Watching Miles Morales swing through New York makes my heart ache. Seeing Central Park from Miles's vantage point opens up a deep well of nostalgia. I can't remember the last time I went to Manhattan—at least, the last time I went that wasn't part of a protest.
In Spider-Man: Miles Morales, I find places where I used to work (the hated office building in Times Square), and places that used to be my old hangs (the architecture in Greenwich Village is pretty true to life). Like Miles, I feel intensely defensive of these streets, and the people that inhabit them. Miles Morales takes place during the holiday season, so the streets are all festooned with the standard New York holiday decorations—massive strings of light made to look like holiday garlands hang above the avenues. It's as magical as I remember, and this year, my memory will have to do. Sometimes I walk along the game's streets just to hear people wish me Merry Christmas (or sometimes Happy Hanukkah).
I've seen a lot of Spider-Men in 2020, not just on my television or computer screens. People dressed as Spider-Man, and specifically as Miles Morales, have become a fixture in Black Lives Matter protests, which erupted in March all over the country to protest police violence. I marched in some of these protests, and saw people dressed as Miles Morales climbing scaffolding and street lights to hold signs that loudly proclaim the sanctity of black life, and decry the violence enacted upon us by the state. The New York of Miles Morales isn't quite the same New York as mine, but Black Lives Matter does exist there. By doing various tasks for Miles's neighbors in Harlem, the game rewards Miles, and the player, with a special suit that has been placed beneath a mural bearing a phrase that I have shouted until my throat was hoarse. When I saw it, I knew that I should be happy that Insomniac had included it in the game at all. But it also is a key that unlocks the closet where the game has hastily shoved all its messy politics.
It cannot be overstated how fun it is to just be Spider-Man in the game.
As all viewers of the movie Into The Spider-verse know, Miles Morales is a good boy who has never done anything wrong. He's Spider-Man! Well, the other Spider-Man. In the world of this game, Miles has recently come into his powers and is learning to be a superhero alongside the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker. At the start of the game, Peter tells Miles he's taking a vacation with Mary Jane, leaving Miles as the only web slinging crime fighter in town.
A lot has changed for Miles; his father, a cop, died while on duty during the events of Marvel's Spider-Man, and now his mother Rio Morales, is running for city council in Harlem. The move from Brooklyn to Manhattan has Miles a little shook, and he's unsure if he's ready to be the only Spider-Man, though he also clearly longs for the recognition. The plot walks down an extremely well trod path, and offers little in the way of surprises. It's truly wholesome, feel good superhero writing.
And the game lives up to it. By all metrics, Spider-Man Miles Morales is a great game. There aren't many meaningful differences between playing as Miles and Peter until a few hours into the game, and while they make the combat more interesting and varied, that baseline experience is still so thrilling. You can fast travel in Miles Morales by taking the subway, but more often I opted to swing my way through the city, dipping down almost all the way to the street to gain speed before flinging myself up into the sky. Miles backflips, twirls and spins through the sky, a slightly gawky acrobat.
Once you do get Miles' electric powers, called Venom in the game, fighting enemies becomes a supercharged ballet. It's so much fun to watch the combo counter go up as you dodge attacks through enemies legs, seeing them stumble as they struggle to figure out where you've gone. Miles also has access to various gadgets to make fights easier, like holographic drones that fight enemies on your behalf, but more often than not I just wanted to web people up and punch them with an electric fist.
It cannot be overstated how fun it is to just be Spider-Man in the game. Miles's powers allow you to set the pace in a fight in a way that's different from Peter Parker. Venom also stuns enemies, allowing you to gain distance when you're getting overcrowded. Later in the game you'll also gain invisibility, which I took advantage of every chance I got. Using your powers in concert with each other sometimes makes fights feel a touch too easy, but every time I mastered a specific challenge, the game found new ways to test my skills. These powers are often the key to solving puzzles in the game, which are also a welcome change from just beating people up all the time.
How do you spell racist? NYPD.
On the whole, I found the combat to be almost perfectly balanced, a rare feat for any game. Every time I lost a fight, I knew it was because I hadn't exploited the weaknesses I could have, didn't dodge that bullet at the exact right moment. Despite how much there is on screen at all times, and how chaotic certain fights can become, Miles' speed and ability to zip himself across the room before exploding into a crash of electricity that stuns enemies means that as long as I can keep myself alive I can usually turn around even the most desperate of situations. Those moments of combat are breathtaking, when you are driven down to a sliver of health before gaining the upper hand. Even more fun is picking off enemies one by one while perched on pillars and walls, until the final enemy starts calling for backup that will never come. Being Miles' Spider-Man feels, well, spectacular. It's when the costume comes off that Miles as a character refuses to make sense.
During the last march I went on, after crossing a bridge into lower Manhattan, the section of the long train of people I was in spontaneously started chanting "NYPD, suck my dick" at the cops who greeted us on the other side. Any time I march late at night I get anxious, remembering the time when Mayor Bill DeBlasio instated a curfew, where friends of mine had to hide in bushes to avoid being found by the police who we knew were beating people before arresting them. The tension is always so palpable—whenever you see a uniformed cop, you never know when the moment will rise into violence, despite protests being a protected form of free speech. You understand, in these moments, exactly how fragile our freedom is, especially when the police are all too happy to lie about their actions and cover for their own.
In Miles Morales, Miles' dad is a cop. It isn't as if there are no black cops. There are black conservatives, and black capitalists, and black people who really don't give a fuck about the culture in the way that I do. But I don't know how Miles could end up being the young man that he is when his dad is a member of the NYPD.
The New York Police Department is particularly, notoriously racist, and has upheld explicitly racist policies like Stop and Frisk that have targeted black people in particular. The cops that are in the NYPD know this. Police officers of color aren't greeted with open arms by their neighborhoods—they are called sellouts and Uncle Toms. The reverence with which this game treats Miles' police officer father doesn't exactly jive with the NYPD I know, the one who broke a protester's arm in multiple places before putting him in jail overnight. During emotional moments in Miles Morales the camera will pan to the portrait of Miles' dad in uniform, and all I can hear in my head is another protest chant: How do you spell racist? NYPD.
It's all the more confusing when you observe that, in contrast to the game to which this is an expansion, Miles has almost no contact with the police, who occasionally say things to indicate that they don't trust him when he passes by. Materially, the police of this New York might as well not exist, though sirens and cop cars are still present in this game. They don't talk to Miles, and Miles doesn't talk to them, as if they are slipping past each other in parallel universes.
Miles Morales is all too happy to say that yes, we know that there are issues that exist in the world that are politically fraught. It is a game that wants to say that it is particularly black, from the musical score, to the way that Miles texts his friends. Miles' friends in Harlem are from a rainbow coalition of races and marginalized identities, the writing emphasizing both their differences and their shared goals. When characters start to call Miles, "our Spider-Man" you know what the game is going for—he's the black Spider-Man, the one who protects communities that sometimes get ignored (ignored by who, the game does not specify). One of my favorite characters is Hailey, a deaf street artist that Miles flirts with a little bit. The presence of a deaf character in a game surprised and delighted me, and I can only hope she'll show up more in the future. More than that, though, she has a genuine chemistry with Miles, who tries to convince her to include the "other Spider-Man" in her mural.
But Spider-Man: Miles Morales is not brave enough to name the political issues that these lovingly rendered characters face, beyond their surface level identities . Black Lives Matter protests are specifically about police violence. Yet, this game has tied itself into a knot where it cannot say anything negative about the police. Sometimes Miles will web up a bad guy and muse to himself if this is how his dad felt after he was done with cases. Miles Morales doesn't even present an argument that Miles' father was a good cop—it's accepted, de facto, that being a cop is good. All I can think about is Miles' dad frisking his friends to meet a quota.
In general, that's how the game treats any subject matter that could be considered controversial. There's a lot that gets glossed over with the assumption that subtext will do the job. So much American media has used "cop" as a shorthand for "good" that it's not surprising that this game does the same, until you also see how much it wants to be worthy of this politically fraught moment in history. There's a tendency to use marginalization as a stand in for a characters' opinions. Of course Gloria and her partner from F.E.A.S.T., the charity that Miles volunteers at, hates Roxxon—she's a latinx lesbian! But when city hall comes through and shuts down their homeless shelter at the drop of a hat because of a burst pipe, the game quickly pivots to making a supervillain to blame, conveniently forgetting that city hall was all too happy to see them gone.
Rio's campaign and her husband's absence form an incoherent backdrop to Miles' story.
This inability to name the problem extends into the game's fictional villains as well. Rio Morales, Miles' mother, is running for office, and a large part of her campaign is in protest of a tech startup called Roxxon that has built an experimental power plant in Harlem. It all has shades of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who strongly objected to Amazon building their third headquarters in Queens, advocating for the residents of her district. In the case of Amazon's third headquarters, Governor Cuomo bent over backwards to make Queens as attractive to Amazon as he possibly could. Who exactly has allowed Roxxon to take over Harlem, paving over houses and businesses to create their headquarters? The game never says. It's a problem of individual actors, not a rotten system of disenfranchisement and political favoritism.
(Similarly, when Miles is helping his neighbors in Harlem, the game will go out of its way to mention eminent domain and real estate fraud, but it won't come out and say that the neighborhood is being gentrified. The entire way that the game talks about Harlem is strange, as if it's relying on an image of the neighborhood that hasn't been true since before Bill Clinton rented an office there over ten years ago. Harlem feels like a stand-in for Brooklyn, where the conversation about gentrification is still being had, and is still a battle being fought. Harlem's been gentrified, so to hear it referred to by several characters as "failing" feels bizarre.)
Rio Morales, as a politician, also doesn't make much sense. The game positions Rio as analogous to AOC or congressional candidate Cori Bush, a single mother whose interest in politics began when she worked as an organizer in Ferguson, Missouri during the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests. Rio's campaign is a grassroots, community led effort, like AOC's and Bush's campaigns, and in the social media feed you can see that people support Rio Morales because she's "for the people." It's all vaguely socialist flavored, though we never learn what other positions Rio supports other than getting Roxxon out of Harlem. At no point in time is it ever mentioned by anyone, at all, that her late-husband was a member of the NYPD, which would create political tensions were she actually an AOC-type. There are definitely spouses of dead police officers who have used their stories for political gains; one spoke at the Republican National Convention this year.
Rio's campaign and her husband's absence form an incoherent backdrop to Miles' story. Their story is the stuff of Blue Lives Matter consecration, yet Rio is for the people of a diverse neighborhood besieged by corporate and political interests. You cannot represent one without rejecting the other. Miles Morales does not have a solution to this problem, so it instead pretends it does not exist. In the process, Miles becomes the hero of a world imagined by cowards.
And yet, I cannot wait to be Miles again. I love the performance of Nadji Jeter, who plays Miles with a slightly nasal vocal tone, a nerd on the cusp of finding his groove. The relationships that Miles makes and develops with his mother, his friends, and his neighbors all feel true to life to me. I especially liked Teo, who owns the bodega on the corner and enlists Miles to find his missing cat, Spider-Man. Everyone in New York has a fondness for their bodega guy, and Teo is pretty much the platonic ideal. Plus, once you get Spider-Man back, Teo coos at him in a way that is completely adorable.
Miles's journey from "The Other Spider-Man" to just Spider-Man is well written and acted in Miles Morales. Watching him grow into his own as a hero is not just endearing, it's inspiring. I can only hope my own children grow up as eager to learn, as naturally heroic, as willing to stand up for what they believe in as Miles is. But I would also hope they would be more specific in their ideals than just a vague notion of "heroism." The reason why you stand up is just as important as the act itself.
Someday, Miles will stop being a vulnerable black boy, and become a dangerous black man.
At its heart, Miles Morales isn't really a story about all the political issues that act as window dressing, but a story about not letting grief destroy you. Two other characters contrast their losses with Miles'. Miles is still skittish from losing his dad, fearful that something might happen to his mother too. It's a self conscious retread of Peter's secret identity woes, until Miles sees how other people express their fear of losing people; either by becoming controlling or domineering in the name of protecting your loved ones, or through letting anger drive you and destroy everything around you. It's here that the game comes closest to saying something, but even then it pulls its punch. All these characters talk about grief and loss in generalities, but never in the specifics. I know they have lost something, but I don't know what it is they're missing, what kind of relationship death has ended. Worse still, one of these characters' development is relegated to a late game series of side missions, and it really seems as if it should be in the main storyline instead.
It hits all the beats you expect, and occasionally has a twist or two that adds a fun wrinkle into the formula. It's just that it is such a politically complex story with Miles as protagonist that I found myself wishing I had more time with everyone. Sure, Miles is new to Harlem—all the more reason to give his street more character, make it more central to the story. The game is so devoted to it's picture perfect material recreation of New York City that it neglects the emotional reality of the city.
Or maybe it doesn't neglect reality so much as it fears it. Miles Morales is a young black man, a seventeen year old that's still in high school. He's two years younger than Marcellus Stinnette, who was shot and killed by police in Illinois two weeks ago. This last summer has been hard on young black men in particular, on men who look like Miles. Keedron Bryant, a twelve year old, went viral on TikTok for a song he wrote about the protests this summer. "I just wanna live," he sings. "God, protect me." As I played Miles Morales, the hook to that song played in my head. Someday, Miles will stop being a vulnerable black boy, and become a dangerous black man. As a child, he is so loveable to me. More than anything, I want to protect him, if only because I want all the other black boys and girls who see themselves in Miles to be able to call him their Spider-Man with pride. He's my Spider-Man too. But I loathe the moment when reality will catch up to him, when he can no longer just be a goofy kid who makes beats and is into science, when he has to say "yes, sir" and "no, sir," and keep his hands on the wheel.
The world that Spider-Man: Miles Morales has created is one that feels so disconnected from that eventuality, but I know, having lived in the world as a black person, that it is coming. I know it as surely as I know that I, like so many other black girls, have been punished more harshly in schools; I know it as definitively as I remember my brother pointing out the unmarked cop car that followed him all the way home from the mall; I know it as acutely as I know that I will be called racial slurs for writing this review in this way. The New York of Miles Morales is a lovely fantasy, but below a pleasant facade it doesn't do the city or its characters justice. The soundtrack can slip snare samples over the swelling strings, but it can't hide the fundamental inconsistencies of its writing. Miles Morales is a black man, and an avatar of black New York, but he hasn't experienced the same New York that so many black people have. As fun as it is to be Miles, to be the geeky black superhero I have always wanted to exist, the game cannot reconcile the differences between its New York and the one I see outside my window. That failure would be understandable, but what is unforgivable is that it does not even make the attempt.