This issue may be the best Spider-Man story that Dan Slott has ever told.
First, let's taking about the setting. The intro page states that Doom created Battleworld from "fragments of worlds that no longer exist." This assertion isn't exactly true, since we learned in "Secret Wars" #3 that some aspects of the Marvel Universe still exist on Battleworld. Even if it were true, though, it still doesn't make any sense. As I noted in my review of "Secret Wars" #3, I don't understand how these fragments could still have existed given the fact that their respective universes were destroyed. (If the Marvel and Ultimate Universes were the only ones left standing after all the incursions, then where were these fragments hiding?)
But, Slott isn't really responsible for the overall plot here; he's playing by the rules of the game that someone else created. Instead, he sets about showing how these rules impact the story that he's telling. He makes it pretty clear that we're dealing with a universe that approximates the 1990s Marvel Universe, given the presence of the New Warriors of that era. I say "approximates," because Kubert hints through small changes in costumes, particularly Captain America's and Iron Man's, that it's not the same timeline. (Maybe it's the Marvel Universe if "Acts of Vengeance" or some other 1990s event didn't happen.) Slott and Kubert are impressively able to get across all this information in the first five pages, grounding the reader pretty quickly in this new world.
Now, let's talk about the plot. Peter and Mary Jane are parents to a toddler named not May, but Annie. Slott doesn't get stuck trying to clarify whether it's the baby that Mary Jane "miscarried" or a different child entirely. She's just their child. The issue begins with Peter telling Mary Jane that he's picking up a lot of slack for some of the other street-level heroes, and Mary Jane reminds him that he's now a father and suggests that they should be picking up his slack. A trip to the "Daily Bugle" reveals that these heroes are actually missing (Daredevil and Iron Fist) or dead (Moon Knight, Night Thrasher, and Punisher). A quick stop at Avengers Mansion confirms that someone is killing the non-powered members of the superhero community and kidnapping the powered ones. (Ominously, we learn that all of the X-Men have disappeared.) Cap announces that the Black Widow fingered someone (before she herself disappeared) named Augustus Roman, C.E.O. of Empire Unlimited, a company "researching super-human abilities and bio-technologies." Cap leaves with the assembled heroes to take on Roman, but Peter bails after learning about a prison break at Ryker's Island. Confirming his fears, he arrives home to find Venom holding Mary Jane and Annie hostage.
The next sequence tells the type of story that "Secret Wars" was created to tell. It's the ultimate "What If...?" story, letting Slott explore Peter's response to this sort of situation without worrying about continuity. While the Avengers discover that Roman has found a way to steal the powers of the powered members of the superhero community, Peter fights Venom as Mary Jane flees with Annie. This sequence really does have a 1990s vibe, since Slott and Kubert remind us just how much of a menace Venom really was back then. Moreover, we're reminded how resourceful Mary Jane is, as she follows fire engines to a burning building since it'll give Peter access to Venom's two weaknesses: fire and sonics. As Roman, now calling himself Regent, kills the remaining Avengers one by one, Mary Jane confirms with the firefighters that the burning building is cleared of people and shouts that information to Peter. Understanding her meaning, Peter crashes the building onto Brock (as he continues to taunt Peter about the harm that he'll inflict on Annie). Brock dies and, we learn, Spider-Man does as well: Peter renounces his identity to protect Annie, particularly since, as we learn, Regent has taken over the world.
I know that a lot of people probably hated the fact that Peter kills Venom. (Venom himself actually doesn't see it coming, since he was convinced that Peter would never kill.) But, I've never exactly been the type of guy that believes that superheroes should never kill. Honestly? Batman probably should've killed the Joker a long time ago. Xavier probably should've killed Magneto. That said, in both those cases, you could argue that the heroes have to be careful about starting down a road where they become judge, jury, and executioner, since it's hard to get off that road.
However, Peter isn't facing a philosophical debate here: he needs to save his family from someone that won't stop until they are tortured and dead. As he said, it was his responsibility to do something. When he tells MJ that he did what he had to do, you can see that the innocence about him dies; he becomes an adult in a way that we've maybe never seen. It's not a happy moment, by any stretch of the imagination. But, it's the sort of growth that he was denied when his marriage got dissolved by a demon and not by a conversation. It's the type of growth that Slott himself doesn't seem to allow him to experience in "Amazing Spider-Man," where he's a relentless optimist. The closest that Slott has come to it is in "Amazing Spider-Man" #700, when Peter commits to renounce his Spider-Man identity if he successfully manages to kill Otto and get back control over his body. "Secret Wars" actually lets him explore this darker possibility.
But, it's also clear now that the title might be a double entendre. It seems like Slott is probably not referring to renewing Peter's vows to Mary Jane, but his vows as Spider-Man. Regent seems to be an unbeatable foe, so I'm intrigued where Slott goes from here.
***** (five of five stars)