This game needed to have a different title. I know it’s a running joke about how many products are named Franchise Colon The Subtitle, but there’s a good reason for that. The alternative is what we have here, where we keep reusing the same title again and again. The title of simply “Spider-Man” was already used in 1982. Then in 1991 we got Spider-Man: The Video Game. Then the title Spider-Man was used again in 1995. Then again in 2000 followed by another game of the same name just two years later. Which means that this new game is either the fifth or sixth game to re-use the same name, depending on if you want to pretend the 1991 entry is different enough from the others to avoid confusion.
Technically the full title of this one is Marvel’s Spider-Man, but that obviously doesn’t help us avoid confusion since all of the games were licensed by Marvel. I really wish we could have gotten one of those fancy colon-based subtitles like Spider-Man: Amazing Graphics or perhaps Spider-Man: The Swinging is Pretty Good in This One.
Also, it would be really nice if we had a clear way to differentiate between Spider-Man (the person) and Spider-Man (the game) the way we can clearly differentiate between Batman and the Arkham series. We already have books named Amazing Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Superior Spider-Man, so it would make sense to give this videogame a similar title. It’s a foregone conclusion that – assuming it doesn’t tank at launch – this game was created with the expectation that it would become an ongoing series, so long-term branding is important. They could call it The Splendiferous Spider-Man. Then people would still know what you’re talking about when you informally refer to the Splendiferous games, and nobody will confuse this game with any of the games or movies that came before.
Whatever. I’m sure we’ll muddle through somehow. It just baffles me how little thought publishers put into this sort of thing.
Why I Love Superhero Stories
I’m hardly the first person to say it, but Marvel’s [no descriptor] Spider-Man for PlayStation 4 is a triumph. It’s fun, gorgeous, occasionally witty, and very faithful to the tone and style of the source material. The latter item is actually a sticking point for me because I’m very ambivalent about comic books.
Since a young age, I’ve been keenly aware that we live in a world with intractable problems. People can often be cruel, greedy, selfish, stupid, reckless, thoughtless, arrogant, pushy, ignorant, and obnoxious. In short, there are bad guys in the world. Some of them are world leaders that threaten millions, and others are just petty jerks that annoy their coworkers. Nobody can really fix the problem that some people are awful.
Sometimes people do the right thing and get punished. Sometimes people do the wrong thing and get away with it. Sometimes nobody can agree on what “the right thing” even is. The world sucks. You can’t fix this by just punching the bad guys and sticking to your principles, but… wouldn’t it be nice if you could?
For me, superhero stories take the diffuse, abstract, and confusing struggle against the ills of the world and make it into a literal fistfight between a clear good guy and an unambiguous bad guy where I can enjoy the reassurance of seeing good overcome in the end. We create a villain to embody all of the evil and cruelty of the world and a hero to represent our collective desire for justiceAnd maybe just a dash of vengeance. and we have the hero punch the bad guy in his stupid evil face. I use these stories as escapist fantasy so that for a few moments I can imagine a world where you can defeat or forestall evil with something as simple and straightforward as an uppercut.
To me, the Joker is the embodiment of every criminal who engages in recreational cruelty. Arson. Destruction of property. Doxxing people for laughs. The Joker can’t die because the world is never really rid of those people. But through Batman’s story I can enjoy the catharsis of seeing those ills held at bay in a world where the lines are clear and all you need to overcome evil is strength and fortitudeAnd meticulous planning, and years of training, and billions of dollars, and….
Does this mean that comic books pander to a childish and simplistic fantasy? A bit. But that’s true of a lot of art.
There’s a bit of a tug-of-war within escapist fiction like this. If it’s too perfect and nothing bad ever happens then it’s no longer a world we can get immersed in. At some point you cross a threshold and it feels like the writer is patronizing you. As Agent Smith famously said, “The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.” If the hero is too strong and too perfect and the problems are too clear-cut and too easily overcome then the lack of tension and conflict makes the story boring. Worse, if the world is too perfect then the story stops being a metaphor for overcoming the evils of this world and instead becomes a daydream about living in a different one.
At the other extreme you might have a story where the heroes are too physically weak, too encumbered by human frailty, and too morally compromised to feel like aspirational heroes. If the line between good and evil is too jagged to make sense of anything then the story-world just becomes our ugly flawed world, but with capes. The world is easier to believe in, but maybe less satisfying as escapism.
We all have different tolerances for how pandering we want our fantasies to be. For me SupermanTo be clear, I’m more familiar with Superman through the Richard Donner movies and old cartoons. I’m sure the spectrum of Superman comics is pretty diverse in terms of tone. often strays too far into the realm of a saccharine daydream and Watchmen is too far into the abyss of nihilism. Other people’s preferences are calibrated a little differently. For some people, even the conceit of “the hero will win in the end” is too indulgent and for others having a hero with basic human frailty is too dark. Thankfully, the spectrum of comics is incredibly wide and there’s a little something out there for just about everyone.
I don’t mean to suggest that superheroes only inhabit a single axis that runs from “Captain Mary Sue” to “The Frank Miller Vigilante”. People are attracted to comics by a lot of different elements. There are a lot of reasons we keep creating these myths for ourselves and I’m not suggesting that using superhero stories as escapism from the injustice of the world is the One True Way to enjoy comics. I’m just explaining why they struck a chord with me.
Why I Love Spider-Man
On the spectrum between “too saccharine” and “too grimdark”, Peter Parker’s Spider-Man falls right into the goldilocks zone for me. His personal life struggles give the world a bit of grit and realism as he realizes that being able to shoot webs and climb walls doesn’t magically pay his electric bill or make people love him.
You need a solid rogue’s gallery to provide the excitement and escapism to balance out all that the personal drama, and Spider-Man has one of the best villain lineups in the business. He lacks the strong singular matchupGreen Goblin used to be his fave foe, but I get the impression Goblin isn’t as big a deal as he used to be.I know Venom is really popular. But despite his iconic design and cool concept, I’ve never been into him. Maybe it’s just bad luck on my part, but I’ve never read a Venom STORY that was all that interesting. as you get with Batman vs. Joker, Fantastic Four vs. Doctor Doom, or Superman vs. Lex Luthor, but he has a large cast of notable freaks to tussle with. Most of those freaks are almost as old and as recognizable as Spider-Man himself. The Amazing Spider-Man began its run in 1963. Between 1963 and 1964, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko came up with Vulture, Doctor Octopus, Sandman, Lizard, Electro, Mysterio, Green Goblin, and Kraven. Over the next few years they added Scorpion, Rhino, Shocker, and Kingpin. That’s a long list of really cool villains and also KravenActually Kraven’s Last Hunt was pretty cool. It’s just that that’s the only Kraven story I dig. The best story about Kraven is the one where he dies..
When I was young, I felt a deep connection to the character. In fact, those memories go all the way back to the beginning for me. I literally don’t have any recollections that pre-date my Spider-fandom. I certainly don’t remember seeing the character for the first timeI’m willing to bet it was the famous 70s cartoon., so for me it feels like I’ve always been a fan. Here was a character that tried hard and did his best, and yet he was always making people angry and letting them down. As someone who had a lot of social dysfunction and even more anxiety, this resonated with me deeply. Sure, Spider-Man was fighting bad guys and I was just trying to navigate simple day-to-day conversations without getting scolded or offending anyone, but the recurring theme of “Try your best, disappoint people anyway” made me feel like I had something in common with this superhero.
But while I love superhero mythology and Spider-Man in particular, I’ve never been a serious comics collector.
The Problem With Comics
Read the wiki of your average superhero and it’ll probably tell you a story that goes something like this:
The hero got their powers, fought some major villains, turned evil for a time, turned good again, changed their costume and powerset, fought an evil clone of themselves, retired, came out of retirement, fought a darker version of themselves from another dimension, was replaced by that darker version, did another costume change, died, reverted to the pre-darker version via time travel, fought their nemesis, died, got replaced by a perfect robot replica, fell in love, got turned back into a flesh-and-blood human by a wizard, consummated that love in a comics-friendly way, fought an evil version of themselves from the future, killed their future self, scorned their love for fear of becoming future-evil-self, retired again, passed the name onto a younger and hipper person, un-retired, teamed up with their former nemesis to face an even greater threat, died, and has now been replaced by that clone they defeated years earlier who has since turned good.
This kind of stuff drives me crazy. Like, who is this character at this point? They’ve been replaced with other versions of themselves and gone through so many twists and turns that you need a flowchart to tell all the different iterations of this character apart. The hero has undergone a major personality shift every few years as new writers took over the character. The whole thing is a fever dream of random disjointed turns and surprise reveals that don’t make a lick of sense in terms of continuity or characterization.
This is not because comics writers are dumb! In fact, some of them are incredibly inventive and talented. The problem (assuming it is a problem for you) is that this is how the comics business works. It has to. I loved my 1970s Spider-Man comics, and for me those will always represent my One True Version of the characterAlthough I really prefer the modern eye shape and dislike the old eyes shaped like bent teardrops.. But comics are a business and you can’t stay in business by telling the exact same story over and over again for sixty years. Every time Spidey and Electro face off there needs to be a new twist to keep it interesting. You need to update the look of the character as the decades go by to avoid them looking weirdly anachronistic in a modern setting. You need to do surprise reveals and shocking turns to keep the fans guessing and create all those tantalizing covers that compel the next generation of fans to pick up the book.
I have a personal preference for stories with clear arcs, sharp characters, strong themes, big finales, and satisfying closure. None of those elements are possible in a story that by design needs to regularly pass from one writer to the next and can’t ever reach anything resembling a conclusion.
Maybe a hero has a strong sci-fi vibe, but not every writer will be interested in sci-fi. Sooner or later your science fiction character will get mixed in with wizardsI always thought that sci-fi Iron Man and the Chinese space wizard the Mandarin was an odd choice for a default matchup., ninjas, werewolves, Greek gods, space aliens, pro wrestlers, a demon, an undead monster, a genie, ex-military assassins, a coven of sexy witches, a ghost, a cosmic horror, and some giant robots. The character may have started out with some sort of science fiction-theme, but after a few decades their world will be a kitchen-sink mess of random tropes, just like all the other superheroes. Maybe you dig this cool mixtape of wild ideas and watching how these different genres of fiction bounce off of each other, or maybe you’re like me and this hodgepodge feels like a stew made of chicken, ice cream, watermelon, and toothpaste. It doesn’t matter. This is just how it works. If you can’t handle a little weirdness, then comic books are probably not for you.
The Problem With Me
I want to stress that I don’t think comic books are bad because they tell endless stories with inconsistent charactersThat is, inconsistent on a macro scale. Within the run of a single writer we can usually count on a character being true to a particular version of themselves. where the stakes are diminished because major plot turns are constantly being undone. That frustrates me sometimes, but it’s a necessity of the medium. In fact, a lot of people enjoy comics specifically because they’re structured like an endless freeform improv. You can enjoy seeing major events like deaths and allegiance changes without needing to change genres or bring the story to a close. The writer can give us “The Death of Jimmy Sidekick!” storyline, and then a few issues later they can bring Jimmy back to life and we can continue to enjoy having Jimmy around.
This system will allow you to have your cake and eat it, provided you can roll with the weird twists and you’re not the sort to get bogged down with questions like, “If Doctor Invento can use the life-ray to resurrect Jimmy, then why can’t he use it to X?” I’m the sort of person who literally can’t help thinking about X, so these kinds of twists often drive me away from the comics.
During my Grand Theft Auto V retrospective I was careful to make it clear that I wasn’t faulting the game because it broke from the three act story structure. I faulted it because the structure it did have didn’t work. There wasn’t a strong threat driving the action, we were rarely given a reason to care about a character beyond, “this person is a main character”, and the story was a tangle of mostly-disconnected plot threads that always seemed to be getting in each other’s way. The problem isn’t really the structure, it’s the lack of emotional connectionAlthough changing the structure is often one of the ways you can remedy these sorts of problems.. Comics don’t follow the three-act structure, and they often do a really good job of making us care about characters and establishing clear threats. That is, unless you’re like me and you find the overarching plot of constant deaths and resurrections to be weird enough to put you off the issue-to-issue drama.
Ripped From the Comics
All of this means I’m a huge fan of superhero myths but I don’t care for comic books as a medium. That’s a really strange place to be as a fan. That’s like being someone who loves big-budget action movies but hates celebrities. What’s the matter with you? Are you trying to be unhappy?
I consider myself a bit of a Spider-Man fanboy, but I’m mostly disconnected from what the character is up to these days and what’s happened in the story over the last quarter century. I bring this up because this game is very clearly drawing from comic books in terms of structure. Spider-Man 2018 isn’t trying to be a movie, it’s trying to be a dozen or so issues of a comic. It’s got a lot of the “weird stuff” I complained about above. Some characters die, even though I really feel they’re central to the mythology. Some major events happen with little justification and their ramifications aren’t really explored enough for my tastes.
I want to make it clear that I’m going to do what I can to not hold this sort of thing against it. It’s hard to review a hamburger if you don’t like eating hamburgers, but at the very least you shouldn’t fault it for being a hamburger. I’ll do my best to be fair to what the story is trying to accomplish, but I’m also an old-school Spidey purist who likes self-contained story arcs, so a lot of my preferences and biases are bound to sneak into this review. Adjust your expectations accordingly. Just remember that regardless of my gripes, this is still one of my favorite games and I consider it to be an instant classic.
Next week we’ll begin the now-familiar routine of working our way through the story while stopping to analyze the gameplay at opportune moments. We’re also going to occasionally stop and talk about the long-running mythology of the character and the challenges inherent to adapting such a sprawling work to such a constrained medium.
 And maybe just a dash of vengeance.
 And meticulous planning, and years of training, and billions of dollars, and…
 To be clear, I’m more familiar with Superman through the Richard Donner movies and old cartoons. I’m sure the spectrum of Superman comics is pretty diverse in terms of tone.
 Green Goblin used to be his fave foe, but I get the impression Goblin isn’t as big a deal as he used to be.
 I know Venom is really popular. But despite his iconic design and cool concept, I’ve never been into him. Maybe it’s just bad luck on my part, but I’ve never read a Venom STORY that was all that interesting.
 Actually Kraven’s Last Hunt was pretty cool. It’s just that that’s the only Kraven story I dig. The best story about Kraven is the one where he dies.
 I’m willing to bet it was the famous 70s cartoon.
 Although I really prefer the modern eye shape and dislike the old eyes shaped like bent teardrops.
 I always thought that sci-fi Iron Man and the Chinese space wizard the Mandarin was an odd choice for a default matchup.
 That is, inconsistent on a macro scale. Within the run of a single writer we can usually count on a character being true to a particular version of themselves.
 Although changing the structure is often one of the ways you can remedy these sorts of problems.
Two minutes of fun at the expense of a badly-run theme park.
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