, also known as the Jackal, created a fully grown version of Parker to destroy Spider-Man. Why did he hate Spidey so much? Well, it turned out Dr. Warren was a super creep. He was obsessed with his much younger student Gwen Stacy, whose death he blamed solely on Spider-Man. And he was a brilliant scientist who studied under none other than the High Evolutionary. That association always leads to trouble.
When Gwen died at the hands of the Green Goblin, a death Spider-Man could not prevent, Warren snapped. He developed an alternate persona to deal with his feelings of guilt—the Jackal. As the furry costumed Jackal, he cloned Gwen and Spider-Man, thus learning that the wallcrawler was his other student, Peter Parker. This clone had all of Peter’s memories and was designed to fight and kill his doppelgänger. However, he seemingly died in the very issue they introduced him in. And that would be the last we’d hear of this Spider-Man clone for nearly two decades. It was all meant by writer Gerry Conway as a one-off story, but it ended up creating Marvel Comics’ Scarlet Spider.
Scarlet Spider Returns in the ’90s, Following Comics Trends of Darker Doppelgängers
In the early ‘90s, one of the biggest comic trends was replacing iconic heroes with darker, edgier versions of themselves. In 1992 Superman died, and one of his replacements was the evil Cyborg Superman. Batman’s back was broken, and then the ultra-violent Azrael wore the batsuit. At Marvel, someone remembered the clone from 1975 and had an idea. What if maybe the Spider-Clone didn’t die and had been living in secret for years? Even more tantalizing for Marvel, they teased readers with the notion that this character was actually the Peter Parker we’d been reading about for years, while the newly emerged “clone” was the real thing.
When Marvel brought back the Spider-Clone, they revealed that after his apparent death, he realized he was a mere copy of Peter Parker and not the original. He decided to leave New York and became a drifter wandering America. He bleached his hair blonde and took the name Ben Reilly. Ben after his deceased uncle Ben, and Reilly since it was his Aunt May’s maiden name. He continued his scientific studies, this time under Dr. Seward Trainer (yet another acolyte of the High Evolutionary). He suffered many tragedies during his exile, making him a darker and more bitter version of his (now happily married) genetic twin. But when he learned that his Aunt May was near death, he went back to New York, and revealed his existence to Peter.
Ben Reilly and Peter Parker first resented each other and had an uneasy relationship. There was a good deal of spider-on-spider violence. Eventually, Dr. Trainer performed blood tests on both heroes, only to determine that the Peter Parker fans had been reading about for 20 years at Marvel was the clone, and Ben Reilly was actually the first Peter Parker. Ben then decided to stay in New York City and fight crime under a new name—the Scarlet Spider. Sales soared for the Spider-Man titles during this time, and it seemingly encouraged Marvel editorial to keep the newly coined Clone Saga and Scarlet Spider going for as long as possible. And they did.
Scarlet Spider Becomes Spider-Man and Ben’s Untimely Demise
In late 1995, Marvel decided that Peter Parker and MJ would retire to married life and start a family, and Scarlet Spider would take over as Spider-Man. He was “the real deal” after all. Scarlet Spider became the new friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, taking over all five Spider-Man ongoing books and getting a new costume. Although some fans felt betrayed that the Spidey they’d been following for years was a copy, Ben Reilly persisted. In fact, in the epic Marvel vs. DC crossover event that year, it was actually the Ben Reilly Spidey that fought DC’s heroes, not Peter.
Eventually, after more than two years, sales of the Spider-Man books (and comics overall) began to plummet. Marvel decided it was time to end The Clone Saga and get back to basics. It was revealed that a returned Norman Osborn/Green Goblin—who had at that point been dead for almost 25 years—had been behind everything. He planted fake evidence that Scarlet Spider was the real Peter Parker, as a way of tormenting Peter Parker himself. Ben Reilly died in battle with the Goblin and literally liquified. Thus proving he was the actual clone all along. At the time, people were mostly glad the story was finally over. It seemed no one would miss old Ben.
The Scarlet Spider’s Modern-Day Resurrection
But as we know, nostalgia makes even the worst stories look better. Kids who grew up with The Clone Saga and the Scarlet Spider actually loved that event looking back. By the 2010s, these kids were now adults, and begged Marvel to bring back the Scarlet Spider. In 2015, Marvel finally did. In The Clone Conspiracy, Marvel revealed that the Jackal had collected the DNA of Ben Reilly from his death site and attempted to bring him back, memories and all, 26 times.
The 27th clone was stable and lived, but held traumatic memories of each painful death. Ben freed himself from the Jackal, and resumed a heroic career. At first, he took the name Anubis, after the Egyptian God of Death. Eventually, he took on the name and mantle of the Scarlet Spider once more. And thus, the Scarlet Spider returned to Marvel Comics. ‘90s nostalgia was in full swing. He was the hero of Las Vegas for a time before returning to New York City. Scarlet Spider’s last major storyline was Marvel Comics’ Dark Web, where he became entangled with Marvel’s other most famous clone, Madelyne Pryor, herself a disregarded genetic copy of the X-Man Jean Grey.
The Scarlet Spider Becomes a Movie Star in Across the Spider-Verse
With his appearance in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Ben Reilly’s Scarlet Spider finally made it to the big screen. He appeared in the ‘90s Spider-Man: The Animated Series a couple of times, right around the time of his comics heyday. But aside from showing up in the recent Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon series, there were not many appearances by Scarlet Spider outside the comics. With Across the Spider-Verse, that’s finally changed.
In Across the Spider-Verse, Ben Reilly is used as a kind of comedic meta-commentary on the overly angsty Marvel comics of the ’90s. Ben is part of Spider-Man 2099’s squad sent to go after “fugitive spider” Miles Morales. He spends most of his screen time brooding and constantly commenting on his situation, giving voice to an old-school comics thought balloon. His look was very much like the art style of his co-creator, the late Tom Lyle. Will Scarlet-Spider switch sides in Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, and choose to help Miles instead of hunting him? We’ll find out when the third chapter hits theaters in 2024.