Sunday, May 26, 2024

Insomniac’s Spider-Man 2 Is The Peak Version Of The Spidey World

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I know this is a bold statement to make for a character like Spider-Man, the most popular character in comic book history, sixty years of legendary stories on page, but hear me out. Insomniac’s series is it. This is the best these characters have ever been. Maybe not all individually, but as a total package? This is the apex of the Spidey world. Insomniac’s Spider-Man feels like a culmination of all the nostalgia and magic of those old Spidey comics mixed with the best parts of the new.

I am completely in love with this game. Warning, major spoilers below.

Venom roaring from Spider-Man 2

Now, to be fair, a substantial reason for the success of Insomniac’s version of the webhead comes down to its freedom. Insomniac is not tied to comic canon, and so was allowed to pick and choose from the best parts of Spider-Man’s considerable history. This allowed them to mix and match what has worked and what hasn’t, what people liked and what they don’t. Insomniac didn’t have to explore what works with these characters, and instead just use what everyone already knows works.

Peter Parker gets to be the Peter Parker we all know; the lovable, down on his luck loser who struggles between success in his personal life and the responsibility of his powers. There’s no longer any mystery about how to make Miles work as the new Spider-Man; Insomniac can confidently take from the massive success of the Spider-verse movies and the more popular arcs of his comics. All of their villains can be an effective blend of their best iterations.

Still, that doesn’t make the task easy. Where Insomniac truly succeeded was in knowing what to keep, what to discard, and most importantly how to pick and choose which aspects would blend to fit the themes their story explores.

For example, it’s easy in theory for both Miles and Peter to struggle with the balance of their normal lives and being Spider-Man, but how do you blend their journeys so that they effectively compliment each other? Well, Spider-Man 2 chose to portray an older Peter reaching the limit of his ability to shortchange his loved ones and himself alongside a Miles who is still finding an easy distraction and purpose in his super-powered identity.

Insomniac smartly chose these journeys as the focus of the story, and used everything else to support their arcs. As they should, since this struggle is the foundation of any good Spider-Man story.

What’s even better is how each side of their lives receives equal focus. It would be easy to just go with the Spidey side of either Peter or Miles and ignore their personal lives, but Spider-Man 2 places equal emphasis on Peter and Miles, not just Spider-Man, and the personal relationships which define them. I especially appreciate how this shines true through Miles. Peter’s “side” cast takes a more central role in the story, but Miles’s relationships shine in their impact outside of him, and as a reflection of the ideal New York the Spider-Men fight for.

The best example of this comes with possibly my favorite sub-quest in the game, which sees an art collector hire thieves to sabotage an exhibit celebrating Black musicians. As Miles, you track down the stolen instruments and uncover the art collector’s plot, culminating in a chance to stroll the exhibit for yourself. This mission is the ideal representation of what makes Miles a good hero for his community; he supports the efforts of his mother to do right by the people around him, and with his powers can stop the villains that they cannot.

But these missions are not just about Miles. His love interest, Hailey, quickly became one of my favorite characters in Spider-Man 2 with a totally unexpected gameplay segment. She is a hearing-impaired artist who attends Brooklyn Visions Academy with Miles, and her mission involves a graffiti artist tagging local businesses. She follows the trail, with the player getting to spray tag over the graffiti to create new art, until she finds the one responsible.

It turns out to be someone of similar age to Hailey, who hates their own art and is discouraged from pursuing their passion. Hailey takes the opportunity to encourage the artis, they create a new wall mural together, and Hailey invites her new friend to join a group of artists she belongs to. This is exactly the kind of warm-hearted do-gooder story that defines Spider-Man as much as photography or an inability to hold down a job.

Of course, if the side characters and sub-missions were the only instance of Insomniac’s Spider-Man portraying these characters so perfectly, I wouldn’t be gushing this way. You have to nail the main narrative, right? Thankfully, Spider-Man 2 does just that.

Spider-Man dodges a giant Sandman hand

The crux of the narrative revolves around two separate narrative threads; Kraven the Hunter invading New York to find worthy prey for his final hunt, and Harry Osborn’s return, which leads to his symbiote emerging and Venom’s intro to the story. In both cases, you can generally see the influences Insomniac pulled from. For example, Kraven having cancer and Peter being saved from death by the symbiote can be seen in Spider-Man: Life Story, and the idea of him coming to New York for a last big hunt before his death is a big aspect of the incredibly popular Kraven’s Last Hunt. The symbiote as an Osborn-created cure for the incurable comes from Ultimate Spider-Man.

Insomniac doesn’t bind themselves to these inspirations, though, and instead pulls where they feel like it in order to create their own interesting continuity. Harry Osborn becomes Venom to cure his disease, but rather than have a rivalry with Peter, he uses his second chance at life to offer Peter his own second chance, away from the burden of Spider-Man, with a foundation named after their deceased mother-figures. This creates a sympathetic context to those eventual battles with Venom that you don’t really see with other hosts of the symbiote, most notably Eddie Brock.

Through Harry we also get a wonderfully conflicted version of Norman Osborn, who is a disgustingly terrible person in Spider-Man 2018, and remains not great here, but his genuine love and support for his son is a refreshingly complex side of the man, which makes his seemingly inevitable villain turn at the end of the game more impactful.

One of the biggest changes, at least compared to versions I’ve seen/read, is with Mary Jane. This is may or may not be a controversial opinion, but this is easily my favorite change they made to any character. MJ’s most well-known portrayals are often just as a love interest with varying degrees of interesting traits or not so interesting traits.

Insomniac made a version that is both an interesting love interest for their hero and a terrific character in her own right. You can take Peter totally out of the picture and MJ still shines as a brave, resourceful, stubborn, sometimes frustrating person with clear, relatable goals and fears. I love how these individual character traits not only continue despite once again dating Peter, but only improve. Her insecurities over the impact she’s making on the world are a useful mirror to Peter’s insecurities, and her ambitions to be a hero make her friendship/relationship with Harry and Peter make sense as equals with shared views of the world they want to create.

That doesn’t mean her relationship with Peter is ignored, either. The transformation of MJ into the symbiote Scream, and the subsequent boss fight against her, is one of the best parts of the game. All the ugly, buried feelings and frustrations of her life with him comes pouring out as they beat the hell out of each other, and it’s something I’ve never seen a Spider-Man story do. Again, Peter and MJ feel like equals, instead of MJ being the prize for Peter to win or lose.

Then you see Peter’s struggles with Harry and MJ eat into his mentorship with Miles as the Kraven plot deepens, making him vulnerable to the influence of the symbiote, which causes the tensions which seemingly always place Peter and Harry against each other…ugh, it’s everything I hoped to see.

It’s also so interesting to see Peter winding towards an end, or at least scaling back, of his time as Spider-Man, while Miles is entering the thick of his honeymoon period donning the costume. Miles spends the game escaping into Spider-Man as a way of avoiding his own personal responsibilities. It’s reminiscent of Peter doing the same throughout countless comic runs, and you can see the guilt he feels as Miles continuously puts off his future in order to continue his Spidey training.

Harry Osborn and Miles Morales shaking hands in front of Peter Parker

As Peter’s black suit days drag him further into violence, Miles faces his own temptation with the abduction of Martin Li by Kraven’s Hunters. This provides Miles his own chance to resist his worst impulses towards the murderer of his father and emerge a better Spider-Man when he refuses to kill Li. It’s the peak of Miles’s arc throughout the game, one that leaves him ready to help pull Peter from his lowest point during an outstanding boss fight.

Martin Li also remains one of the bright points of Insomniac’s unique Spidey continuity. The use of his powers to purify the symbiote within Peter is similar to what he does for Eddie Brock in the comics, and is a cool moment of redemption alongside Miles that you don’t get to see too often for comic book villains. It’s a terrific addendum to the first game, where the dichotomy between the two sides of Martin Li made for an excellent sub-villain to Dock Ock.

It also fits the themes of Spider-Man 2, as Martin Li pulls himself from the same descent into hatred and vengeance that Peter and Miles are tempted by throughout the game.

Finally, of course, there’s Venom himself. Look, I am a massive Venom and general symbiote nerd. I can’t say that this game does anything particularly unique with the actual Venom symbiote, but it does one amazing thing I did not expect; the playable section after Harry first transforms. This was the Venom power fantasy I never, ever expected, and I loved every second of smashing Oscorp to pieces in his escape.

Then it all comes crashing back down in the aftermath of the boss fight against Kraven, when Venom literally bites his head off. As unbelievably cool and perfect as the moment was, it also brings you back down to earth about how brutal and dangerous Venom is. Which, you know, is exactly the appeal of the character. Venom is brutal and dark and dangerous as a villain, but he’s also freaking awesome and fans love experiencing stories through his eyes.

Like everything else, you can tell that Insomniac perfectly understood his appeal and potential. It’s just…so, so good. That’s really the best way to describe the entire game. Spider-Man 2 understands everything that works and doesn’t work about the character, his friends, his family, his villains, and distills it all into this near-perfect representation of why Spidey is the single most popular superhero ever.

I know it’s a gigantic claim to say a 2023 video game is the best version of Spider-Man ever. This character has been around for so long, with numerous wonderful arcs by some of the best comic book writers of all time. But damn it, I’m sticking to it.

I’ve been a Spidey fan as long as I can read comics, at least 30 years now, and I’ve never been happier. Spider-Man 2 doesn’t innovate or revolutionize or push these characters in new, exciting directions, but what it does is take everything that has worked with these characters for so long and give you one complete package of fun, pure, inspiring Spidey goodness.

Images Courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment

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