What Marvel Comics Can Learn From Insomniac's Spider-Man

What Marvel Comics Can Learn From Insomniac's Spider-Man

Insomniac Games' original take on the Spider-Man mythos solves some problems Marvel Comics has.

Editor's Note: This is going to have story spoilers for Marvel's Spider-Man on PlayStation 4. I'm going to be talking about the handling of two characters who have been seen in trailers with some degree of specificity, so if you want to go into the game cold, you shouldn't read this. And if you do read this, hey, don't share the spoilers with folks elsewhere who want to remain unspoiled. Cool? Cool.

Look man, if you keep reading after this, it's totally on you.

Part of the problem in front of Marvel Comics is the Marvel Universe is one long, mostly-unbroken line since its inception in 1961's Fantastic Four #1. There have been retcons, changes, tweaks, and cuts, but by and large it's a straight run. The universe has seen a number of resets, but it's mostly been returned to the state that long-time fans are comfortable with.

A shot taken in the Photo Mode of Marvel's Spider-Man for PlayStation 4.

Marvel Comics as a whole and the current creative stewards of its characters have to roll with 57 years of punches. They have to take the good and the bad. In the case of Spider-Man, the current writers, artists, and editors have to occasionally tackle the fact that Peter Parker hit his wife, made a deal with Mephisto to wipe out his marriage, or that Gwen Stacy had sex with Norman Osborn. Many of these are moments that readers and creators would simply like to forget, but they're a part of the fabric of the character.

With Marvel's Spider-Man for PlayStation 4, Insomniac Games had the chance to start from scratch. They get to pick and choose what works for their version of Peter Parker and his alter-ego. The only backstory he brings to the table is that which Insomniac has carefully considered. This allows the team to drop the facets of Spider-Man that maybe didn't work and play around with some new ideas that might be better. And if Marvel's smart, they should steal some of what Insomniac Games did here.

Here's two spots where I think the game outdoes the comic in some respects. That's no insult to Nick Spencer, Chip Zdarsky, Dan Slott, Brian Michael Bendis, or the many writers before them, but it's food for thought.

Brand New Day: Mary Jane Watson

I'm going to be honest. I'm not a huge fan of Mary Jane Watson. I don't necessarily have a problem with the character, but I've never really been a fan either. The marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson was done on a whim and many writers hated it at the time. I think Peter has had better love interests over the years, including Gwen Stacy. Mary Jane has time and some solid stories over the years in her favor, but the character has been mostly average for me.

Part of that is giving Mary Jane something to do. She's been a model and an actress, but the books were always more concerned with the superheroics, so you never really got the chance to feel her drive there. She was a nightclub owner, but again, the same problem persisted. Other than supporting Peter Parker, what did Mary Jane Watson really want? (Sometimes she just wanted Peter to not be Spider-Man anymore, which is a downer of a conflict.)

Sometimes, things are good...
...sometimes, they're not.

Over in the Ultimate Comics line, writer Brian Michael Bendis would give Mary Jane a career choice that dovetails well with superheroes: journalist. See, the reason DC Comics' Lois Lane works is her driving motivation—to be the best investigative journalist in the world—puts her on a path to run into Clark Kent and Superman. Her intense curiosity and lack of self-preservation makes her endearing; the audience knows what she wants and the lengths she'll go to get it.

So Insomniac decided to take the Ultimate version of Mary Jane and play it up to Lois Lane levels. She's an investigative journalist at the Daily Bugle searching for more on the recently-arrested Wilson Fisk. Her own adventures put her on the path to meeting with Spider-Man. You get that moment where they're both asking, "What are you doing here?" and you realize there's old, unmentioned romantic history. MJ already knows Peter is Spider-Man and she's fine with that side of his life.

A press badge won't prevent you from getting shot. Or maybe it will?

This Mary Jane's problem is one of equal partnership. She's a great, inventive journalist. Sure, she could die on an investigation, considering where she decides to focus her talent, but in her mind, that's no different from a police officer or firefighter dying in the line of duty. The truth is important. This flips the dynamic a bit; her problem is that Peter doesn't acknowledge that she's also right where she needs to be. She's his equal, even if she doesn't have fancy Spider-powers.

It's a great change. This Mary Jane is funny, a bit headstrong, and leaps sometimes before she looks. Comic Mary Jane has many of these facets, but it's tough to get a grasp on what she really wants outside of Peter. Journalism doesn't have to be the answer, but there needs to be one that intersects with the lives of Peter and Spider-Man. With Insomniac's Mary Jane, everything just clicks into place.

Identity Crisis: Miles Morales

In the comics, Miles Morales is the other Spider-Man. The character was originally envisioned as a replacement for a murdered Peter Parker in the Ultimate Comics line; one Spider-Man died and another rose to take his place. Peter was Miles' Uncle Ben, his impetus to put on the costume and fight crime.

Miles meets Spider-Man.

In 2015's Secret Wars mini-series and crossover, the Ultimate universe was seemingly wiped out. Through a twist of fate (and a well-placed hamburger), Miles found himself merged into the Prime Marvel Universe alongside the older Peter Parker. His friends and family came along for the ride, including his mother and uncle, both of whom had died in the Ultimate Comics universe. In the new Marvel Universe, Miles Morales has always been there. He and Peter remember the Ultimate universe, but none of Miles' friends and family do.

Miles' moment in Secret Wars.

The problem here is Marvel never sat down and explained how this worked. Again, Peter's death was the impetus for Miles becoming Spider-Man. In the Ultimate comics, he had the powers long before he actually put on the costume. Miles' creator Brian Michael Bendis never sat down and explained the new backstory before he jumped over to DC Comics. We don't know the specifics of why this version of Miles took up the mantle, the question of his motivations always remains a bit fuzzy.

Again, Insomniac has the win here. See, in this version of Spider-Man, Miles' father Jefferson Davis is the first introduction to that character's world. Jefferson is a trustworthy cop sent by Captain Yuriko Watanabe to liaise with Spider-Man on a case. Together the pair work to stop a crime being committed by Mister Negative's demon gang.

He's your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He's your average cop. Together, they fight crime. Spider-Man and Miles' dad, Jefferson Davis have a conversation.

The event makes Jefferson a heroic cop, with an award in front of City Hall by mayor Norman Osborn. Just prior to this event is when we first meet Miles, who was only briefly mentioned by his father. The ceremony is attacked and Jefferson is killed.

This is the misstep I mentioned in my review, by the way. I understand the thematic link here: the loss of his upstanding police officer father is Miles' version of Uncle Ben. While the comic version of Miles was defined pre-Peter's death by a desire to be normal, this version is defined by the desire to do whatever you can, even without any powers. Jefferson and Spider-Man are the cornerstones of this belief for Miles. It's a good thematic change, I just prefer how the comic version of Miles can rely on both of his parents, while still dealing with their views on the world.

Miles comes into contact with both sides of Peter's life. Peter's sadness at not being able to save Jefferson has him reaching out to the young boy, whom he sees a lot of his younger self in. He gets Miles a job at the FEAST shelter to cope the loss and pain. And Miles' desire to do the right thing brings him into contact with Spider-Man, where the two have a wonderful moment. The game places Peter Parker and Spider-Man in the role of mentor for young Miles, in a way the comics have only been able to briefly touch upon.

This friendship and mentorship is why it makes sense for Miles to confide in Peter at the end of the game. Peter isn't his father figure, but he is something like an older brother. Two like minds, headed in the same direction. The overall idea of this is something that Marvel Comics could absolutely steal from Insomniac's game. Play up this sense of mentorship.

When the title of Spider-Man was passed on in the Ultimate universe, that made sense. But the question the Prime universe needs to answer now is: Why do they share the title? Peter has offered it to Miles, but why does this version of Miles want it in return? (To be fair, the latter part of Bendis' run seemed to answer this question with "He doesn't want it," but Marvel has seen fit to follow-up yet.) I think Miles should be Spider-Man, because outside of the comics, within a certain part of the audience, the title is meaningful as a shared alter-ego. At least in Insomniac's version, I can see what this relationship offers in both directions.

I like them as a team.

That's really why these new versions of the characters work. I can see what they offer Peter and what he offers them in return. And that facet is sometimes missing in the Marvel Comics iteration. I see what they offer Peter, but sometimes it's hard to see what they get out of the relationship.

Great artists steal, Marvel. The comic publisher is already bringing Insomniac's Spider-Man into the the universe with the upcoming Spider-Geddon crossover (shown below). Now it's time to steal certain facets of the storytelling for the universe. Marvel Comics is stuck with the millstone of continuity around its neck, but that doesn't mean there aren't new directions the company can move Spider-Man and his amazing friends toward.

Insomniac's Spider-Man in the upcoming Spider-Geddon crossover.

Spider-Man is out today! For more check out our Spider-Man review to see what we have to say about Spidey's latest outing. Also check out our Spider-Man guide" for more trailers, features, and news.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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