Marvel's Spider-Man and Dissecting Its Black-and-White Tale of Morality
Though Peter Parker's classic personality remained intact in Marvel's Spider-Man, the story missed some opportunities to bring him to the modern age.
[Editor’s Note: This editorial will dive into some heavy story spoilers for Marvel’s Spider-Man, so we would suggest coming back to this piece after you have completed the game’s main story.]
No matter which version of the Spider-Man mythos one experiences, a few traits should remain intact regardless of the medium. For one, Peter Parker must always remain a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” Despite his swinging around the city skylines, Spider-Man is ultimately a superhero who remains at the ground level, with his relatability being the characteristic that has immortalized the comic book character into a legend.
Marvel’s Spider-Man for the PlayStation 4 captured the spirit of Spider-Man, at least for the most part. But as I got deeper into the story, some cracks began to show, with certain storytelling threads falling short for me, and some potentially interesting opportunities being missed. Stories of comic book superheroes have traditionally been of a binary “good versus evil” archetype, but as the genre evolved to the point where it is today, I was hoping from a bit more nuance from Marvel’s Spider-Man as Peter Parker traversed through murky waters and played with delicate character dynamics.
As the game’s story barreled towards its final act, I found the origin of how this iteration of the Sinister Six to be quite intriguing. We’re used to villains being sniveling, irredeemable no-gooders, and in a video game such as this, they make for decent boss material. It isn’t quite cut and dry with Marvel’s Spider-Man, as the now-corrupted Otto Octavius exploited some major pain points in order to recruit his sinisters. And it isn’t through any form of blackmail or extortion, but rather with the promise of help, with Octavius promising to be a genie in a bottle granting each villain a wish.
Aleksei Sytsevich, the Rhino, has a physical problem in being unable to remove his armor. Mac Gargan, the Scorpion, has several monetary debts, primarily from gambling. Adrian Toomes, the Vulture, has spinal cancer caused by his suit’s power source. Max Dillon, aka Electro, has the desire to become “pure energy.” And as the game followed since the start, Martin Li/Mr. Negative had a personal beef with Norman Osborn, as did Octavius himself.
What has made Spider-Man’s rogue gallery probably the most memorable set of villains, besides Batman’s, is how grounded most of their backstories are; a different side to the coin than from Spider-Man, but the same coin nonetheless. The costumes and names may be gimmicks from a different era of comic book storytelling, but the characters themselves are a bit more sympathetic, at least in modern interpretations. In the films, think of Sandman in Spider-Man 3 or the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming — both victims of economic strife and anxiety — or the Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man, attempting to remedy a physical disability of his.
Even with the reprehensible crimes of these villains in the PS4 game, it was made clear that these characters needed some degree of help. With this set-up, I was hoping that Spider-Man would do more than web and punch them all to submission and that the story would play with these motivations to create a story more interesting than “good guy beats bad guy.”
What has made Spider-Man’s rogue gallery probably the most memorable set of villains, besides Batman’s, is how grounded most of their backstories are.
But no, Spider-Man beats the s*** out of them and calls it a day. Granted, given the context, they all needed to be taken down as they wreaked havoc in a chaotic New York City, but the fact that these promises made by Octavius were dropped plot threads that Insomniac didn’t play with irked me. Now Rhino is stuck in his gargantuan suit eternally, and the Vulture is doomed to succumb to cancer. Perhaps they deserved it, but with so many other Spider-Man stories following through on these kinds of threads, I expected more catharsis from the game’s narrative.
Perhaps this was on me for expecting too much from “Spider-Cop.” Like most iterations of Peter Parker, this Spider-Man was bright, intelligent, and idealistic, and as fans, we’d like to think that he is morally pure. Spider-Man stories are at their most interesting when they involve our ordinary, grounded hero in some sort of ethical and moral dilemma, and we can probably say that the PS4 game succeeds with his final decision at the end of the main story. However, I couldn’t help but find some of this Peter Parker’s views on ordinary criminals to be a bit naive, particularly his extreme disdain for drug dealers.
To Peter Parker, this is the worst kind of crime that is unequivocally impossible to forgive. Parker almost expresses a delight at the thought of these nefarious miscreants on the street to be locked up for good. A noble cause on the surface level, but one that could have done with a more nuanced understanding of a larger systemic issue. Without going on overly long diatribes about the United States and its history of drug crime, there’s more to the issue that involves race, class, and fear-mongering from so-called “morally upright” politicians—the very type of figure that this version of Norman Osborn is meant to represent and caricature.
While I wasn’t expecting a Spider-Man video game to turn into a PSA or documentary about crime in America, I was disappointed that it overall had the simplicity of a D.A.R.E. ad. This is something that I want this version of Spider-Man to learn—even though he may be a young adult, he is still learning just how complex the world is, even in this game, as simple as I found it sometimes. He learned that just locking up Kingpin wouldn’t instantly make his problems go away, but rather create a power vacuum that arguably made things worse. This character has the capacity to move past his naïveté, but I grew frustrated that he couldn’t in this one case.
Spider-Man stories are at their most interesting when they involve our ordinary, grounded hero in some sort of ethical and moral dilemma.
Even stepping away from all of the real-life issues that Marvel’s Spider-Man somewhat touches upon, I felt that Insomniac could have tackled some common story themes in a better way. The primary theme and motivation behind much of the story is the idea of vengeance, how it drives someone, and how far one might go to enact it. The triangle consisting of Otto Octavius, Martin Li, and Norman Osborn is completely driven by it, with Osborn having wronged them separately in the past. It is once again a familiar tale that previous versions of Spider-Man have dealt with expertly, and while this game worked, there was a major opportunity that I wanted it to take.
Revenge can be a cycle—Octavius was denied his chances to innovate so many times, and with Li, Osborn is the culprit responsible for not only his condition but the death of his parents. Both characters go to extreme measures in order to get to the heart of their deep-seeded hatred for Osborn, creating a total path of destruction on the way. With casualties resulting in their respective quests for revenge, I kept wondering if the story would acknowledge the cycle. Li is vengeful for the deaths of his parents, but what happens when his crimes result in the deaths of someone else’s parents? How would Peter Parker respond to his beloved Aunt May dying from a disease that his former mentor and partner Octavius spread?
Even stepping away from all of the real-life issues that Marvel’s Spider-Man somewhat touches upon, I felt that Insomniac could have tackled some common story themes in a better way.
Spider-Man works as a character because he is meant to be better—he is meant to always make the right choice and represent the best of what a single human being can offer to the rest of society. To me, this Spider-Man having to deal with the dilemma of potentially having his own revenge story could have been an interesting route for the game’s story to take. What happens when Peter Parker goes through the same trauma as Octavius or Li? How can he break the cycle by making the right decision? To my disappointment, the game pursued no such thread, at least not one that registered to me, and I ended up just punching both of them a lot.
Admittedly, I have only recently purchased the DLC for Marvel’s Spider-Man and have yet to experience any story that they have to offer, so I couldn’t tell you if they remedy any of my qualms. Still, Spider-Man is a character that is rightfully championed for its conceptualization of representing us as a society—but as our understanding of society evolves, the Spider-Man stories should evolve with it. For a game that does so much right, I was expecting and hoping for more from Marvel’s Spider-Man.