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Spider-Man PS4 gives Mary Jane Watson the chance to be a hero

Peter Parker’s longtime girlfriend is no damsel here, and it’s fantastic

A screenshot of Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man PS4.
Mary Jane Watson is given a new sense of purpose in Marvel’s Spider-Man.
Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Superheroes’ on-screen stories could use a lot more women at the center of their worlds. Wonder Woman survived multiple Superman and Batman reboots to finally get her due. Captain Marvel is coming in 2019, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has spent the last 10 years treading water to get there. After years of being a fan favorite, only now is Black Widow getting her own vehicle. Black Panther’s most exciting heroes, the women who stand with T’Challa, weren’t top billed. It’s not that women aren’t allowed to be heroes — it’s that cinematic universes have rarely propped them up as the stars they deserve to be.

With so many options in its mythology, Spider-Man is more guilty than many Marvel franchises for sidelining female characters. Women figure into every part of Peter Parker’s life: Aunt May is his sole family member, the one thing keeping him from being totally orphaned; science nerd Gwen Stacy was Peter’s first love; Black Cat, who has yet to make her movie debut, is a sexy superhero that Peter falls for.

But no one has the same name recognition as Mary Jane Watson. The redheaded actress has alternated between Peter’s crush, girlfriend, The One Who Got Away and wife. She has never properly been, however, a hero within the Spider-Man canon proper. If you know her only from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, you’d think she’s the total opposite. Mary Jane is more often than not Spidey’s damsel in distress. She’s also the emotionally abused, sexually objectified victim. (Mary Jane’s life in the Raimi movies is really upsetting, when you look back on it.) She’s the fickle girlfriend, and she’s the moping actress with Hollywood dreams, if not talent. At no point is she a friendly neighborhood Spider-Woman, nor does she ever get the agency to defend herself.

Her most important role is what she represents to Peter Parker. She motivates him to put that suit back on and start slinging webs. She makes him, and him alone, a hero.

Among the very amazing things that Spider-Man’s upcoming PlayStation 4 debut does — the swinging! the exploration! fighting bad guys big and small! — is pull the rug out from under these givens. It’s no secret that Mary Jane appears in Marvel’s Spider-Man at some point; she’s appeared in previous trailers, like the one above. The team at Insomniac Games hasn’t even hidden that Mary Jane is a playable character.

Until now, it was unclear what playing as Mary Jane would look like. When we played the first three hours of Spider-Man at an early preview event last month, we got to find out. And it turns out that Insomniac has overhauled Mary Jane from a beautiful, if sometimes brash, romantic object into someone with wits and agency. Insomniac has made Mary Jane a hero.

Mary Jane shows up somewhere after the first real boss fight, when Spider-Man knocks around big-handed crime boss Wilson Fisk (fans may know him as Kingpin). Defeating Fisk that first time doesn’t put him down for good, so Spider-Man is sent by his cop companion Yuri Watanabe to the local art museum, where Fisk’s henchmen are working to steal more precious art. (A supervillain with taste? One of many reasons this game owns.)

Before Spidey gets to stopping the bad guys and saving the museum curator they’ve taken hostage, he runs into Mary Jane — ace Daily Bugle reporter Mary Jane Watson, to be precise. This is a timeline where Peter Parker jumped straight from college to working as a scientist; Mary Jane instead went to the Bugle, and she’s running circles around anything Peter ever could have done there.

Mary Jane explains what she’s doing at a tense crime scene, which kicks us into a playable flashback sequence. She doesn’t have powers, of course, and that makes for a unique gameplay style. She uses her camera to photograph important objects, which cuts to a first-person perspective that forces the player to be precise with their aim. As an investigative journalist, MJ has lots of witty dialogue, outsmarting the woman she’s trying to pry a good story out of. The gallery’s owner seems to be up to no good, as we already know through Spider-Man’s storyline. Spider-Man’s MJ is the kind of woman who figures that out just as the titular hero does, without anyone’s help.

Things heat up from there to combine MJ’s investigative eye for detail with stealth gameplay, a spin on similar segments of the main campaign. It feels natural transitioning from pressing triggers and snapping photos to ducking into an unlocked office without being caught. The tenor of the level is an anxious one, so sneaking around is status quo. And MJ is dang good at it. I’m not the most considerate player when it comes to moving around, but this Daily Bugle reporter demands using your head, not your fists.

Creeping past her infuriated interview subject to get more info from her office isn’t boring; it’s one more step toward ensuring MJ’s success, followed by matching picture puzzles that are almost like a glossy point-and-click detective adventure. By the end of the brief scene, we’re back to serious stealth, tucking MJ silently inside that room so that she’s not found out. Every step you take around the room, avoiding the glare of evil henchmen, is like breathing in and letting out a deep, satisfying exhale.

Marvel’s Spider-Man - Spidey swinging among skyscrapers
Marvel’s Spider-Man isn’t all about looking cool while swinging around NYC. But it definitely has plenty of that too.
Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

All of this gameplay sounds like a jarring change from the slinging-webs-at-bad-dudes action. It’s not. Spider-Man has a fantastic sense of flow and pacing, slowly building up the player from a breezy opening into grounded action that you can punch through, followed by the more complicated aerial fighting that Spider-Man does best.

You don’t just go from fight to fight if you’re following the storyline. Next up, as Peter Parker, you go to work and complete BioShock-like puzzles. These allow you to reroute signal towers or finish up experiments. The stakes are smaller here, or they feel that way. It’s cleaner, giving you time to wipe away the sweat that beads on your brow during those tense, tough battles.

Those small stakes give us room for another neighborhood hero: Mary Jane Watson, no longer begging for Spidey’s help. She can take care of herself, and she doesn’t need powers to do it. We’ve never been given a chance to play as Mary Jane before, and it only took us until this 2018 video game to meet a version of her this self-assured. We’re already in love, and we can’t wait to see more.

Spider-Man will launch as a PS4 exclusive on Sept. 7, 2018. Check out some very pretty screenshots from the game below.