Like I said the last time I talked about this game, I love Marvel’s Spider-Man Colon This Game Needed a Subtitle. It was my favorite game of 2018. But no game is perfect, and for me the most not-perfect part of Spider-Man was the character Silver Sable. And I want to make it clear this is the version of the character I’m going to be criticizing. She’s been around for decades in various comic books, and I’m sure writers have told many good stories with her. But not this time.
In the comics, Silver Sable is a semi-obscure sometime ally of Spider-Man. She’s not as obscure as D-lister Boomerang, but she’s not as popular as people like Black Cat, either. She first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #265 back in 1985. While this game isn’t directly connected to any extant Spider-Man continuity, its characters generally don’t stray very far from the design of their comic-book counterparts. Silver Sable is usually a mercenary, often the leader of some sort of military force, and has been known to team up with both heroes and villains. She’s a normal human that relies on fitness and martial arts training to get by in the superhero world.
Not that the game ever tells you any of this. Within the story, you never learn about her character or her powers. She just strolls into the story and casually kicks Spider-Man’s ass in three different cutscenes. In return, she never ends up knocked down, webbed up, or knocked out. Spider-Man never lays a hand on her in these three altercations and you never get to settle up with her in the end.
Attention: I’m going to be spoiling most of the game here, so if you don’t want spoilers than you need to bail now.
Now, the knee-jerk reaction is that it doesn’t make sense that this normal human being should be able to casually brush aside someone as powerful as Spider-Man. While his power level varies from one adaptation to the next, he’s always depicted as having superhuman reflexes, superhuman agility, and the strength to lift several tons. So when Silver Sable shows up and steamrolls him without breaking a sweat, it immediately makes the audience wonder how someone so powerful could lose so badly to a mundane person.
That was my reaction when I played through the game the first time, and I gather a lot of other people felt the same way. Except, I don’t think this is the real problem with Silver Sable. After all, Black Cat is just a regular person with good training, and nobody has a problem with Spider-Man losing to her. Same goes for the Punisher, who has basically the same resume as Silver Sable: Guns, fitness, and training. While I don’t think Spidey ever faced off against Black Widow, I have no problem believing she could outwit and overpower him. Heck, one of Spider-Man’s original foes is Kingpin, despite the fact that Kingpin is just a burly human and Spider-Man ought to be able to toss him into the air with one hand.
My point is that superhero power levels are incredibly flexible and arguments over which characters can or can’t prevail over which other characters are mostly pointless fan wank. So why are we okay with Spider-Man losing to Black Cat, but then we object when he gets beat up by Silver Sable? What’s the deal here?
So let’s talk about professional wrestling. Or as I like to think of it, LARPing, but for jocks.
I think everyone over the age of six understands the idea behind wrestling. The fights are predetermined. A match isn’t decided by who is the biggest and the strongest, but by what makes the best story. The power level of a wrestler doesn’t come from their muscles, it comes from how strongly the audience feels about them and how much people care about the outcome of a fight. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend in the gym, if the audience doesn’t care about you, then you’re not going to get into big matches with A-list characters and you’re certainly not going to win. There’s even a term for these sorts of performers. Low-status wrestlers that routinely lose are called jobbers. They don’t get much in the way of story, because they only exist to build up the notoriety of more marketable characters.
This same rule applies to comic books. It’s not about power, it’s about making a good story. If you want to win against an A-list superhero, then the audience needs to take you seriously. Now, there are a lot of things that can make the audience care about a superhero or supervillain. Instead of arguing about which of these characters is stronger, let’s see how this version of Silver Sable stacks up in terms of story.
So probably the first question we need to ask is…
Does she have a cool power set?
Remember, this isn’t about how strong you are. It’s about how much the audience cares about your character. And one way to make people care is to have an interesting or unique set of powers, limitations, or vulnerabilities. Spider-Man’s powers aren’t that impressive on the grand scale of the Marvel Universe, but there’s something about all that acrobatic web-swinging, wall-crawling, and spider-sensing that has captured the public’s attention for over half a century.
But this version of Silver Sable doesn’t have any powers or interesting gadgets. She has two guns, and she shoots at people. Also, in this game she never hits anything. She has the marksmanship of an imperial stormtrooper. That would be fine if she had something like a cool way to get around, an eye-catching defensive object, or some sort of throwable object she was awesome at. But no. She’s got exactly one gimmick, there’s nothing unique about it, and she’s terrible at it.
But maybe it’s not all about the powers and the gadgets. After all, if you take away the tools and gadgets from people like The Punisher or Catwoman, they’re still dangerous. They’re clever and competent, even without their hardware. So how does Silver Sable hold up?
Is She Super-Competent?
Well, not according to the writer of this game. Mary Jane outfoxes her on four different occasions, despite the fact that Silver Sable supposedly has covert training and Mary Jane is a young journalist. This supposedly badass international mercenary loses a one-room game of Hide & Seek to a civilian.
Outside of this, she literally fails at every single thing she tries to do in this story. She never faces a single supervillain. She’s never depicted having the slightest impact on the gangs of the city. A massive prison break happens under her watch. The bad guys steal the doomsday bioweapon from her men, and she doesn’t show up until the battle is over.
In fact, the only thing she ever accomplishes is beating up on Spider-Man. And now maybe it starts to become clear why people have such a problem with this character. It’s one thing to lose against a superior opponent, but it’s another to have multiple cutscenes where the main character is effortlessly knocked down by the most incompetent person in the story.
Well, it’s now always about how skilled you are. Sometimes all you need to be a great superhero is a really cool costume. So what about Silver Sable?
Does She Have a Cool Costume?
I should point out that this game makes a very strong distinction between the super-people and civilians. The civilians all wear normal clothes with fairly muted colors, while the supers are all very colorful, covered in technology, inhumanly proportioned, covered in fancy lights, or drawn with special effects. This distinction is no accident. Regular people look normal and grounded, and super people look fantastical, in some cases looking even more extreme than their comic book counterparts. This is a clear stylistic choice.
In the comics, Silver Sable is often drawn in a way that makes her look shiny. You know, like silver. But in this game she’s wearing more or less normal civilian clothing. The only distinguishing characteristic is that it’s all the same shade of light grey. So it’s like civilian clothes, except not as visually exciting. It sort of looks like what you’d get if Aunt May decided to cosplay as Switch from the Matrix, but she couldn’t finish her costume in time.
Sable’s other distinguishing characteristic is her wild mane of long hair. Again, this visually interesting detail was removed and now she has pedestrian normal-people hair. This is a haircut I’d expect to see on a middle school art teacher, not a super-person.
Intentional or not, the art style of this game is clearly telegraphing that this character is a regular, non-super individual. The artist is telling you that this is nobody special.
But hey, looks aren’t everything.
Maybe She has an Interesting Plan?
Notice I didn’t say a good plan. The goal is just to make the audience care. Like, Thanos’ plan in Infinity War was kinda dumb, but the fact that he wanted to kill HALF of everyone instead of ACTUALLY everyone makes him a curiosity among genocidal supervillains, and his belief that he was a hero made him more interesting than a screaming madman.
So what’s Silver Sable’s plan?
Nothing. She doesn’t have one. She’s just a mercenary for hire. Her entire plan can be summed up as “Do a job, and get paid.”
Also, it’s a plan she fails at. Repeatedly. Mayor Norman Osborn hires Sable and her army of undisciplined thugs to bring order to New York. The Sinister Six are on the loose, the demon gang is terrorizing the populace, there’s a bio-weapon on the loose, and the streets are flooded with escaped convicts. Her job is to bring order to the city, and she never accomplishes anything towards that end. We never see her or her men make the slightest effort to engage any of the Sinister Six. They never round up any prisoners, and they do nothing about the demons. On the rare moments when they show up and attempt to help, they aren’t just incompetent, but an active liability.
The only thing her men manage to accomplish is that they do a pretty good job of oppressing the populace. The Sable goon squad sets up police-state style checkpoints all over the city to harass civilians while doing nothing to impede the villains. Her men unlawfully detain and imprison innocent people, and even use their authority to abuse people and seize their property.
Now, that could work in terms of making her a bad guy. She’s the leader of a brutal occupying force. That would make her a supervillain. The problem is that the story doesn’t make any connection between her and the behavior of her men. We never see her encouraging her people to loot the city. You never see her expressing any sort of values that might indicate what kind of leader she is. It’s not even clear that she’s AWARE of the way her men behave.
Her mandate to protect the city is righteous while the behavior of her men is evil, and the story never even throws out a single line of dialog to reconcile this contradiction. Is she malicious, negligent, or incompetent? We literally can’t tell.
It’s kind of hard to get invested in the struggles of a character when we can’t even tell what they want or what they’re trying to do.
Well, having no motivation or goals might be kind of diappointing, but maybe she can make up for it elsewhere. For example…
Does She Have an Interesting Backstory?
Nope. The game doesn’t tell us anything about her. If you want to know who she is or what her history is, then you’ll have to buy some comic books or read a wiki or something.
Well, that’s disappointing, but maybe she can compensate for being such a non-entity by making us like her.
Does She Have a Cool personality?
A writer can do a lot of things to make a character’s personality interesting. They can have a sense of humor. They can be inwardly driven but outwardly stoic, which will make them feel kind of mysterious. They can be narcissistic and self-aggrandizing in a lovable way. They can be gentle and compassionate despite having immense power and intellect. They can be an idealist dedicated to always doing the right thing, no matter how long the odds or how great the personal cost. They can be playful and fun. You get the idea. They don’t have to be nice, they just need to be fun to watch.
To illustrate Silver Sable’s personality, let me tell you about one conversation near the end of the game. This is probably her longest scene. The setup is that Spider-Man defeated a bunch of demon guys. Then Sable’s goons show up. They don’t really have a good reason to attack Spider-Man, since Sable and Spider-Man are both here to stop the bad guys. But the goons try to kill him anyway and end up getting knocked out and webbed up. Spider-Man then tries to force open the security doors so he can run inside and save the Mayor.
While he’s forcing open the security doors, Silver Sable arrives. She opens by attempting to shoot Spider-Man in the back. That makes her both evil and a coward. But she misses, which also makes her incompetent. She’s attacking him, even though they’re obviously on the same side and he’s trying to save her boss. That makes her stupid. Then she stops shooting once she gets close, which is, once again, incompetent. Then she throws a little tantrum at Spider-Man for always attacking her men, even though they always try to kill him on sight, presumably under her orders. She’s literally outraged that Spider-Man defends his life with non-lethal force. Then she demands to know why she shouldn’t just shoot him right now.
And this is just one conversation in the game! She’s just as irrational and obnoxious in her other cutscenes. You can decide for yourself if this sounds like a character you’d love to watch, but I wasn’t a fan.
Okay, Silver Sable is a bit of a mess at this point, but she’s got one last shot at redemption:
Does She Have a Satisfying Character Arc?
Like I said earlier, Silver Sable was hired to bring order to New York. That’s supposedly a good thing. But she never succeeds at this mandate. Not even on a small scale. She’s a failure the entire game. Meanwhile, her men are openly villainous and I guess we’re supposed to assume she’s complicit in their behavior. Which makes her a quasi-supervillain in this story.
Then we get to the confrontation I talked about earlier. Silver Sable corners Spider-Man and is irrational, stupid, hypocritical, etc. Then Spider-Man points out that they can’t stop the bad guys if they’re fighting each other. So Sable reluctantly holsters her weapons and stops attacking him.
That’s it. That’s her entire character arc. She’s a sort of non-committal quasi-villain throughout the game, and then at the end Spider-Man converts her into a good guy by stating the blindingly obvious: They both have the same goals, so there’s no reason to fight.
Now that Sable’s a good guy, maybe she’ll help out? Of course not. She leaves Spider-Man to face the supervillains alone and she runs back outside to fire vaguely in the direction of a bunch of goons.
Spider-Man goes in alone and gets his ass kicked by Doctor Octopus, but it’s not until the fight is completely over and the villains are all gone that Sable rushes in. You might think that she’s here to save his life. She acts like that’s what she wants to do. But the other character in the scene is the doctorLike a lot of other comic-based works, doctors and scientists are sorta interchangeable., and he’s the one that does all the life-saving. She’s literally just in the way and has nothing to contribute. You could remove her from the scene and it would change nothing.
And finally, once Spider-Man is on his feet again she calls him up to let him know that she’s had a change of heart. She’s leaving the city, but she’s leaving behind her vast army of violent goons so they can continue to cause problems for the people of New York. And so Silver Sable’s story ends, with her never impacting the plot in the slightest.
Even if you’ve never studied story structure, you probably have some intuitive idea of how character arcs are supposed to work. They come in many forms. Good guys turning bad. Bad guys turning good. Well-intentioned characters fall to a weakness that ultimately destroys them. Characters overcome their internal demons so that they can reach their full potential. You get the idea. Character arcs are as different as the characters that experience them, but they all revolve around the idea of someone being transformed in some way by personal experience. But Silver Sable doesn’t have an arc. She just stops being an abusive fascist asshole because Spider-Man asked her to.
So to sum up: She has a dumb costume, boring powers, uninteresting motivation, no backstory, annoying one-note personality, unrelenting incompetence, one facial expression, and she’s completely irrelevant to the plot.
The problem isn’t that she’s not strong enough to beat Spider-Man, the problem is that she’s not cool or interesting enough to even get in a fight with him. This is like having John Cena lose to a member of the audience. Having her beat up the main character three times and then wander off is frustrating for the player because it runs into the problem of cutscene incompetence I talked about last time. But worse than that, it just makes for a bad story.
So What Happened Here?
Why is Silver Sable in this game? I can only speculate, but here’s my guess.
Over the past few years, there’s been a steady stream of Hollywood rumors surrounding Sony, talking about their plans for a Spider-Man based cinematic universe. Sony’s contract gives them the rights to make Spider-Man movies, and it also grants them access to any characters that are classified as part of Spider-Man’s corner of the Marvel universe. That includes people like supporting characters, allies, and his regular lineup of villains. I’m not NEARLY enough of a comics expert to know the full list of which characters Sony can use, but the list is apparently pretty big.
Sony keeps talking about taking these B-listers and side characters giving them movies of their own. Jackpot was talked about for a while. They kicked around the idea of a Black Cat movie. How about a Silver Sable Movie? What about Kraven? Does the general public care about him? Maybe we can give that guy a movie! How about a team up between Black Cat and Silver Sable?
The 2018 Venom movie was the first of these spinoff titles and we’re supposedly getting a Morbius movie starring Jared Leto later this year.
My point is that all of these lofty dreams of building a massive cinematic universe were at their peak a few years ago, right when this game was in development. If you look up the unproduced Silver & Black movie on Wikipedia, you can get a glimpse into the madness going on behind the scenes at Sony. People leaving the project, others joining, scripts changing, people with wildly divergent creative styles were trying to reconcile their different visions. If you read between the lines you can see that Sony didn’t really have a particular vision of their own. They just wanted to make a whole lot of superhero movies because that’s what Disney was doing.
My guess is that – during all of this chaos – Sony pushed for Insomniac to include Silver Sable. They probably wanted to raise her cultural profile ahead of these movie projects, even though they probably didn’t have a script, hadn’t cast a specific actress, and they weren’t even sure what kind of movie they wanted to make.
Imagine you’re in the middle of making a AAA video game. The script is basically done, some of the character designs are complete, and you’re about to start recording dialog. Then a Sony executive comes crashing into the room and says they want you to include this Silver Sable character because they plan to use her in a movie and they want her to be more recognizable to the general public. They can’t tell you what she’s going to look like, what her personality is, or even if she’s a hero or a villain. All they know is that she needs to be in this game and appear prominently in several cutscenes, and she needs to be super-badass so the fanboys will like her.
If I was the writer in this situation, then yeah. This is exactly what you’d get: A character with a costume that looks like it belongs in Sony’s drabYes, Spider-Verse was gorgeous. I’m talking about the live action stuff. Spider-Man movies rather than a comic book. She’ll be disconnected from the plot, since that’s already done. We’re not sure if she’s supposed to be a bad guy or not, so we’ll sort of hedge our bets and make her either a shitty supervillain or an impotent hero. And to show that she’s a total badass we’ll just have her beat up the main character’s three times.
So that’s what I think happened to Silver Sable. Her appearance in this game wasn’t a creative decision, it was a marketing tool. And that, more than anything else, is why this version of the character sucks.
 Like a lot of other comic-based works, doctors and scientists are sorta interchangeable.
 Yes, Spider-Verse was gorgeous. I’m talking about the live action stuff.
Top 64 Videogames
Lists of 'best games ever' are dumb and annoying. But like a self-loathing hipster I made one anyway.
Crysis 2 has basically the same plot as Half-Life 2. So why is one a classic and the other simply obnoxious and tiresome?
The Dumbest Cutscene
This is it. This is the dumbest cutscene ever created for a AAA game. It's so bad it's simultaneously hilarious and painful. This is "The Room" of video game cutscenes.
Steam Summer Blues
This mess of dross, confusion, and terrible UI design is the storefront the big publishers couldn't beat? Amazing.
Quakecon 2011 Keynote Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.