Marvel's Spiderman in 2020

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LapsarianGiraff

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Edited By LapsarianGiraff

Content Warning: I'm going to be talking about the 2018 Spider-Man game in an explicitly political context. A lot of points here were made back in 2018 by more talented writers than I, but I just finished the game, and it hit very differently in 2020. If political stuff in games isn't your bag, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. Oh, also, spoiler warning.

Lukewarm takes in 3... 2... 1...

I just played through Marvel's Spider-Man for the first time. It's a ton of fun, but holy shit, is it clueless about the police, and structural power in general. I know that a -- lot -- of -- people -- have brought this up, but it hits like a ton of bricks given the current nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality. I'm not interested in setting the forums on fire and insta-locking this thread, but it's sufficient to say that the police as a whole, and the NYPD in particular has come under intense renewed scrutiny after the murder of George Floyd.

Having seen these protests unfold, it's safe to say I viewed Spider-Man's actions and totally uncritical support of the police in a much harsher light than even the previously linked writers. As noted in the Deadspin article, one of the earliest side activities is breaking up drug deals and beating up everyone involved. Peter has a few quips here, and they're mostly innocuous if a little tone deaf, like (paraphrase), "Beating drugs is what I'm the most passionate about!" or something like that. But every once in a while, he'll say, "If you just got real jobs you wouldn’t have to work so hard at being criminals!" which, ew. Ew ew ew. It's also real weird playing a game in which you help the police repair surveillance equipment built by a private contractor, in the same time as Baltimore getting literal spyplanes (that catch very few criminals, and mostly keep tabs on protesters, BTW). There is some definite copaganda-lite in the portrayal of Jefferson Davis, the Rikers Island riots (notice how most of the thugs you fight or see are intentionally white, when the population of Rikers is overwhelmingly people of color?).

The urgency in portraying these issues more responsibly in our media has been renewed by current events, but again, these issues have all been brought up before. What struck me most, and that didn't seem to get much attention back at the time of release, was its portrayal of protests and pandemic.

Oh yeah, we're going there. Remember how that game has a deadly disease threaten New York, putting the city in lockdown? And not like the usual comic book "oh no, Joker is going to put clown poison in Gotham's water main!" but an actual disease, Devil's Breath, gets out and threatens the lives of thousands and (SPOILER) AUNT MAY DIES OF IT.

OOOOOOOF that was the last thing I expected to see while unwinding with an open world game.

The portrayal of New York's reaction to the pandemic is totally fine, there's nothing that rubbed me the wrong way there. That being said, there is a side activity in this section of the game that has you rescue protesters who have been unlawfully detained by Sable International, a trigger-happy PMC occupying New York at Mayor Osborn's behest. After you beat up the bad men with lasers, the protesters do the usual superhero prostrations, "Thank you Spider-Man," etc., Peter lays out one of his quips. He says, and I kid you not,

"Love the spirit of protest! But maybe hold off until after we're in a state of emergency."

It's a small thing, and it's not close to the weirdest part, politically, of this game, but that was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back for me. Telling people to not protest until things are safer is a seemingly innocuous request. After all, individuals, in general, shouldn't put themselves at undue risk -- but our trying modern times have revealed the fallacies in this thinking. In the context of COVID, Black Lives Matter protesters are out en masse at a time when people of color are the ones disproportionately being exposed to COVID anyway, due to their prevalence in "essential" and service jobs, and the lack of a financial cushion to stay home from work. That protests are increasing COVID cases is an unapologetically anti-protest argument, disproven by the data. If that's a little too "outside the text", even grounded within the game's events alone this quip makes no sense. These civilians are protesting at a time when Sable has the city under, essentially, martial law-lite. Sable Outpost missions show that people who aren't protesting are being detained and robbed of their valuable possessions, as well. So what else can the ordinary, non-web-swinging citizens of Virtual New York do but protest? To tell them to do otherwise is to tell them to do nothing, to continue to put their faith and immediate well-being in the hands of the institutions that failed them in the first place. In Sable, who locks them up. In the NYPD, who, throughout the game's runtime, seems powerless to stop even simple muggings, let alone super-villainous schemes. In Mayor Osborn, who is responsible for bringing those super-villains about through his actions. In Spider-Man, who in this portrayal is not "one of the people" so much as the staunchest defender of established power.

Sure, outside of the suit, Peter Parker has blue collar woes. He isn't paid for his work; he gets evicted from his apartment; he's clearly outside the nexus of privilege. But when he does don the suit of Spider-Man, he spends less story time defending ordinary citizens, and more time tirelessly defending the rich and powerful. He fixes the NYPD's surveillance towers, he spends the entire back half of the story trying to convince Mr. Negative and Doc Oc not to kill Norman Osborn, proclaiming that he will see justice for what he has done. Yet -- and this is a very important "yet" for a game that tries so hard to be a movie -- we never see this "justice" on screen. We never see any trials, any legal or political action taken against Norman Osborn. In our last shot of him, we see him wearing the same incredibly expensive-looking suit and tie in his nice apartment, so... in visual language, and what we actually see on screen, he faces zero repercussions for his actions. There isn't even an implied reckoning, just Spider-Man's word. Which is usually pretty good, but in this game, I'm not so sure.

I feel kind of bad taking a comic-book/video-game story to task so hard, in a story that otherwise has lots of great things going for it, and indeed, the game as a whole was a pleasure to play through. Maybe I'm overthinking it. It's nothing new for a game story to accidentally trip into hot water when trying to say nothing, especially in regard to charged topics like the police. I suppose, in the long run, this game isn't the worst offender, like The Outer Worlds. (Maybe both sides are right, and there's a compromise down the middle? Um, not in this scenario you've presented, Obsidian, no.)

If it's not the worst offender, though, then what Marvel's Spider-Man is, is complacent.

A line about Oscorp harvesting user data here, a mission calling heavily armored goons walking the streets in the name of law and order "fascists" there. Moments like these show that the writers and narrative designers of the game had their finger on the pulse -- they just chose not to do anything with it. And not having hot takes in your game isn't a crime, in 2018 it was pretty unremarkable. I'm also sure several elements of the game, story included, had to go through Disney approval, of "here's an off-screen guy saying he's gay in Endgame so we can edit it out for Chinese markets" fame. This is a game that was willing to say, "yes, militarized policing of communities is fascist," but wasn't willing to point out that we were already there. The folks throwing protesters in vans and arresting them without cause are not laser-wielding, jetpack-adorned Sable troopers -- they're plain clothes officers and Federal troops. Here. Now.

And in the here and now, complacency helps no one but those already benefiting from the status quo.

...

Sidenote, I'll be incredibly curious to see how Spider-Man: Miles Morales follows up on these issues, given that Miles is black and Insomniac are smart enough designers/writers to not drive straight into the same thorny discussions again, especially in our current moment.

If you stuck through and read the whole way through, thank you! Please be civil in the replies. I'm not saying the game sucks (again, I really liked playing it), some of the story and theme decisions just left a sour taste in my mouth. I'm not looking for every videogame, especially every mass-marketed AAA video game, to be some nuanced meditation on its subject matter; that being said, this felt like one of those cases where the creatives involved thought they were saying nothing controversial but were actually putting forward some, both contemporarily and in hindsight, kind of awful takes, and that frustrated me.

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Nodima

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I am also very curious how this particular iteration of Spider-Man moves forward. One thing I struggled with in 2018 was that, effectively, superheroes are police, but worse. This is what we've had to watch DC and Marvel struggle with in their film adaptations: removed from gorgeous art and mostly symbolic word bubbles, these characters will actually say and do the things we see them do in the panels, and those actions will mostly involve policing perceived wrongs. The wrongs, then, and how they're portrayed (and the hero's interpretation of their portrayal) are particularly important, but I also felt we're primarily talking about vigilante fantasies and the player base should receive these stories as such.

But revisiting the game through your specific quotes and, sure, these specific times, it's more troubling than ever that Spider-Man, perhaps the most rejected if not out right oppressed super powered superhero of all time is portrayed as a willing conspirator of the police state. Where is the Spider-Man that understands the proletariat's need for escapism and responds to a group of kids smoking a joint with a chuckle rather than a gasp? Where's the Peter that wonders aloud why his altruistic goals are so often met with rejection from not just opposition media but the very structures he fights to uphold?

Personally, Marvel's Spider-Man was only not my game of the year because God of War also came out that year; that Sony and Insomniac made a more emotionally resonant game than either of the Tom Holland movies, which are both great fun, let alone the first two Toby movies is a truly wild achievement to me. But there is a lot to be said about the moment to moment gameplay that I was willing to overlook in 2018 and accept is already much harder to overlook now, especially considering this portrayal of Peter often seems like a Handsome White Guy™ Who Also Gets It© and thus makes his desire to prop up oppressive power structures even more alarming.

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navster15

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I do like it when Peter Parker’s good hearted nature leads him to naïveté or not immediately recognizing his privilege. Peter, and Spidey, make a lot of mistakes in the course of their stories and that’s often what I find most interesting about the character. He screws up, he gets screwed, but he learns from his mistakes and gets back up to fight the good fight.

What I’m saying with all that is I think the Spider-Cop portrayal in the first game need not be a blemish on an otherwise great game, but rather a stepping stone toward future stories where Peter realizes his complicity in an unjust system, where his great power carries a greater responsibility than he originally conceived. Who knows if Insomniac goes in that direction in MM or the eventual full sequel, but boy is there major narrative potential staring them in the face.

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LapsarianGiraff

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@nodima: I agree with you wholeheartedly. Part of my frustration is how right the story gets the Doc Oc plotline, the MJ relationship -- Insomniac, at a certain level, gets Spider-Man. Right up until they don't and run headlong into this stuff.

You're right that the lack of friction with the structures of power adds to this weird feeling of "State-Sponsored Spider-Man"; the Mayor/Sable conflict is supposed to be this story's version of Spider-Man being targeted/oppressed, but it has no teeth because that is born from inherently individual motivations -- the Mayor wants to deflect blame from his wrongdoings, so he hires a whole squad of mooks to attack Spider-Man. Nothing systemic there guys, just one angry rich man!

Heck, when you take out Sable Outposts, Yuri says something to the effect of, "Yeah, Sable says they'll investigate/press charges against the offending officers, but I'll only believe it when I see it." Lack of institutional accountability isn't just present, it's vocalized and accepted in a resigned way at points -- it just feels weird.

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LapsarianGiraff

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@navster15:

I would love it if MM or mainline sequel dealt with these issues head-on. There's something to be said for a story where Spidey's altruistic aims are subverted by the Osborns of the world, leading him to realize change has to be outside the systems they control.

But maaaaan I would love it even more if that story was just in here.

For instance, one of my big complaints could be fixed by one scene at the end. Peter and MJ are in their favorite restaurant, and then a news report comes up on the TV saying that Osborn has made bail. Pete is disgruntled at this. And that's all! It wouldn't be deep, but it shows a greater awareness of how the rich and powerful avoid the justice Peter seeks.

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north6

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#5  Edited By north6

I just started playing this a few days ago, and I've only played the first couple hours, but yea this game felt like stepping into an bizarre alternate dimension where negative perception of the police mostly ends with inferring cops are merely incompetent, so repairing their weird spy towers was intended to be eye rolling, not horrifying. It probably should have been though, egregious overuse of police power isn't a concern that started in May.

The next couple years will be interesting - games take a long time to get made. With polls like this coming out, I wonder how many game dev studios will greenlight the hot takes most younger people expect them to be obvious to include in games. That said, there is obviously enough of an outcry for change for there to be less tone deaf painting of police with a broad brush of always being just the "good guys" (haven't finished the game but per OP that sounds like the way it goes).

I would say there's probably going to be a lot of opportunity for more interesting science fiction style police stories to be told now - there has truly never been a better time for Mass Effect Citadel Cop Stories.

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BladeOfCreation

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I really enjoyed this game and a lot of what it did, but yeah. To have Spider-Man help set up a city-wide surveillance network that he then gets private access to is incredibly tone deaf and unbelievably naive. It leads to the incredibly uncomfortable feeling of agreeing with J. Jonah Jameson. His radio show is mostly played for laughs (and the satire of InfoWars is fucking on point), but in one of his broadcasts he brings up the surveillance thing and, uh, he's right. It's hard to believe that a Christopher Nolan movie from a decade ago treated the ethics of "mass surveillance to beat the bad guys" with more nuance than this.

Spider-Man is an adult in this game that takes place in 2018, but the game treats the world with the same morality that Marvel has had since the 1960s. It's not even a partisan thing--fawning admiration of anyone in a uniform backed by state authority is something that the average liberal does, too.

Can we expect more from comics and games? Should we? I think the answer is yes; both mediums are capable of telling more complex stories. I'm just not sure that a comic book game starring this superhero from this comic book company is where we can expect to find that.

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LapsarianGiraff

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@bladeofcreation: Indeed -- we should expect more from games, but the likelihood of a Marvel game backed by Disney and Sony making any sort of statement on the surveillance state is slim at best.

For me, it's not an issue of "Spider-Man should have been deeper" -- it's an issue of, "Spider-Man chose to portray draconian policing with no further context or in-universe pushback." A game doesn't have to be a grand statement -- but if it voluntarily includes contemporary issues, it should have something to say.

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AssInAss

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Can someone link me to a video timestamp for when he says that line, please?

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AssInAss

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@theoracleofgame: Can someone link me to a video timestamp for when he says that line, please?

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