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What makes Spider-Man so... amazing? Some might argue its the slick costume and funny quips. Others would suggest its his ability to swing through the air and catch thieves just like flies.
For me personally, and I think the majority of Spidey fans out there, the crucial ingredient that makes Spider-Man such an enduring powerhouse of pop culture isn't his powers, or his enemies, or his gadgets, it's the man behind the mask.
Peter Parker is what makes Spider-Man special, and that's the way it's always been. The very best Spider-Man stories are the ones that understand this and make it so that the web-head's costumed exploits will always have some kind of consequence on the hapless, decent every-man Parker.
Just look at Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2, or classic stories like "The Night Gwen Stacy Died" and "If This Be My Destiny." The very best Spidey stories out there work because Peter has an emotional stake, a personal connection to his alter ego's adventures that few other heroes share. It's often the case that for Spider-Man to win, Peter Parker has to lose.
Peter himself tends to be fully aware of this unfortunate rule, and always chooses to do the right thing anyway - no matter what inevitably awful consequences might befall his personal life. Because as we all know, the science nerd-turned superhero learned the hard way that great power comes with a whole load of responsibility.
One year ago, Insomniac Games released the PlayStation 4 exclusive Marvel's Spider-Man. In my review at the time, I argued that it was "quite possibly one of the best superhero games of all time, and inarguably the finest game starring the wall crawler to date." The web swinging is sublime, the combat tight and exciting, the gadgets varied and inventive, and the open world New York City a sight to behold.
One year on, and several playthroughs later, I still remain convinced that Marvel's Spider-Man is one of the greatest superhero games of all time, perhaps only just bested by Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum. But even if Insomniac Game's gem isn't the best superhero game of all time, I feel comfortable saying that it is absolutely, 100 percent the best adaptation of Spider-Man in any medium outside of the comics, and it almost all boils down to the way the game handles Peter Parker.
Insomniac Games don't just make us feel like Spider-Man in the same way that Rocksteady made us feel like Batman. Sure, it would've been easy for them to make a game where we simply swing around and web up bad guys (hell, I would've still picked it up and loved it). But what we got was a far richer, deeper experience.
Marvel's Spider-Man makes us feel like Peter Parker just as much as it makes us feel like the webhead - it brings us into his world and immerses us in the life of Spidey's alter-ego in a way that only a video game could.
Insomniac didn't drag us through yet another origin story or take Peter back to high school so we could relive the same version of the character we've seen done approximately a million times over. Instead, we're dropped right into the middle of an older, more experienced Spider-Man's adventure, and that's infinitely more exciting.
We pick up with a Peter in his early 20s who clearly has the hang of being Spider-Man, but still hasn't quite figured out how to make it as Peter Parker. It's clear why in the game's masterful opening moments, in which we see Peter presented with a choice; pay the rent for his crummy apartment, or suit up and take down Kingpin once and for all?
Of course our hero opts to chase down Kingpin, and of course there are consequences. It's obvious that this version of Peter has been making similar choices ever since he first put on the mask. Peter's willingness to put others ahead of himself means that, further into the game, he goes back to his apartment to discover that he's been evicted and all his things have been thrown in the trash.
What follows is a mission in which Spider-Man has to chase down a series of garbage trucks to reclaim his belongings before trying to find a place to crash for the night. It's not the kind of mission I thought I'd ever see in a superhero game, but it's one that perfectly encapsulates life as the web swinger. Like I said, every time Spider-Man wins, Peter Parker has to lose.
It's at this point that I have to shout out to actor Yuri Lowenthal, who became the definitive Spider-Man to thousands of fans overnight, myself included. Lowenthal injected the character with the timid nature of Tobey Maguire, the playful swagger of Andrew Garfield, and the endearing comic timing of Tom Holland.
After one performance, he managed to create a Spider-Man that was believable, vulnerable, heroic, and goofy all at once, and is surely destined to be remembered among Spidey fans in the same way Kevin Conroy is among Batman fans.
While the game's representation of Peter Parker is on the money, things could have easily fallen apart if the supporting cast of characters wasn't up to snuff. Spider-Man's friends and foes, and the personal connections he forms with them in and out of costume, have always been a big part of the mythos, after all.
Luckily we have a cast of characters from Spider-Man lore that have been shuffled up and remixed in a number of smart ways. Aunt May is a powerful, strong willed woman determined to help others no matter the cost, not simply a frail old lady who sits around waiting to die.
Mary Jane is re-imagined a headstrong, brave reporter who's defined by her own ambitions, and not just her relationship to a superhero. She drives the story along just as much as Spidey, and isn't simply in the story as a love interest or someone to rescue in the third act.
Miles Morales is given a much more compelling origin story that mirrors Peter's and establishes a heartwarming mentor/mentee relationship between the two.
Peter recognising the pain and anguish in Miles after he loses his father and going out of his way to try and help him both in and out of costume is just another reason that Insomniac's version of Spider-Man is perhaps the noblest and most heroic of them all, and I for one can't wait to see the continued training of Miles in future games.
Giving us sections of the game that pause the web-swinging action and put us in the shoes of Peter, Miles, or Mary Jane also helps to flesh out the story in a number of inspired ways. Not only does it remind the player what it's like to be powerless in some cases, but shows us the ways in which Pete has always inspired his friends to be greater.
Controlling a pre-powered Miles as he evades Rhino through a shipping yard is nail biting stuff, but shows us that the example set by Peter is already rubbing off on him, and once again sends a message that it's Parker's sense of responsibility, not the powers, that make Spider-Man a hero.
That same sense of responsibility or lack thereof can be applied to the core villains of the piece, too. Martin Li/Mr Negative allows himself to be defined by tragedy in a way that Peter and Miles never would, while Norman Osborn refuses to own up to his mistakes and turns the city into a warzone in an attempt to hide from what he's done.
Most fascinating of all though, is the way Insomniac handled Otto Octavius. I used to think that Raimi's version of the character in Spider-Man 2 was the definitive take, but here we have a incredibly layered and deeply tragic character in Otto.
From the moment we meet him, we all know that Otto will eventually transform into one of Spider-Man's most ruthless villains. Instead of trying to wrong-foot us in any way, Insomniac embraces that inevitable fall and drags it out slowly, painfully.
We're made to get to know Otto as a man who wants to change the world for the better. A man with flaws, certainly, but a man with the best of intentions. A sense of responsibility.
It's clear that Peter worships this brilliant man, and as the story goes on we start to see Otto through Pete's eyes, not the eyes of a comic book fan who knows all about "Doc Ock". Insomniac makes it so that we genuinely don't want Otto to turn, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when he does, and turns Peter's world upside down.
Like I said; every time Spider-Man wins, Peter Parker loses. He takes down Kingpin and ends up sleeping on the sofa of a homeless shelter. He beats Doctor Octopus and his Sinister Six, but leaves his mentor, hero, and arguably father figure crippled, desperate, and utterly broken in the process.
Perhaps most devastating of all though, he saves the entire city, but loses his Aunt May. It was during this climatic scene that I first realised, through teary eyes, that Insomniac had a better handle on the character of Spider-Man than anyone has had in quite some time.
In one of the most infamous Spider-Man comic book storylines of all time, Peter chooses to erase his entire marriage to Mary Jane in order to save his elderly aunt, who's dying from a bullet that was meant for him. Don't ask, the whole thing sucked.
It was a moment that was clearly intended to show that Peter was taking responsibility for his actions by sacrificing something dear to him in order to save his aunt. If anything though, his choice came off as selfish, shifting the consequences to his wife precisely because he didn't dare face up to the turmoil of losing his aunt. It was an out of character move that remains reviled by Spider-Man fans the world over.
In Marvel's Spider-Man, however, Insomniac allows Peter the chance to do the one thing the comics seem so reluctant to let him do; grow up, make the truly hard choice, and let his aunt go.
The game's really masterstroke is that it subjects us to this tear-jerking scene in a way that also manages to show just how far Peter has come since he first donned a mask as a nervous teenager. Uncle Ben died because of Peter's lack of responsibility, while Aunt May has to die precisely because of Peter's innate sense of responsibility.
All throughout the game we see Peter faced with choices. Every single time, he makes the right call in spite of the consequences to himself. Even here at the end, when faced with the most gut-wrenching decision of all, he does what needs to be done, because he's the only one who can.
Brilliantly, Insomniac makes it clear in the following, final scenes that this version of Peter Parker won't let this tragedy define him. He doesn't stop being Spider-Man or moodily march away from Mary Jane in a graveyard because he needs to protect her by shutting her out.
Peter has of course been irrevocably changed by the loss of his aunt and the fall of his mentor, but it doesn't stop him, and will never stop him from making the hard choices.
What makes Insomniac's Spider-Man truly superior, is that we're given a Spider-Man who never gives up and never gives in, not because he's the strongest or the smartest hero out there, but because that's the kind of man Peter Parker is, mask or not.
Insomniac understands that perfectly, and that's why Marvel's Spider-Man is the greatest Spidey adaptation of all time.
Featured Image Credit: Insomniac Games
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