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Sorrel’s Side Quests: Insomniac’s Spider-Man is a Menace

The opening minutes of “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” Insomniac Games’ flashy 2018 blockbuster, are pretty great. The camera pans over Peter Parker’s apartment, littered with dirty dishes, unpaid paper bills, and half-finished crime-fighting gadgets. The game seamlessly transitions from cinematic cutscene to gameplay as Peter pulls on the Spider-Man suit, and begins swinging through Insomniac’s breathtaking re-creation of Manhattan and cracking jokes. 

At a glance, it’s a perfect take on the iconic superhero. But there’s one nagging question: why is there a cop in Spider-Man’s ear?

Before you’ve had a chance to catch your breath after that striking opening, you’re introduced to Yuri Watanabe, a minor character in the comics elevated to main cast status in Insomniac’s game. Yuri is a police captain with a direct line to Spider-Man, and from a game design perspective, she fills a very simple role: she’s the quest giver. “Marvel’s Spider-Man” needs the player to go where things are happening, so it gives Spidey a friend who can tell him where he should be headed. Narratively speaking, she’s a less elegant inclusion.

In most Spider-Man stories, the police are on the periphery. They show up after Spider-Man has webbed up one supervillain or another and the audience can remain secure in the knowledge that the bad guys have been locked away without needing to think too much about “policing” as a political system. But in “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” the police are literally in the Wall-Crawler’s earpiece. What that ultimately means is that Spider-Man is no longer just a renegade do-gooder – now he’s also a tool that the (notoriously corrupt) New York Police Department can utilize to bypass the law. 

More than once in the game, Spider-Man is told by Yuri to break into a building that the NYPD does not have probable cause to investigate. Yuri also tasks Spidey with bringing surveillance towers online so that the police can keep tabs on everyone in New York (finally, a Spider-Man-backed surveillance state). 

Actions like this are invariably framed as good and heroic. When the police are ineffective, “Marvel’s Spider-Man” posits, it’s only because they’re either too hampered by pesky legal protections for the citizenry or too weak. Would that they could all act with full legal impunity. Like Spider-Man.

This bizarre recontextualization of Spider-Man as the authoritarian representative of the law appears elsewhere in “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” too. The game’s open world is peppered with crimes that Spidey can clean up when he’s not dealing with the main story, and there’s something a little unnerving about hunting down random petty criminals and using the same attacks on them that you use against actual supervillains. Does a random guy selling weed on a street corner deserve the same treatment as the Rhino?

Superheroes have always been a vaguely authoritarian concept – they’re inherently superior individuals who use their inherent superiority to beat down the bad guys. They’re one-man PMCs. In most superhero stories, that idea is either centered in the narrative as an ethical question or deliberately obscured. “Marvel’s Spider-Man” is different. The game believes that Spider-Man is the police, perfected: a literal superhero who uses his literal superpowers to help cops get around red tape and break the bones of shoplifters.

Maybe J. Jonah Jameson was right about this guy.

Sorrel Kerr-Jung is a junior studying virtual reality game development at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. Do you agree? Tell Sorrel by tweeting her at @sorrelquest.

Sorrel Kerr-Jung

Opinion Writer

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