How do you surprise an audience that has seen a particular villain in countless comics and adaptations that stretch across movies, television and video games? Can you keep people guessing when they already know, or think they know, the whole story behind a villain due to the ceaseless repetition of introductions and battles?
The creative teams behind Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Marvel’s Spider-Man for PS4 have pulled off something that feels like it should have been impossible: One of Spider-Man’s best-known enemies appears in both the game and the movie, but the character is written and introduced in such a way that it’s a surprise both times.
Both experiences handle this in very different, yet effective ways. This is how it was done.
[Ed. note: the rest of this post will contain spoilers for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Marvel’s Spider-man.]
When do you introduce your villain?
Marvel’s Spider-Man tipped its hand early when I met Dr. Otto Octavius, a brilliant scientist who I was helping research technology that would help those with missing limbs. I knew that’s the character who would ultimately turn into Doctor Octopus; even players who aren’t fans of Spider-Man likely picked up the character’s name through osmosis at some point in their lives.
But I still wasn’t sure that Doctor Octopus would be a villain in this story. Various comic book adaptations often introduce characters by their given names as a nod to fans, but then don’t deliver a payoff by including the superhero or villain they’re destined to become. I met Dr. Connors in the excellent Spider-Man 2, for instance, but the film ends without an appearance by the Lizard.
The game’s story slowly sets up its central conflict as you continue to work alongside Dr. Octavius. The Kingpin has been captured, but he warned me that the streets will descend into chaos without his ability to control the crime in the city. I battle Mr. Negative, and learn his real identity. Silver Sable becomes involved, and is neither exactly a friend nor an enemy. I help a young man named Miles Morales find his way after the death of his father.
The game is absolutely stacked with names and faces I know from the comics and other adaptations, and the story fits together well without Doctor Octopus. I think the inclusion of Dr. Octavius as a friendly character is a bit of misdirection meant to throw me in the early sections of the game while also winking at the larger Spider-Man lore. I let my guard down.
The introduction of the Doctor Octopus technology happens so far into the game, without overstuffing the narrative, that it’s a fun surprise. It’s the best kind of fake-out; I knew to expect the obvious, but the obvious was withheld for so long that it feels like a legitimate jolt when it finally happens. Marvel’s Spider-Man spends enough time with Dr. Octavius that losing him to Doctor Octopus is tragic, and it takes place during a moment in the game where I was starting to believe that it wouldn’t happen until a sequel.
Doctor Octopus’ actual introduction as the supervillain takes place late in the game, after Mr. Negative, Electro, Vulture, Rhino and Scorpion have escaped and taken over the city. It was all misdirection; not only would Doctor Octopus be one of the game’s central villains, but the number of enemies would suddenly increase far beyond what I expected from the scope of the game.
Marvel’s Spider-Man delivered a villain after making me think he would never show up, at least not in this game. And all it took was a clever trick of timing and expectations.
Which brings us to Into the Spider-Verse.
Time to re-examine your own biases
I knew the Kingpin was going to play a large role in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but I had avoided most of the trailers and stories about the movie in order to go in as blind as possible. It paid off.
Spider-Verse’s script is remarkably tight; every moment of every scene does some form of work to set up a future moment. Nothing is wasted, which is why an informational video played during Miles Morales’ physics class introduces the concept of the multiverse — as well as the female scientist who we later learn leads Alchemax, the evil company controlled by Wilson Fisk.
Miles even points her out to Peter Parker when they are planning their heist of the necessary equipment to send Peter back to his own dimension. The older Spider-Man is surprised for a moment. “Well, I have to take a moment to re-examine my own biases,” he says, before the mission begins. That’s clue two.
That scientist, as revealed in a surprising and fun scene where Peter is trapped and threatened with death, is Olivia Octavius. Doctor Octopus. It’s one of the movie’s best surprises, and it helps what could have been a standard addition of an expected supervillain feel like a shocking moment.
Octavius also tells Peter that her friends “call her Liv” after he asks if people call her Doctor Octopus. Later, during a fight in Aunt May’s house that includes a variety of supervillains and multiverse Spider-People, Aunt May recognizes Doctor Octopus and calls her by name.
“Liv,” she says as a greeting. It’s a simple, dry hello. But it also means that they’re friends, which is a big detail to drop into a movie when these two characters were also almost married once in the main timeline.
It’s wonderful that 2018 has bought us a world where the big-screen version of Spider-Man includes a gender-bent, arguably queer version of Doctor Octopus along with a bisexual Aunt May.
Both Marvel’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse made Doctor Octopus a vital, interesting part of the story in surprising ways. These characters and their relationships may have been explored in just about every possible way in just about every possible medium, but good teams can still find ways to shake things up and make them interesting for both mainstream audiences and long-term fans.
It has been a satisfying year to be into your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.