Growing up, Spider-man was always the superhero. He was practically the only one anyone I knew, myself included, was interested in reading; of the maybe 9 or 10 comic books I ever bought until I was about 15 (look, I was poor) were Amazing Spider-man issues. I even learned how to draw trying to write my own Spider-man comics. As a cultural phenomenon the character is practically modern mythology, with his origins so well-known and well-trodden at this point that you would probably be hard-pressed to find anyone not familiar with them. It’s an almost by-the-numbers tragedy in structure, hitting upon all the millenia-old markers of Greek tradition – Peter Parker reaches a high point in his power and strength (in Amazing Fantasy 15 he even becomes a minor celebrity), arrogantly makes a mistake, and pays for it with the life of his dear uncle Ben. Maybe more famous than anything is the mantra that this first appearance affixed to him as a result of the tragedy; ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.
Being subjective in nature this figure of speech has meant different things to different people, but a constant through-line of the character that has originated with it is that he never kills anyone. Sure, there are some technical exceptions to this rule (mostly in alternate timelines), but the principle defines his entire character, to the point that one of the most famous stories in the entire Spider-man mythos is predicated on knowing this fact – the death of Gwen Stacy. Making a conscious decision to have him kill is a complete betrayal of his entire character arc, and as such it stands out more than anything when it actually occurs. The Back In Black storyline in Amazing Spider-man infamously attempted to dramatise this fact by making Peter an angry revenge seeker, betraying everything about his character that makes him compelling.
Within video game adaptations of the web-slinger, developers have consistently struggled with making an entertaining depiction of the character without falling back on conventional combat gameplay. The Neversoft games on PS1, Spider-man and Spider-man 2: Enter Electro, combined rooftop traversal missions with pretty basic brawler combat mechanics, setting a framework that has survived pretty much to this day. Treyarch’s tie-in for Spider-man 2 is the oft-quoted example, adding a fantastic open-world web-swinging system to the mix, but muddied this with some weak combat implementation. Fast forward to today and the new Insomniac-developed game is almost exactly the same formula as that Treyarch game (to the point that some people jokingly refer to it as a remake), with some major improvements to various systems and 14 years of combat design to build on top. A problem has persisted for almost 20 years now because of this major focus on combat for gameplay, linking all the way back to that famous saying: why is it, in all these games, Spider-man can kill people?
In those early PS1 games (oh my god 2000 was 18 years ago) the lightly comic nature meant that, if you were to punt a henchman while they stood at the edge of a building, they would slide back, pause for a second midair, and then drop like a Looney Tunes character into the abyss. It’s an event that feels like it’s intended to be appropriate to a Spider-man game but really isn’t, and it’s only after the fact when you really think about it that it doesn’t add up. There are plenty of other ways characters can meet grisly ends in these games but this stands out as the most easily memorable one. By the Treyarch Spider-man 2 punting enemies off of rooftops was pretty much just an accident; since Spidey has a few extremely powerful vertical launchers and can juggle people in mid-air like he’s an ArcSystemWorks character, whenever someone swan dives off a fatal ledge or into incoming traffic it’s just a quirk of the system, not really intended but not commented on either, and again you don’t think much of it until it goes very wrong.
It’s most noticable in this new release because, suddenly, the game is bringing attention to the fact that Spider-man doesn’t kill. You’re still launching people meters into the air, and people still ragdoll, albeit less erratically than in the ’00 Havok physics era, but now this is all juxtaposed alongside a story that emphasises that Peter really cares about people. This incarnation of Spidey is a homeless shelter volunteer (and genius scientist) overworking himself to try and improve the world – MJ even leaves him because he’s so busy with everything but their relationship. During a few moments he tries to teach others the value of being a hero in the mundane, and that while he’s busy with the flashy stuff, what people really need is heroes at home and in communities. At the same time, he views the world too much on an individual scale and struggles to make any real, meaningful changes to society as a result – in the comics he often defers criminals to the police with the assumption they’ll correctly judge the situation for him despite their constant antagonism towards him, while the game basically just makes him a super-deputy, rendering all his actions as explicit extensions of the written law.
There’s a real dissonance between the naive but caring Peter who wants everyone to improve and do better and the open-world gameplay that treats drug trades, organised gang terrorism and armed robbery with the same gravitas and urgency. Later on the narrative itself follows suit, treating prisoners and criminals as if they always act maliciously, and creating the impression that the game paradoxically believes people can improve and that crime is only done by people who are unshakably evil. Peter’s character meets more contradictions when the crime-busting often leads to torpedoing people 30 meters over the Manhattan skyline, only to be quickly web-taped to the side of a building while you’re not looking – the game even encourages it, with a few combat challenges and skills aimed at doing this specifically. The skill tree also features a way to redirect rockets back at their attackers – now, I’m not sure about you, but I’m pretty sure explosives are a very bad way to ensure a non-lethal takedown.
Added to this is the fact Spider-man is allied with the New York Police Department, something that feels completely antithetical to the character. Conventionally Spider-man’s relationship with law enforcement is a very rocky one, mostly stemming from J. Jonah’s aggressive newspaper campaigning against him, as well as a general suspicion held by the police that his anonymous persona is hiding something more nefarious. Characters like George Stacy are depicted as being part of a small minority of supporters within the police, and the conflict between Peter Parker’s idealistic desires and the goals of law enforcement is one of many factors that are a constant pressure for the character. In contrast, the newest game has Spider-man practically on friendly terms with every cop in the city; you use their radio chatter to track crimes, hand off defeated criminals to nearby officers and, uh, reinstating their downed surveillance network…to find fun activities…??? Jameson is reduced to a right-wing shock-jock and a joke, robbing the police entirely of any narrative reason to suspect Spidey, and thus this element is removed entirely from his character. The in-game depiction of the NYPD is tiresome with how much it leans on them being a force for good, avoiding attributing them with any kind of wrongdoing – even while their own massive surveillance network is hijacked! (see, it’s only bad when others use it) – while also portraying every cop as a goody two-shoes via perky, often tasteless voice quips.
While the main attraction of Marvel’s Spider-man is the high-speed web-swinging through New York, which never, ever gets old, the group-based combat feels like an addition that had to be there because you need six guys to fight to count as a crime being stopped, and ‘that’s what superheroes do’. Much like a lot of the game, it feels like it takes as few risks as possible, implementing a style similar to the ‘magnetic’ combat made popular in Arkham Asylum and adding a few spins on it. It’s not like its a problem that this is the case either – why fix something that isn’t broken? – but it’s when these tried-and-true systems clash with the ethos of Spidey’s character that you wish they had tried something a bit different. You’re given plenty of power over the world of the game, but in return it doesn’t hold you very responsible for it.