Editor’s Note: Mild spoilers ahead for Spider-Man.
Since the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe comic books and their attendant cavalcade of costumed characters have attained a cultural presence and relevance that is probably beyond even Stan Lee’s wildest dreams. As one of the most profitable and popular multi-media intellectual properties on the market, it has elevated the guilty pleasure of geeks across the globe into an artistic force of such ubiquity that you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t have a favorite superhero or two. Spider-man has always been a personal favorite of mine so when I finally got to play Insomniac’s web-slinging spectacular game, I knew I was in for a treat. As our review points out, although the game is excellent it’s by no means as intricate as the webs that its titular hero is capable of spinning. That being said, for all its flaws, its silken threads have deftly ensnared a narrative that highlights the importance of the positive power fantasy that Spider-Man has always exemplified.
In recent years the term “power fantasy” has come to be seen in a suspicious and negative light. Far from being interpreted as someone enjoying the experience of playing around with strange and wonderful abilities, it is now largely associated almost entirely with the concept of aggressively misogynist escapism. Supposedly during any given play session, gamers aren’t simply indulging in harmless fun but rather they are tacitly expressing a sexist worldview via the proxy of the characters and events on screen. I’ll admit that there’s a certain logic to that. But what good is power if you’re not willing to use it? We live in an age where democratically elected governments are either undermined or overthrown as a matter of course and where ever-increasing property values and rents hold millions across the globe to ransom. That kind of power is a threat to us all. With Spider-Man, Insomniac is showing us what it looks like when someone with the power to make a difference acts not in service to their own ends but to a greater purpose and higher calling to ultimately positive effect.
Insomniac’s achingly faithful recreation of Marvel’s version of Manhattan is festooned with all manner of missions and activities for players to engage with at their leisure. Mechanically speaking this is generally for the purpose of acquiring the different types of tokens needs to unlock and upgrade new gadgets as well as acquiring new iterations of Spider-Man’s spandex suits. From a content perspective, these activities are no different from the supplementary objectives found in any open world game made to date. However, when considered contextually they serve to demonstrate that a power fantasy does not immediately equate to a latent desire to engage in a self-serving exercise of privilege. Every single side quest or optional activity that you are able to participate in is, as far as the game is concerned, designed to the make the player feel invested in working towards the greater good of New York and its citizens.
Harry Osborn’s research stations have you analyzing air pollution levels, detoxifying water supplies or helping repair damaged municipal utilities all in the name of protecting the environment of New York City for its animal and human inhabitants. Task Master’s challenge missions see you destroying illegal surveillance equipment, disarming bombs and ending hostage situations; all of which demonstrate Spider-Man’s commitment to using his abilities for something other than his own gratification. The various enemy bases established around the city over the course of the game pose clear threats to the inhabitants of Manhattan, as players shut them down one by one they’re helping to restore peace by eliminating sources of dangerous individuals and equipment. The entire plot of the game, as well as its structural and mechanical aspects, are specifically keyed to emphasize the virtues of strength, compassion, and honor. Whether you’re helping a man find his wayward pet pigeons, chasing down armed thugs on the streets or foiling the nefarious schemes of some of Marvel’s most memorable supervillains, every action Spider-Man undertakes is true to the words: “with great power, comes great responsibility.”
Speaking of villains, calling a character “Mr. Negative” is more than a little on the nose, but it’s an apt description that encapsulates his form and function. Able to manipulate and exacerbate the worst elements of an individual’s personality, he exists in diametric opposition to Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s relentlessly optimistic and unyielding hopeful outlook. The immediate visual contrast between the two is an obvious indicator of this dichotomy. The monochrome attire of Mr. Negative marks him out as a clearly sinister individual; one who sees the world in fundamental absolutes. The traditionally garish apparel of Spider-Man, on the other hand, is an affirmation of the exuberance and joy of living. It would be easy to dismiss such clear-cut visual metaphors as typical comic book schlock. Doing so, however, would be to ignore one of the things that make comics across the media spectrum such a beloved format and genre. These starkly delineated stances have been a central component of theatrical narratives since at least the Classical period, and their outward simplicity allows the audience to more effectively engage with much larger and more complicated issues.
At one point in the story, Spider-Man is on the verge of being corrupted by Mr. Negative. A battle of the minds then ensues as Peter is forced to literally confront his inner demons in order to determine whether he retains his freedom or is condemned to a life of servitude to his base instincts and dark desires. Naturally, he is able to overcome Mr. Negative’s influence and remains the quick-quipping Spidey that we all know and love. If the game, or the entire Spider-Man canon for that matter, wanted to encourage dwelling within a self-serving power fantasy then just like the villains he fights, Parker could have easily given in. Yet he doesn’t. Instead, he fights on because he realizes that he doesn’t just have to answer to himself for his actions, but to everyone he loves and everyone who lives in the city he calls home. Rather than act according to selfish ambition, he acts out of a sense of duty and obligation, in the name of something far more important than himself. By focusing on an external need rather than an internal whim, he is able to overcome temptation and proves himself to be a decent human being.
That’s a test that Otto Octavius fails. During the game, players witness his transformation from a gifted scientist into the delusional madman Doctor Octopus. It is a journey that indicates just how seductive the lure of power can be. As Otto obsesses over his negative thoughts and feelings he becomes increasingly unstable until they become the dominant elements of his personality. Technical malfunctions combined with an already unbalanced mind result in him orchestrating prison breaks at both Ryker’s Island and The Raft. This is enough to plunge New York into total chaos right before he unleashes a deadly bio-weapon capable of destroying mankind all in a bid to exact revenge against the man who wronged him at every turn: Norman Osborn. In a classic case of projection, he lashes out at the world around him for what he perceives to be his own failings and flaws. Instead of marshaling his intellect to overcome his inner demons, he uses it to attack the world around him for slights both real and imagined. Driven to mayhem and murder by his agonizing sense of failure and regret for not being, Otto is eventually forced to fight his former pupil. Given the circumstances, it is an inevitable conflict, and it is also one Dr. Octopus inevitably loses. Blinded by his arrogance and rage, he allows his newfound cybernetic abilities to control him and as a result, he is stripped of his freedom and left to languish in prison as the outside world attempts to heal from the wounds he inflicted.
In his own way he is much like Peter, but instead of honoring his obligations to those around him and working towards the betterment of life for everyone he turns into the monster that his protege consciously decided not to become. At one point in the story, when Spider-Man is injected with a hallucinogenic neurotoxin by Scorpion, he even has visions of Otto explaining the reasons behind his madness. He admits that the darker elements of himself were always there, lurking just beneath the surface of the socially acceptable facade he put on in order to find some kind of acceptance in normal society. Supposedly liberated by the power that his mechanical enhancements provide he is able to become the version of himself that he believes he always should have been. This would be an example of the negative power fantasy. It operates in complete contrary to the optimism and hopes that Spider-Man himself embodies, and more than adequately highlights that we always have a choice. We can abandon our better selves and surrender to despair like Dr. Octopus to work towards destruction and chaos, or we can embrace our noble qualities and work towards a better for ourselves and those around us.
If donning the Dark Knight’s cowl to kick seven shades of snot out of a criminally insane clown, or slipping into the surprisingly well-tailored jeans of Nathan Drake as he hunts treasures across the globe could ever really be considered expressions of latent misogynistic fantasies, then Insomniac’s Spider-Man and its interpretation of Peter Parker’s core moral code lays to rest very idea of a power fantasy being inherently negative. By consistently showcasing the boundless good that can be done if an individual uses their abilities and talents for the right reasons, the developers show us that dreaming of being better than we are isn’t problematic and that power doesn’t always have to corrupt.