This article originally appeared on VICE CA.
It happened last week. I’m watching this scene play out in a damn game—Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac—PS4 controller in hand, and I spit out the thought that pops into my head— this is the best Spider-Man movie I’ve played. While partially true (it is) and halfway foolish (it’s a game), the scene went something like this.
Soon to be villian in a lab coat, Otto Octavius approaches a workbench with our hero in disguise (and high-key Otto stan) Peter Parker. A close-up shot centers in on the happy ass duo; Otto fiddling with a controller of sorts, clearly amped to bring the world of mechanical prosthetics to life. Seconds later, I see the quiver of the metal arm here, a quivering of Otto’s own hands there, and I spot his sickness. The once gentle scientist whips the remote controller to the ground, shattering it to pieces.
In terms of your average Spidey plot scene, this is a checkmarked requirement. A segment when the semi-good guy enters their comic book-ey origin story—and well-meaning characters like Otto deal with their setbacks in a destructive way. And here’s this game, with the knowhow to re-work a 50-plus-year-old footprint I’ve seen plenty of times. It tastes fresh, and feels different within the context of a video-game that knows what I know. Every character interaction is slow, deliberate and experienced—complex character arcs are actually given the time to feel complex. Rather than expecting a transformation in a man like Otto Octavius, it convinces me to dread it—a fix to Marvel’s villain problem. This game did that across the board—better than any movie about the web-head ever had—because I’ll say it again, this is the best Spider-Man movie I’ve played.
When I think back to my teenage years, I still give major props to Sam Raimi for making Spider-Man (2002) the outlier to a collective of turd—he laid the groundwork. It was the perfect exercise in knowing where this hero needed to be; in close approximation with the source material. Creative liberties put Batman in a campy bat-nipped limbo with Batman & Robin. Superman still hadn’t flown since the golden bimbo Nuclear Man incident. And the MCU remained a dream. Sam Raimi dodged a bullet by going with the pre-written values of the goofy ‘50s and early ‘60s Spider-Man—a geek juggling, girl-next-door seeking, high-school-going geek, headed by the fraudulently adorable Tobey Maguire. And from there, the brand dilution began.
Spider-Man 2 found more success but with a similar and safe blueprint. Spider-Man 3 (2007) was a convoluted mess, with a Tobey that was too old to still play a 20-something dude ducking landlords and villains with competing airtimes (Sandman, Venom, and the Green Goblin). The Amazing Spider-Man series (2012/2014) went for an origin story remake with the “edgier” Andrew Garfield as Parker—reskinning old enemies (Doc Ock) on different enemies (The Lizard) while confusing the fuck out of long and new fans alike. And Marvel Studios once again attempted a backwards safe-step to another origin story; bringing Peter back to a YA sensibility in Spider-Man: Homecoming—origin story tropes (his reasons for becoming Spider-Man) passed over.
In the case of Insomniac and this Marvel approved adaptation, it’s a Spider-Man story willing to risk everything to find its own universe—nostalgia hugging bullshit be damned. Peter Parker is made older here. He’s been Spider-Man for several years now, and he’s lost and learned. While the movies borrowed from Stan Lee’s vision of that relatable teen of misfortunes: missed deadlines, missed extensions, and disappointed family and friend members, the game takes a nuanced approach to what makes this character’s inability to reach the cusp of greatness so identifiable.
In one game sequence, you’re on a mission searching for Parker’s tossed belongings after he’s evicted from his apartment (a consequence of prioritizing Spidey duties over paying the rent). In another, you’re awkwardly talking it up with ex-girlfriend Mary Jane about possibly crashing at her apartment (an exchange that feels completely honest and raw). Between the greater missions in the red and blue spandex, the on the ground concerns of Peter Parker are given far more time to develop to the point of securing your investment. The magic hinges on the hope that as a player, you’ll feel every crevice of this world in a way that only 20-hour-ish video-game experience can dish out.
Pacing in film is forever a passively controlled thing. Every ebb and flow courses through the dialogue and set pieces helmed by a director with minute by minute control. In a game, story elements are triggered by me, the player. I can take the time to think about a sequence, traverse a location, feel out the corners of a scene and let it sink in. It becomes real, adding layers to Parker’s life that merge with my concerns. The memory of having controlled my way through a choice feels more intimate compared to being guided by an actor in the same moment at a fixed pace.
Take our girl Mary Jane for example—long time wifey material to Peter Parker—who is forever the damsel-in-distress solution to our hero in question. Her redheaded attractiveness defined her forged purpose as created by Stan Lee in the 60s. Through the years, as adapted by Sam Raimi himself, that basic conceptualization rarely changed—she was still a model and actress—in a world that revolved around Parker. In Marvel’s Spider-Man, a similar romance remains without being a focal point. Our girl is an investigative reporter now, whose aim and perspective of Spider-Man is viewed/controlled by the player—separate from Spidey himself. The time taken to build and experience her arc alters a woman with little agency filmwise, into a person I can care deeply for in the game. The same also applies to young Miles Morales—the Robin to a Batman type—who loses a loved one in a rescue attempt. He doesn’t control as strong or as fast as Spider-Man, and in a tragic series of moments, you come to understand the importance of the web-head and how vulnerable human life can be in his absence.
I can go on and on—the voice acting, quips and feel—but from the angles, vistas, attitudes and perspectives, I witnessed a Spider-Man save, lose and continually fail in ways that made made me feel enough to cry (spoiler scene). Spider-Man as a hero has spent 56 years trying to convince folks like me that he shared the same issues—far away from the mature 30ish year olds with their paid down pads and picture perfect credit (Superman, Batman etc). What Insomniac has managed to do is completely embody that down-to-earthiness that few heroes care to present; emotionally, physically and mentally. I was Spider-Man, and it felt god damned amazing.
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