The Chameleon, master of disguise, debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #1 as the first villain Spider-Man ever fought. (Chronologically in publication, at least; Kurt Busiek retconned in one or two between Amazing Fantasy #15 and ASM #1, did he not?) He appears here as a spy planning to steal U.S. missile defense plans, and it’s made explicit he’s selling them to the Soviets (“The Iron Curtain countries will pay a fortune for these plans!” he says, and he has a rendezvous at one point with a submarine bearing the hammer and sickle). He decides to impersonate Spider-Man and frame him for the theft, but is eventually apprehended.
If you believe the standard line about alien shapechangers and body snatchers (like the Skrulls Stan Lee introduced not long before this issue in Fantastic Four #2, and the Space Phantom which would come a couple months later in Avengers #2) being a symbol of Cold War paranoia – spies and invasion, your neighbors turning against you, all that stuff - what’s interesting about the Chameleon is that he’s a much more literal take on this theme; he’s not an alien that's supposed to represent the Soviet Union, he’s actually a spy who can make himself look just like you.
The Chameleon is in many ways a very good adversary for Spider-Man. One of the many things Peter Parker represents is our neuroses and paranoia, but of course, in the comic book world, everybody really is out to get him. Since the public at large could be said to be one of Spider-Man’s archenemies, the Chameleon is effective because he can be anyone in that public. The Chameleon can pose as Spider-Man, commit some crimes, then pose as Jameson and write an editorial condemning Spider-Man for the crimes, then pose as civilians demanding he be brought to justice, then pose as the chief of police and declare Spider-Man a wanted criminal, etc. etc. The Chameleon never seems to go that far, but the point is that he could, and there’s got to be a part of Peter Parker’s brain at his most paranoid wondering, “What if they’re all the Chameleon? Every person who’s ever made it tough for Spider-Man and Peter Parker … what if it’s all been one guy all along playing all the parts?”
There’s mileage to be gotten out of the Chameleon, you know!
But while the Chameleon is a moderately popular Spider-Man enemy, he’s never been quite in the A-list for a couple of reasons. For one, he’s not a hand-to-hand fighter, so you can’t fall back on that crutch of just having the good guy and the bad guy punch it out at the end of your story. For another, shapeshifters and face-changers are numerous in a comic book universe, and I suspect many people have the impression that there’s not much that’s unique about the Chameleon (a notion I intend to explode momentarily, just you wait for it). And third, the Chameleon’s motivations are very different than most of Spider-Man’s other enemies. When Spider-Man rips off the door to the fleeing Chameleon’s helicopter and shouts “End of the line for you, commie!” it feels a bit out of place, doesn’t it? Similar to how Spidey rarely fights aliens the way he does in Amazing #2; Lee and Ditko were still toying with the new characters and hadn’t hit upon the now-standard formula of Spider-Man’s adversaries being motivated by base, ugly, selfish desires – money or power or revenge - as opposed to a political cause.
So we’ve got two problems here – the Chameleon is an enemy rooted in politics, which is not the Spider-Man series’ strong suit, and those politics now belong to a bygone era.
Ah, but Stan Lee has helped us out possibly without even knowing it! Look again at the line “The Iron Curtain countries will pay a fortune for these plans!” Why, he’s not an enemy agent doing his duty after all, he’s in this for the money. Neophyte, naïve Spidey is wrong - The Chameleon’s not a “commie,” he’s a freelancer!
Which brings me to my point about what makes the Chameleon unique in a universe of villains who do the same thing as him. It’s because most other shapeshifters in comics have a “true” face. Skrulls “really” look like green dudes with pointy ears and weird chins, Mystique looks like a blue chick with red hair. But the Chameleon? He looks like this:
The Chameleon has no “real” appearance; he doesn’t change his face, he puts one on. He’s a blank canvas. At some point he made the transition from wearing masks to actually having his skin replaced with some sort of synthetic shapechanging material (although he seems to be back to masks as of a recent, and actually quite good, arc on Amazing Spider-Man). The '90s Spider-Man cartoon took this a step further by never having the Chameleon speak unless he was “in character”; at least once he even turned into somebody else solely for the purpose of delivering one line.
When he was writing the books, J.M. DeMatteis noted all this himself and came up with a backstory to explain. The Chameleon was born Dmitri Smerdyakov and was Kraven the Hunter’s boyhood servant (and possibly half-brother). He idolized young Kraven, but Kraven treated him like crap, so Chameleon developed a sense of worthlessness and became the Chameleon so he could sublimate his own identity in favor of others’. DeMatteis got some good stories out of this (he seemed to have a fondness for the character), but it didn’t exactly turn the Chameleon into one of Spidey’s archenemies (though to be fair, DeMatteis probably wasn’t shooting for this anyway). His motivations are still a bit murky; Spider-Man’s villains aren’t usually quite so complex (both a strength and a weakness – they don’t threaten to steal the spotlight from Spider-Man like some other heroes’ villains do, but it makes them a bit interchangeable). I don’t know, maybe it’s a bit of a Batman villain idea?
Or, perhaps, a bit selfishly, a bit snottily, but probably honestly, it’s not what I would have done.
“What would you have done, Justin?”
Gosh, since you asked:
I’d make it so you don’t know who the Chameleon ever really was. Fred Van Lente’s set this up a bit, actually, in that recent arc I mentioned by having him insist that Dmitri Smerdyakov was “just one of his faces.” For whatever reason, the Chameleon makes himself faceless and has a talent for disguise; if you like the DeMatteis feelings-of-worthlessness thing, you can read it that way, but I’m not going to bring it up. He’ll basically work for whoever’s willing to hire him, but his rates are considerably reasonable considering the level of skill and expertise he brings to the table, and that’s because the money he makes only covers running his operation and a few creature comforts (I’m not going to ditch the fact that this is a dude who looks sharp in a robe). The reason he’s available for hire is because he’s a blank canvas not just in appearance but also in motivation; these missions give him a superficial sense of purpose in the same way that the masks give him a superficial sense of identity. He has no loyalty, no agenda. He’ll work for HYDRA, the Red Skull, Al Qaeda, the Leader, Doctor Octopus, no questions asked, no judgment passed. Hey, he’d even work for the good guys if they’d be willing to pay him (one of my favorite ever comic book moments is in JLA: Rock of Ages when Batman simply outbids Lex Luthor for the Mirror Master’s services).
He still isn’t motivated by a simple base desire like most of Spider-Man’s villains, but it’s okay now. A Chameleon with no motivation, rather than a political one, is such an outlier that he becomes unique and interesting – the exception to the rule, rather than a data point that just doesn’t quite fit.
Or, if you like, maybe he does have a selfish motivation – maybe this is all done out of boredom!
All of which is a lot of elaboration to say that the Chameleon is easy to remove from the Cold War aesthetic because it’s not important to him in the first place. If you ignore the hammer and sickle on that submarine in Amazing Spider-Man #1, there could be anybody in that submarine; it doesn’t matter. Because there’s always somebody out there who’d like to get their hands on the nation’s missile defense secrets, and there’ll always be somebody who’d be willing to steal them.