At first glance, you might think Spider-Man for the PS4 is just about retrieving the backpacks that Peter Parker has left scattered around the city, each ticking like a time bomb and somehow undiscovered in post-9/11 Manhattan. Maybe you think it's about hanging out with the various cops who are your best friends, or just simulating the experience of being homeless in New York City, which seems to consist of never sleeping and traveling by web.
In reality, though, it’s about embracing a traditional and deeply conservative worldview in which meritocracy is real, social issues are both caused and solved by individual efforts alone, and people are defined by essential qualities that make them good or bad.
Peter Parker is a smart guy. He invented his own web shooters, and also he spends a lot of time getting complimented by Doc Ock for helping to invent his cool metal tentacles, despite the fact that it seems like Peter has never gone to work because he’s too busy launching drug dealers off the roofs of skyscrapers and rescuing various cops from the DC Sniper. Of course, Doc Ock is also pretty smart, given that he did all the actual work of inventing those big villain noodles. It’s a years-long project, but he sure makes a lot of progress in the last few days.
Even the guy everybody hates, Norman Osborn, possesses some unique genius qualities that allow him to invent all sorts of world-changing technology. Most of it is portrayed as beneficial, though it doesn’t seem to have any impact on the average person’s lived experience in Manhattan, which seems to be a life of walking around a dystopian hellscape just waiting to inevitably be mugged by a group of 15 identical Crime Guys, which Spider-Man ignores because he’s too busy listening to conservative talk radio or hitting on a cop on the phone.
"Spider-Man loves to hit on a cop on the phone."
Ultimately, that’s what the basic plot of Spider-Man is all about: a variety of genius individuals and their themed lackeys duking it out. Spider-Man is explicitly only able to win the day by doing better science than his former mentor, which amounts to making a fancier suit (it’s probably got some polymers or something, I don’t know) and then pulling out Doc Ock’s exposed brain battery, which sure seems like a design oversight.
Because the important people are all geniuses, Spider-Man’s Manhattan always seems to be just on the brink of having all its problems solved by some smart guy’s Very Important Idea. Doc Ock is trying to create prosthetics for people who lost a limb “overseas,” and Norman Osborn has a bunch of nanotech medicine and EMT drones that are probably secretly meant to be sold to Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, but are at least presented as beneficial.
Even the local homeless shelter where Peter works, F.E.A.S.T., is founded and run by Martin Li, some kind of inexplicable international businessman who for some reason keeps a decadent and massive office right in the middle of the shelter. In Spider-Man’s world, despite all the “everybody is a hero” rhetoric, problems aren’t solved by regular people; they’re solved by exceptional individuals.
The curious thing about that worldview, though, is that Spider-Man’s Manhattan sucks. All this revolutionary technology exists, but you don’t see any of it helping anybody in the city. The only real evidence of advanced technology you see in your day-to-day spidering are the weaponized drones and super-guns used to brutalize people who are protesting the private security company hired by the mayor, who is not, in fact, Michael Bloomberg.
The only hints of positive private influence are the various Oscorp research stations scattered around the city. Even here, though, it’s suggested that Oscorp doesn’t value them, and it’s up to Harry Osborn (another genius who of course inherited this inborn talent) to prove their value. Mostly that amounts to monitoring surrounding areas and helping Spider-Man manually correct catastrophic problems with public infrastructure, most of which lead to bizarre life-or-death stakes, like billboards exploding and clogged ventilation systems leading to the collapse of 7 World Trade Center.
"The mayor is not Michael Bloomberg."
In the center of the city, Avengers Tower stands tall, a monument to the absolute power of the exceptional individual. There are no Avengers to be seen in Spider-Man’s Manhattan, though. It’s probably because of licensing issues or character bloat, but still, the end result is a grotesque metaphor for an absentee landlord jutting into the skyline, the powerful people who ostensibly have the abilities and resources to make everything work better, but just don’t.
The other reason Spider-Man’s Manhattan sucks is the crime. Everybody is addicted to or selling drugs in order to fund crime bosses, who subsequently employ groups of roving Crime Guys who mug people and try to murder cops and steal cars for no discernible reason. The local police seem to be completely incapable of dealing with literally any of the crimes committed — only Spider-Man, a uniquely talented individual, can resolve them — and no amount of private industry or ballooning police forces really seems to make any difference. Even Spider-Man, despite all the web he shoots onto every surface in Manhattan, sure doesn’t seem like he’s accomplishing much. Fighting crime is a futile endeavor.
It’s hard not to look at the struggling city center and think that there are probably ways to solve these problems, though. Legalized and regulated drugs would completely uproot the finances of most of these organizations, and one has to wonder what kind of catastrophic economic instability must exist in Spider-Man’s Manhattan for so many to turn to crime syndicates as their only avenue for survival. In other words, would it not be possible for Spider-Man or any of the various geniuses that surround him to make some attempt to address the material conditions that lead to an economic climate in which crime syndicates are functionally the only place that’s hiring? Would massive wealth redistribution force the Oscorps of Manhattan into the relative tax haven of Texas, as so many right-wing pundits have warned us?
Maybe Spider-Man should run for office on some sort of “Chicken for Every Pot” ticket. We could use these flawless swinging mechanics to help him stretch illegal campaign ads in web between skyscrapers, wildly flailing through the air as he takes selfies in front of each landmark in the city, careening into the pavement at 80 miles per hour after proving his value to the public by getting silver on some Taskmaster challenges. We all know that won’t happen, though. Even if Spider-Man wanted to do it, it wouldn’t work.
That’s because criminality, according to the worldview of Spider-Man, is also an essential trait. In Spider-Man’s Manhattan, people do crimes because it’s who they are. They aren’t criminals because they mug people; they mug people because they’re criminals. Justice is punitive, and people are tossed in jail not for any sort of rehabilitation, but just to remove them, the threat, from society. They are a separate class of people.
The idea becomes clear when the inmates are freed from Rikers Island. First, Spider-Man rescues various prison guards from the ravenous hordes of rioting prisoners. One of the guards says "they're like animals," or something like that. After escaping, they don’t return home and hug their loved ones, or flee Manhattan out of fear of retribution, or anything like that. Instead, they pour out into the streets and suddenly manifest body armor and sniper rifles and do what they were born to do: lots of crimes. They’re so dedicated to crime, in fact, that they never even bother to take off their orange prison jumpsuits. It is an immutable identity, and the only thing that can be done with them is beating and returning them to prison.
"One of the guards says 'they're like animals,' or something like that."
Even when the game tries to play with this idea in Doc Ock’s descent into super-villainy, it seems that the perspective still can’t quite shake that worldview. For the most part, Doc Ock’s arc is one of the most engaging in the game — his desperation and obsession grow over time, believably increasing with each new obstacle — but the final step returns to essentialism. The neural interface that connects Doc Ock to his big worm arms might change his personality, Peter warns. In other words, we get a plot device to explain how this immutably good non-Crime Guy has now become an immutably bad Crime Guy.
The end result is that Spider-Man becomes a kind of fascist enforcer, swinging through the dystopia of a Manhattan marked only by crumbling infrastructure and private power looming over it in silver towers. He swoops down to the streets to punish the unruly masses who struggle not out of necessity, but out of moral choice, out of personal failure. He shoots web onto his enemies to avoid killing them, but certainly many are permanently disfigured by the injuries, left with broken bones that never fully heal and head trauma so great that even the NFL wouldn’t ignore it. He occasionally grabs a trash can or mailbox with his webs, but accidentally throws it at an unsuspecting civilian, because it’s hard to aim.
Throughout Manhattan, people whisper of his presence, this savior, this Christ-figure who is the only thing standing between them and brutalization at the hands of the immutable criminal class. They high five him on the street when they see him, and they call in to J. Jonah Jameson’s show to tell him he’s wrong, and they put on versions of his mask to imagine themselves as exceptional, even when they know they aren't. They tell tales of his victories — a serialized version of the great man theory of history — and imagine a world where they're truly free. They'll never see it, though, because their lives only continue at the whim of Spider-Man.
Overall pretty fun, though. I liked it.