What’s the better Spider-Man story?
Gamers unanimously agree that Insomniac’s Spider-Man for PS4 is the greatest Spider-Man game ever created. It looks and feels just right, it features some of Spidey’s most iconic villains, and it is a pure joy to swing around New York. Many also argue that the game provides one of the best Spider-Man stories ever told across all mediums, including the comic books and movies.
While many have already compared the game to its spiritual predecessor from 2004 in terms of gameplay and mechanics, I’d like to take a different approach.
Let us take a look at Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 movie (also from 2004), which is heralded as one of the very best superhero movies and stories brought to the big screen, and compare it to the game’s story. There are a lot of similarities between these two, but also distinct differences that make one slightly better than the other.
For the sake of argument, I’ll keep Mr. Negative’s arc out of this discussion, since he obviously had no appearance in the film. I also see him more like a bait-and-switch villain in the end for Spider-Man (PS4), keeping you busy as you prepare for the real menace to come.
Warning: This article discusses significant story plots of both the game and the movie, so if you don’t want to get spoiled, stop here, play the game, watch the movie and come back after.
First, the apparent parallels between the two.
Both deal with an experienced Spider-Man. In the game, Peter has been Spider-Man for roughly eight years and seen a lot since then. He’s already fought most of his iconic villains at least once before and knows his way around the city. He also fights face-to-face with Wilson Fisk which suggests how “mundane” this crime-fighting has become to him. In Spider-Man 2, we also see an experienced Spider-Man, who has significantly lesser experience with supervillains, because he only really fought the Green Goblin in the first movie. However, the movie shows us that Peter has learned to use his powers expertly and can improvise on the fly (no pun intended) to save the day.
Mary Jane Watson plays a major role in Peter’s life. From the movie, we know that Peter wants to protect MJ and tries to keep her at a distance, so as to not get her involved with criminals again. Sam Raimi’s first movie, dealt with a similar scene, which fans know from the comic book The Death of Gwen Stacy, where the Green Goblin throws Peter’s love interest from a bridge. Yet, in the movie, the fall doesn’t end deadly for MJ. So, there is a lot of emotional history between these two, and as the movie progresses, they grow more apart, yet find to each other at the end.
Insomniac’s MJ is also a central character in Peter’s/Spider-Man’s life because just as in the movie, she knows his secret. Similar to Sam Raimi’s adaptation, they have a history together that didn’t seem to have worked out at first, yet they are still friends. By the end of the story, they became a lot closer again – MJ might not have left another man at the altar for Peter here, but still, it seems they are willing to try again, which might actually have a massive impact on a sequel game. The difference in MJ’s portrayal of her vocation will be discussed in the second half of this article, so stay tuned for that.
Before we go into the main villain, the depiction of Peter Parker in his private life is also very similar in this setup. A big part of Peter’s character and his origins was always that compared to other superheroes like Captain America or Tony Stark, he had to balance his career and crime fighting, and there were always trade-offs and difficult decisions for him.
Both mediums depict this brilliantly, although the movie tells it a bit better in this case. In Spider-Man 2, Peter is still struggling to achieve academic success and manage a job at the Bugle on the side. Once he hangs up his costume, he succeeds in this field again, showing off his intellect, yet also his inner conflict that his happiness means more crime and danger for the citizens.
Spider-Man (PS4) also shows us a young Peter who is into science. Yet, his struggles seem just as real, but without much impact, since it is a video game after all. But juggling his Spider-Man act, being a lab assistant to Dr. Octavius and helping the local F.E.A.S.T. organization give him some strain here and there. However, he is also shown as a smart scientist who can hold his own in tech.
Onwards to the big one – Dr. Otto Octavius. In both universes, Dr. Octavius is an inspiration for Peter. He admires the scientist and his inventions and tries to help him. Dr. Octavius is intrigued with Peter’s intellect and treats him like a protege. He becomes kind of a father figure for Peter, getting dangerously close to him. The game and movie chose to use this relationship to make the inevitable twist more hurtful when Dr. Otto Octavius turns himself into Doctor Octopus: one of Spidey’s most iconic villains and often depicted as the leader of the Sinister Six, which the game actually uses as the main criminal conglomerate.
Eventually, both versions find out Peter’s secret and use that against him. Peter is forced to stop his mentor and father figure before he can destroy the city and turn them into aggressive and mindless creatures.
Interestingly though, game and movie use Oscorp as the trigger for Otto’s descent. In the movie, Harry Osborn enables Otto to finance the science project that ultimately turns him into the villain, while the game shows a much bigger betrayal of Dr. Octavius by his friend and former business partner, Norman Osborn. The game has yet to explore the Green Goblin, which I’m super excited about because we also might see Venom join him, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
My point is that just as in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a superhero is defined by his villain. Giving Peter Parker an emotional and professional connection to Dr. Octavius, ripping it away and turning him into Spidey’s most accomplished enemy really works out in both installments. There are a few minor differences in why and how he got his robot tentacles and how they work, but the main achievement lies in the emotional betrayal of Peter’s trust and friendship. That is the essence of why both stories succeed in telling a powerful and compelling Spider-Man tale. They focus not only on Spider-Man but also Peter Parker and create a scenario in which, yet again, Peter is faced with great loss.
The major differences that break the tie
Ultimately, the devil is in the details and I believe that those details make Insomniac’s Spider-Man the better story overall, adding much more depth to the characters, creating a much more active role for those involved and delivering the better outlook for the next adventure. Here is why:
For one, MJ and Aunt May take an active role in the story. Usually, MJ or Aunt May are classified as damsels in distress and play no active part in a Spider-Man story other than being harassed by a villain, kidnapped or evicted from their home. I recommend you watch Spider-Man 2 and count the times the scene cuts to a woman screaming. Don’t get me wrong, it is a beloved narrative tool for filmmakers and gets the job done, but it is much more interesting to put someone without super-powers actually in charge of a situation to create tension.
I don’t say that this is per se a bad creative choice for the Spider-Man 2 script, but the game had a better grasp on the supporting cast and gave them something to do. In Spider-Man 2 Mary Jane is a bored actress/model who basically runs into a marriage out of spite, while Aunt May is evicted from her home, functioning solely as a reminder for Peter why it is important to be Spider-Man and give people hope.
Spider-Man (PS4) makes MJ and Aunt May active parts in the story. MJ is not an actress or damsel, she is an investigative reporter and risks her life a number of times. Sure, in the end, she is also saved by Spider-Man, but since you play her at times, you get to experience a sense of powerlessness, yet strive forward into danger. The same goes for Aunt May, who pursues an active role in the community by basically running the local F.E.A.S.T. organization almost by her self, giving Peter all sorts of headaches as the story progresses.
From a story-telling point, I find it much more intriguing to see those typically passive characters take up an active role. It contributes subconsciously to the burden Peter has to carry, because not only does he have to jump in and rescue them, but he actively has to track them and keep tabs on them because he knows they are doing (dangerous) things on their own when he is not around. Marrying another guy does not really count for me here.
Number two, show, don’t tell: the presence and absence of Norman and Harry Osborn in both stories. In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, we live in a universe past the Green Goblin. Willem Dafoe’s brilliant portrayal as the man gone mad in the first movie still wrinkles through time, and we follow Harry’s descent into darkness as he hunts Spider-Man to bring him to justice for the murder of his father. As I mentioned earlier, Harry is a mere enabler for Dr. Octavius and his experiment, he doesn’t matter in the story. It is set up in the sequel for him to take up his father’s mantle.
While we can definitely argue about James Franco’s natural “stoner” depiction of Harry Osborn, much like the women in the movie, stuff happens to him, and Spider-Man also saves him on occasion. The mighty Norman Osborn is dead in this story, and a lot of tension is gone. However corny and overacted his performance was, he worked pretty well for me in the first movie for its time.
What does the game differently? Well, Norman is still alive and kicking; he has not yet (or maybe even won’t) become the Green Goblin, but he is an integral part of the creation of Dr. Octopus. He betrays his old business partner, steals his research and shuts down his lab. Osborn is friendly towards Peter, yet somehow they are distant to each other, like a platonic friendship, since Peter is one of Harry’s close friends.
Oh, and where is Harry by the way? Major spoiler ahead! The brief moment we get to see Harry at the end of the game, we learn that he is not on vacation or abroad, no, he is close to death, sick and held in a water tank by his father, unbeknownst to his friends. He also seems to be wrapped around black goo, so maybe we might get a symbiote-infected Harry in the future, who knows?
In any case, we only get to see a childish and angry version of Harry Osborn in Spider-Man 2. The game gives us a sinister outlook, a revelation and still teases us with an evil Norman Osborn who might turn at any moment, should anything happen to his son or should they need human trials for any type of medication. I think that I find it much more interesting to have to imagine what could happen, rather than having a foreseeable straight road ahead of Harry becoming the next Goblin. Subjective opinion or objectively better storytelling?
The last difference I want to mention here is the ending. (And yes, it might not even be fair to compare the second film of a trilogy which lasts two hours with a game made 11 years later and which has over 20 hours to tell its story, but since they have so much in common, it is worth exploring.) This final differentiating factor has to do with the cliffhanger and future outlook for the evolving story.
Spider-Man 2 ends with the day saved from Doctor Octopus, MJ and Peter reunited, and Harry is finally discovering his father’s legacy, hinting at him becoming the primary villain in the next movie, although technically, he is not in the third movie. However, nothing will change, Spider-Man has to face new enemies, has to deal with his private and “professional” life and struggles as he tries to survive his future adventures with mainly no character development and not a step forward for either Spider-Man or Peter Parker. Insomniac chooses a different path and explores a much more interesting dynamic which we have only seen in comic books or animated series so far: the possibility of Peter becoming a teacher to another Spider-Man, namely, Miles Morales.
Before we start, I’m very much aware that Miles Morales was created in 2011, and there was no chance he could have turned up in Sam Raimi’s film in the 2000’s, but as the movie trilogy gave us more of the same, Spider-Man (PS4) gives us something new. What happens, when Spider-Man is not alone anymore? What if, in the sequel, Peter will take the backseat and Miles will be in the spotlight as he learns to adapt to his new abilities? In one scene of the game, as we get to play MJ, we marvel as a scripted Spider-Man takes out thugs as we watch – what if we see him swing before us or even die before our eyes in the sequel? Yes, heavy speculative territory for now, but I find this thought much more intriguing and unforeseeable than the end of Spider-Man 2, don’t you think?
I don’t want to go any further into predictions here, but despite all the little or big differences between the movie and the game, the core stories for both are well executed and deserve our admiration. But Spider-Man (PS4) shows that video games have evolved as a medium and can now even surpass other narrative platforms that have been around much, much longer.
That’s not to say this wasn’t true back in the 90s as well, especially with games like Metal Gear Solid that spun incredible tales. However, telling a compelling and unique(!) story on the back of such an iconic superhero, all while creating its very own mark on the character, that is something special. Whatever might happen in the future of the MGU (Marvel Gaming Universe) or MEGU (Marvel Extended Gaming Universe), we haven’t seen the last of Spider-Man and great storytelling in gaming.
There is one scene in the PS4 game where Spider-Man tries to stop an out-of-control train by slowing it down with his web shooting but fails immediately and spurts out “That totally worked last time!” That is a direct reference to a similar scene in the Spider-Man 2 movie, where the move worked. Man, I love the details.
Now it is up to you, what do you think makes a great Spider-Man story? Do you agree with my comparison or did I miss something that might change the argument? I would also love to know your favorite Spider-Man story overall, comics, movies, games. Be sure to leave a comment.
Guitarist, singer, console gamer, general nerd, marketer, writer @obiliskgames
What I usually play on: PS5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One S, PS Vita, Nintendo New 3DS.