Insomniac Has Cracked the Code to Spider-Man, But Will Marvel Listen?

Insomniac Has Cracked the Code to Spider-Man, But Will Marvel Listen?

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Balance. It’s the core theme of Insomniac’s Spider-Man 2 for the PlayStation 5, the follow-up game to Spider-Man (2018) and Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2020). The game alternates between Peter Parker, Miles Morales, and Mary Jane, each character taking on different missions, both focused on strengthening their communities and protecting NYC from the emergence of threats both old and new, including Kraven the Hunter and Venom.

The result is not only the best superhero video game ever made but also one of the most quintessential Spider-Man stories ever told. There is an inherent understanding of both Spider-Men and the characters who populate their world that allows for the kind of growth and maturity that Spidey fans have been clamoring to see reflected in the comics for decades. So, what is it that makes Insomniac’s Spider-Man such a testament to the character, and how can the comics and further adaptations learn from it?

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I’ve been thinking about comic books’ ongoing, serialized nature lately. As someone who has read comics for the majority of my life, both back issues and current publications, I’ve been through numerous retcons, restructurings and resurrections. There comes a point where the lack of a finite nature sees elements reoccur after a while, some much sooner than others. So often, when a big change takes place in comic books, it’s only a matter of time before the status quo rears its head again. This is what Stan Lee referred to as “the illusion of change,” and one of the secrets to Marvel’s success.

Consistency in characterization is one element of that, i.e. Spider-Man isn’t going to suddenly start acting like The Punisher and mow down mafiosos with a machine gun for the long term. But even Lee understood that characters needed to experience growth, that Peter Parker couldn’t simply remain a high school student hung up on Betty Brandt and living with his Aunt May. His responsibilities and place within the world did have to change, even if the inherent nature of the character was set.

This is what Insomniac has managed to do well in its Spider-Man games, each entry set about a year after the previous. Peter, Miles and MJ each remain consistent with their characterizations established in the 2018 game, but what they want from life, and where they stand in the world has changed. Simply put, age is a factor in these games. The addition of Harry Osborn, seemingly “cured” of a rare disease that took his mother’s life, and Kraven, dying from cancer and searching for an honorable death, further places this element of age and mortality into context. Time is finite, and when stories, like Spider-Man 2, take time to acknowledge that, to have characters reckon with what they want to do in their lives with the time they have, it changes their relationship with the world and each other.

There are no retcons, no plans to figure out what to do 20 issues down the line. There’s only this moment in time in this story and Insomniac acknowledges that beautifully through both its character moments and action sequences. Not only do the main missions in Spider-Man 2 reflect that, but so do the side missions, which not only hone in on the “friendly neighborhood” element but are also life-affirming and largely focused on growth, life, and death, like a deeply-moving mission where you help a woman find her grandfather who has Alzheimer’s, and a reunion with Howard and his pigeons.

The reoccurring nature of villains is also what drives comics, but at a certain point, even that aspect becomes less enticing when you see similar plans repeated again and again, only for the hero to win or for the villain and hero to walk away temporarily changed by their experience. For example, in the previous run of The Amazing Spider-Man by Nick Spencer, Norman Osborn was cured of his Green Goblin persona (not for the first time) and given a clean slate to rebrand himself as a hero, working alongside Peter Parker. Yet in the most recent issue of the current run by Zeb Wells, Osborn finds the Green Goblin reemerging.

On one hand, it’s been three years since we last saw Spider-Man’s archenemy in the present day, but for those who read comics on a consistent basis, three years really doesn’t seem like much time at all when we’re talking characters whose appearances stretch back to the early ’60s. And so, at this point, what purpose does another showdown with Green Goblin serve Spider-Man, outside of sales? This regurgitating of stories is one of the reasons why Miles Morales: Spider-Man, written by Cody Ziglar, is the superior Spidey book on the shelf right now. The character has only been around for 12 years, and Ziglar has brought fresh perspectives to Miles’ world, even changing his dynamic between Peter’s familiar roster of rogues. Respectfully, you look at what that book is doing in comparison to The Amazing Spider-Man, and it’s clear what Marvel should do. It’s something the Spider-Man 2 ultimately does, but Marvel won’t let go, not even for the sake of telling the best story. Thus, as far as Peter Parker is concerned, the wheels keep spinning.

In Spider-Man 2, Rio Morales urges her son Miles to “let go of the things that don’t serve you.” It’s a means of finding balance and one that the game takes to heart. What is it that truly serves both Miles and Peter as characters? Is it an ever-rotating gallery of rogues? Is it Peter Parker without MJ still unable to hold down a job? Is it Miles being the secondary Spider-Man with less frequent publications? The comics say one thing, insistent on holding onto a past established by writers and artists who are no longer with us. But the video game pushes forward, letting go of what doesn’t serve the characters and helping them progress as heroes, partners and people.

Spider-Man 2 takes some bold swings in the service of forward motion. Villains are permanently killed off and their roles in the story of these Spider-Men are completed and no longer necessary as narrative crutches. Additionally, Spider-Man 2, through Miles, addresses whether sending villains to jail and waiting for their inevitable break-out is less effective than rehabilitation. It’s a cue shared with Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) but arguably even more impactful through the lens of a Black-Latino Spider-Man whose father was a cop. The approach the game takes in terms of Miles’ relationship with the man who killed his father, Martin Li, aka Mr. Negative, feels revolutionary because of the sense of permanence afforded both characters. Comics books are too often entrenched in holding onto the past, erasing memories, and altering continuity for the sake of backsliding, when we need lasting change.

As much as I love comic books, Spider-Man 2 forced me to contemplate whether the medium, as utilized for its most popular heroes, best serves these characters. There’s a reason why out-of-continuity stories from the big two, or creator-owned titles with definitive endings, manage to create such memorable experiences. They end. And if the first post-credit scene in Spider-Man 2 bears truth, Insomniac’s Spider-Man too, will eventually end and as fans who care deeply about these characters, we’ll be all the better for it. That’s the nature of balanced storytelling, and letting go of what doesn’t serve us.