Marvel’s Aunt May is preventing Peter Parker from growing up, and Spider-Man fans (and writers) have taken notice. The character has remained a key player in the Spider-Man mythos, providing decades of memorable moments in hundreds of stories. But after over 50 years, Aunt May is slowly becoming an aspect of Spider-Man’s life that is holding him back.
Aunt May made her debut in 1963’s Amazing Fantasy #15, the beginning of the entire Spider-Man franchise. Both her and her partner Uncle Ben were portrayed as quite old, at least in their late 60s, and raised Peter from an early age (after his biological parents were killed in a plane crash). Uncle Ben was fatally shot by a burglar (whom Spider-Man failed to stop earlier, setting the stage for the conclusion of his origin story and his immense guilt) and from then on, Peter was raised by his aunt alone.
Since then, Aunt May has played a pivotal role in Peter’s life, but writers quickly discovered there were only so many ways they could put her in danger before the narrative became stale. May was frequently sick, frequently kidnapped, and in one memorable instance, even married to Doctor Octopus – all to put Peter further on edge. While planning The Night Gwen Stacy Died, Marvel editorial considered killing Aunt May but writer Gerry Conway advocated for killing Gwen Stacy instead, simply because Aunt May’s well-being was Spider-Man’s biggest worry in life, and removing that worry would lead to him growing up – and out of the crucial teenage demographic targeted by the franchise.
Finally, Marvel decided to take Aunt May from Peter’s life in Amazing Spider-Man #400, written by J. M. DeMatteis. After Aunt May is discharged from the hospital (again), she confides to Peter that she’s always known he was Spider-Man, and despite worrying about her nephew constantly, she’s tremendously proud of what he’s done. She collapses soon after, and dies peacefully in her bed later that night. It was an incredibly well-written sendoff, opening the door for new stories and finally allowing Peter Parker to grow up. Sadly, it didn’t last: in one of the worst-handled retcons in Spider-Man history, Spider-Man #97 revealed the “Aunt May” who died was actually an actress infused with the real May’s DNA. The entire ordeal was orchestrated by the Green Goblin just so he could ruin Peter’s already-fragile mental state.
Thus, writers of alternate universe stories are doing what the mainline comic continuity will not. In Dark Ages, Aunt May is hardly mentioned, and instead Peter Parker and Mary-Jane have a daughter who’s inherited Peter’s spider-powers. The 2018 Spider-Man PS4 video game ends with Peter carrying the antidote to a deadly virus – but if he administers it to Aunt May, there won’t be enough left to save the rest of the city. He chooses the city, and Aunt May passes away in a hospital bed. It’s an agonizing choice to make, but one that perfectly embodies Peter’s quest to be a responsible person. Aunt May’s death, as terrible as it is, would open the door for new stories to be told and new chapters in Spider-Man’s life to begin.