It can’t be easy being a blue collar criminal in the Marvel Universe. This feels doubly true for Spider-Man’s rogues gallery. Guys like Norman Osborn and Otto Octavius, they don’t have as much to worry about. They’ve got major corporations and scientific accolades at their back. These are people who could cure cancer if they really wanted to, but instead they’re doing this. That’s the tragedy of those characters. And then there’s someone like Kingpin, who has nothing to worry about because he has all the money and connections in the world. These are villains who, comparatively, just don’t know how good they have it. They’re also all characters who have beaten, humiliated or simply defeated the hero at times. These are mainstream villains for whom the sting of defeat is barely a mosquito bite.
Even the ones who aren’t rich and powerful surrogate father figures, guys like Venom, Electro or Kraven, have all had their day in the sun. They’ve got a ton of power and they’re great at what they do. They’ve had huge victories over Spider-Man. Venom was known for it, in the beginning. There was a period when the character was still knew in which every fight had to end by Peter finding a way to temporarily contain Venom or to flat out escape from him. Electro has caused devastating damage, even though he’s a guy who should be a stooge. Kraven was a laughing stock until he drove Spider-Man insane and buried him alive just to prove that he could.
So many of these villains have had their day in the sun and, because of that, they have no idea what it’s like to be someone like Shocker, who probably never will.
Imagine being a low-level career criminal in a world of superheroes. You’ve got superpowered people on every corner. You have to have a gimmick just to stay on the street and get work, but you’ve also got to deal with the day-to-day terrors of being a criminal in New York City. You’re just a hired gun and there’s no time to be anything else because if you screw up, you’re dead. If you stop, if you want out, you’re still dead.
The ramifications of the lifestyle don’t always make it into these comics, movies and shows, but they’re still there. There’s every chance that a thug pulling a job for the Kingpin—or even a guy like Hammerhead—has everything riding on this. They could get killed for botching the job.
Then there are the characters who get a costume, get a gimmick, but never get to the point of making a name for themselves. Those are the guys like our buddy, Shocker. Actual name Herman Schultz. Shocker is just famous enough to grant the occasional action figure, but he’s never listed among Spider-Man’s top villains, never considered in the running for his arch-nemesis. And yet he’s one of my favorite Marvel characters ever, villain or not.
Shocker is a guy who’s life is an order of routine, almost systematic, like clockwork. He’s aware of the routine, yet he always tries to change it. He always thinks that this time he’ll get it right, that this time he’ll come out on top and there’s an optimism to that that, while admirable, is also tragic and ultimately pathetic. One of my favorite traits about Shocker is that, unlike almost every other villain, he’s never surprised when Spider-Man shows up to stop him. Of course he does? The way his day was going, why wouldn’t he? He’s not surprised and, in fact, he probably expects Spider-Man to show up, he just really hopes that he won’t. That hope has to be so powerful that it gets Shocker to even do the job in the first place.
That’s the core of this character. He is intimately aware of how things are going to play out, every single time. He just really hopes that this time will be different. The Shocker is Charlie Brown. Spider-Man is Lucy. And the football is usually a bank.
Most Spider-Man villains are very good people who had a really bad day. They’re accomplished people. Scientists that a young Peter Parker could look up to and idolize, making their villainous turn that much more tragic. The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, The Lizard, all of these guys fit the bill. They’re a host of bad dads. Then there’s the animal motif that runs through Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, with so many characters representing different animals. J. Michael Straczynski’s run on the comics established this as characters being larger totems for the spirits of different animals, of being actual representations of those creatures.
The movies reinterpreted this as a matter of cross-species genetics, which is an easier pill to swallow without getting too mystical. Even guys like Electro were reimagined to have bonded with the DNA of electric eels. These are the two running threads of Spider-Man villains, they’re either tragic would-be father figures, twisted animal representations, or in the case of Venom, dark reflections of the hero himself. Shocker doesn’t fall into any of these categories.
Most of these villains, especially on the father figure side, are geniuses. The people Spider-Man fights tend to be very smart or very stupid. Guys like Norman Osborn, they hear a lot of crap flung their way from Spidey, but what do they care? They’re billionaires and barely ever actually go to prison for the crimes they commit. And then there’s someone like Rhino, who’s genuinely too stupid to always get when Spider-Man’s making fun of him. I think Shocker would absolutely take that as a comfort.
Shocker’s just smart enough to get the joke, to know when he’s being made fun of and to even agree with it at times. But he’s not smart enough to not let it get to him. It always does.
This is just a guy in a quilt with a couple of wrist gauntlets. These gauntlets are his pride and joy. They’re his claim to fame, the only things that even allow him to live in this super villain instead of just being a guy holding up a liquor store with a gun. That’s what he would be without them. He’d be just another criminal doing small time crimes that in a world inhabited by the Avengers, wouldn’t even make the evening news.
But here’s the thing. Shocker built those gauntlets himself. From scratch. In prison. That is an amazing feat. That is a, well, shocking display of scientific talent and engineering prowess. And it’s only something he did out of desperation. Shocker never once went through that design process thinking he was really onto something, that he was doing something game changing, revolutionary or remotely special. He just knew that he needed a way out of his cell and that this way would probably work. He couldn’t create something to bust through the wall, so he had to create something that would cause vibrational distortion instead. It was that simple to him.
That’s the tragedy of Herman Schultz. He commits crimes, primarily, for money. Robbing banks or whatever else seems like an easy target. But if he had patented his designs for the very things he’s using to rob these banks, he would have never had to worry about money again. But this is not something that I think ever crossed his mind, because Shocker is, ultimately, just too stupid to know how smart he is.
One could look at this and see this as someone who probably grew up without a lot of encouragement, without someone looking over his shoulder and recognizing his talents, and to an extent that’s probably true. At least some of it is. When you’ve never had someone to look at you and say you’ve done something great, you’ll have no way to gauge when you actually do. No way of even knowing you’ve created something special. There’s probably a kernel of that in who Shocker is, but it’s not the whole truth.
The actual truth is that Herman was a promising, possibly even brilliant student in high school who showed almost unheard of engineering prowess. Like so many people, he was part of the generation that was told that they were going to grow up and change the world, use their natural gifts to save mankind. It’s the reason so many people feel so dissatisfied in just making a decent living, holding down a job, being able to pay the rent. Everyone was told that they were supposed to change the world. To save it.
Even the prospect of holding down a job, the responsibilities of day-to-day life, were probably too much for Herman. I’m confident that dropping out would have seemed like a natural choice to this character, because it was easier than doing the work. That falling into a criminal lifestyle felt, in its own way, like a security blanket. So many people struggle with questions of whether or not they’re doing the right thing or whether or not they’re a very good person, and Shocker just cuts through all of that to say that if you just become a terrible person, consciously and of your own accord, isn’t it just easier? Doesn’t it strip away all the doubt?
Shocker might be a dope, even a pathetic character, but he appeals to those moments of crippling self doubt in any of us. In some ways, he’s an embodiment of those things. Even in comics like Superior Foes of Spider-Man, in which he’s surrounded by a cast of people who are all in some ways the butt of the joke, he’s still the butt of the joke. He’s still the one that gets made fun of. These are people who have no idea how smart Shocker actually is because he would never conduct himself in a way that would have you questioning for a second if there was actually more to this person than meets the eye. Or, in some cases, they do know that he’s probably smarter than them, but it makes them feel even better about making fun of him, knowing that he doesn’t know that. Shocker’s the kind of villain you hang around with when you need a boost, so that you can look at him and say “Well, at least I’m not that guy.”
But so many of the villains he hangs around with are people who got their powers accidentally, who just fell into their gimmick, like Electro. Or people with stolen tech or stolen armor. Shocker created his weapons from scratch and it gives him a leg up on so many of the people he tries to align himself with. But since they don’t care about that, neither does he.
While I was delighted to see Shocker make his big screen debut in Spider-Man: Homecoming, I was disappointed that his gauntlets were something simply passed down to him, as the fact that he designed them was really the only thing that he had going for him. The idea of two Shockers in the movie, one dying immediately to pass the torch to the other, that feels perfect. Shocker having a badass moment of standing over Spider-Man, even knocking him around a bit before ultimately getting taken out by Ned, that feels perfect for the character as well. But they did him dirty by not getting why it was important that he be allowed to design these things himself.
Shocker is one of those villains who always appears in cartoons and especially video games despite never being considered one of Spider-Man’s great enemies. The new gameplay demo of the upcoming Spider-Man game for the PS4 centers on stopping Shocker from robbing a bank. While the gameplay is stunning and the game looks fantastic, this is an exact scenario that has appeared in almost every Spider-Man game of the last eighteen years. Because it’s just part of the routine. Bank robberies are integral to the superhero lifestyle and if you need a low level villain to do it, Shocker’s the guy you call.
When you’re playing as Spider-Man, it’s just a matter of “Oh, that silly Shocker, he’s at it again!” But for Shocker, Spider-Man is nothing more than a bully constantly standing in his way. It’s not about the money, really. It’s about trying to do one thing, finally, that goes right and getting that swept out from under him every single time. In Brian Michael Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man (in the early days of that comic, before Miles Morales appeared on the scene) Shocker was a villain who never even got a whole issue to himself. He would just appear every five, ten issues as someone holding up a hot dog cart who’d be taken out in one punch. It would always go a little differently, but it was always pretty much the same situation.
Then there’s an issue, after this has happened dozens of times, when Shocker gets the advantage just once and immediately kidnaps Spider-Man and drives him to a warehouse, likely with the intention of killing him. He has the upper hand and all the abuse he’s suffered at this hero’s hands has caused him to genuinely snap. But this is his first victory ever, and it’s the most Shocker thing in the world to have that victory immediately get undercut by taking off the mask to reveal that the person who’s been handing your ass to you over the course of a year is only sixteen years old. He at least had the comfort of not knowing how young Spider-Man was, and then stripped that away all on his own.
He gives Spider-Man a powerful monologue while he has him tied up, about how life takes everything, about how the adult world is catered to beat down the creative and the intelligent until people either lose those things or hate themselves for them. That people with all the money in the world will always still hate you for the fact that you can do something that they cannot, and it is a great and long overdue insight into the way a character like Shocker thinks.
One of the things I love about the relationship between Spider-Man and Shocker is that they’ve done this enough times that their banter is almost friendly. It’s not coming from a place of genuine friendship, but from a sense of familiarity, like going to a restaurant enough times that the servers start to know you by name. But these are ultimately two people who just don’t understand each other on any level. Spider-Man doesn’t understand why someone this smart would resort to doing the things he does, and Shocker doesn’t understand that Spider-Man doesn’t like hitting him and that he is actually trying to help.
So much would be solved if either of them would recognize that in the other. But they can’t and they probably never will. Shocker probably wouldn’t even recognize a helping hand if he saw one, and even then might still find a way to self-sabotage, to disappoint the people willing to help him out of the mud, and instead turn his back and wade back into it.
He’s a man who hates being a criminal even if it’s the only thing he’s comfortable doing, a guy who’s just on the lookout for that one good day when things are going to actually go his way. Even if he’s a low-rent villain who does bad things and has an abysmal success rate, that’s always going to be a little bit relatable.