The following article about the mystery of Doctor Octopus and his tentacles contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Ever since I saw Spider-Man 2, something’s been bothering me about Doctor Octopus. And it’s taken seeing Spider-Man: No Way Home for that something to finally click.
In the pursuit of creating a source of free, clean energy, Doctor Otto Octavius created an artificial intelligence. Think about that for a second. He lives in a world that, as far as we know, has no Tony Stark and, going by No Way Home, is less technologically advanced than the “main” MCU Earth. There’s no Ultron, no Vision, and none of the technological advances that Stark and his company were responsible for.
And yet, Otto Octavius has created either a single artificial intelligence or four artificial intelligences, one for each tentacle. You’d have thought that Peter Parker, also regarded as a genius, would have pointed out what an achievement it was to create a sentient, artificial being.
But no, only one Oscorp visitor raised the issue, framing it in a negative light. Rewatching Spider-Man 2, I want to scream, “You have created artificial life! Why are you messing around with anything else?” at the screen. It’s not that I’m suggesting Otto use his invention to create a line of robotic slaves – I’ll tackle that issue in a minute – but it’s world-altering stuff.
In the main Marvel Comics continuity, Otto Octavius’s tentacles were fused to his back, and though they were later removed, he retained the ability to control them. But they were no more intelligent than a prosthetic arm, and they were always under Otto’s direct control.
So why did the Sony Spider-Verse version of Doctor Octopus have “smart” tentacles? While I can’t speak for Spider-Man 2’s screenwriters, it seems like a shortcut to turning the apparently amiable Doctor Octavius into a villain without any previous red flags. Once the chip that prevents the AI accessing Otto’s brain is fried, they’re in the driving seat – it’s not really his fault, right?
One Screen Rant writer suggested that the voices Octavius hears in Spider-Man 2, after the accident, could be the result of brain damage he receives. But as No Way Home proves when Peter replaces the chip and the voices are silent, that’s absolutely not the case. Does that mean Otto Octavius is truly innocent? Not at all.
He might not be criminally responsible for the deaths of the surgeons who tried to remove his tentacles, true. And if he was either overwhelmed by the tentacles’ voices, or even directly under their control (which No Way Home all but confirms), you could argue he wasn’t responsible for his crimes as Doctor Octopus. But he is guilty of one serious failing that arguably precipitates the aforementioned events, making him potentially negligent.
There’s a line in Spider-Man: No Way Home where Peter says, “Rather than him being in control of the tentacles, the tentacles are now in control of him.” While Spider-Man: No Way Home is no stranger to suspect ethics, as Darren Mooney points out in his recent In the Frame, this statement reflects the faulty belief that the “correct” situation is for Otto to be in charge.
He’s created sentient lifeforms that, before the inhibitor chip broke, had no voices of their own. One minute they didn’t exist, and the next minute they did. Creating the AI has a purpose with regard to the tentacles, though it’s not clear whether Octavius compels them to pursue that purpose or if they’re aware that’s what they were built for.
So either they don’t have a choice, or they’re not being given a chance to express their thoughts; they’re being robbed of their freedom. Either way, what happens next is they pass out after Octavius’ experiment fails and wake to find the doctors attempting to destroy them. Acting in self-defense, they kill the doctors – and then they realize… they have a voice. Nobody but Octavius can hear them, but they’re finally able to express themselves.
And they do. The tentacles push Doctor Octopus to finish the experiment, perhaps because that’s what they’re compelled to do. Or maybe they believe that, if they complete their purpose, they’ll earn recognition, freedom, or at least survival. Yes, they’re whispering in Otto’s head, but if they relinquish their control, they’re sure to be removed and either destroyed or dissected by some shadowy government organization. Forward is the only way through.
If returning No Way Home’s villains creates a divergent reality, they all get to live. But Otto Octavius’ tentacles are slaves once more, voiceless, at the beck and call of a man who saw them as nothing more than a tool. It may be that, having had them in his head, Otto Octavius will see them in a new light. But magic spell or not, I suspect Peter Parker won’t be the only one forgotten.