I’ve been waiting years for this moment.
Back in 2014, spurred by the reboot of Ms. Marvel, I tried getting into comics. Here was a brown girl growing up with strict immigrant parents, cast into a heroic role typically reserved for white Americans. I saw myself in her, in ways in which I never connected with the multimillion-dollar Marvel machine that was pumping out comic book movies left and right. It made me hungry for more — but not the safe brand of straightforward superheroes that sold countless movie tickets.
I wanted more people like Ms. Marvel, characters who redefined and challenged what it meant to be a hero. I was especially drawn to characters who wanted to be a force for good despite complex cultural identities that cast a long shadow of responsibility over their heads. Any first-generation kid straddling the line between the old world and the new already knows what it’s like to have a secret identity, has already had the burden of an entire community resting on their shoulders. For some of us, the problems depicted in comic books aren’t fantastical situations; they are conundrums we navigate every day, just in a different form.
SPIDER-MAN: MILES MORALES
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It wasn’t long, of course, before I arrived at Miles Morales. In the comics, the two practically went hand in hand, with Marvel writers often pushing cameos or team-ups, if not a hint of romance between the two teen champions. I tried reading all of it — that’s how much I loved them. What I didn’t know then was that comic books are a confusing place. I was into these two characters, but many different people wrote or drew them into their stories, some of which connected and acknowledged each other, some of which had nothing to do with one another. Some of it was good, some of it ... not quite my cup of tea. Eventually, I got exhausted trying to keep up with all the different iterations of both characters, especially as the dollar amounts started piling up.
But I got enough of a glimpse of what kinds of stories were possible to tell within the space, and it made going back to the Marvel “everyone” knew bewildering. The characters people were excited about didn’t look or sound like the ones I was excited about. Hell, the characters I loved just didn’t exist in the same space as the “real” heroes. While characters like Ms. Marvel and Miles Morales were getting cast in more obscure webseries, animated shows, or graphic novels, the more mainstream heroes got top billing on TV screens and in live-action movies, and an advertising budget to match. There was a strange disconnect that only grew more prominent the more Marvel grew into a pop-culture behemoth.
There was a sense that Marvel didn’t quite believe in certain characters in the same way it did others — considered them a risk, even. It was a deflating realization that grew proportionally to Marvel’s increasing cultural relevance. It was like there were two Marvels, one that played things by the book and one that was willing to take actual swings. Most people didn’t know about the second universe, unless they were hardcore devotees.
As of this writing, Marvel is still slowly introducing the world to its wider stable of characters. We’re about to hit “Phase 4,” the next generation of films, which will, gasp, center more women and people of color, something that we got a mild taste of with the introduction of movies like the wildly successful Black Panther. It is, by far, the most exciting leg of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially as Disney Plus seems more willing to take a chance on experimental stories like WandaVision. But it’ll be a while before we can see all of Phase 4 in its full glory, especially with the coronavirus pushing back a number of theatrical releases.
But in video games, it’s already happened. Marvel’s Avengers surprised fans by presenting a story primarily about Kamala Khan, which many critics concede is the best part of that game. And now, with the release of the PlayStation 5, Spider-Man: Miles Morales is at the center of the spotlight. Sure, the biracial web-slinger has already starred in his own Oscar-winning animated film. That’s not nothing. But in some ways, that movie exists more as an accoutrement to the main course, which is currently being spearheaded by Tom Holland, the Spider-Man “everyone” knows. It lives outside the official live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales itself ran the risk of being runner-up. Technically, this is a spinoff of the main Spider-Man game, which stars a more conventional Peter Parker. It’s not quite as big as Insomniac Games’ first take, either, with the studio opting to tell a more concise story this time around. But it is also, by all accounts, a better game for it — the smaller scope allowed Insomniac to put in a level of polish and detail that makes an already good game even more stellar. This is the best version of Spider-Man you can play, and if you have a PS5, it is the game you should play.
Miles Morales is now the face of the new generation of video games, a testament to what’s possible with a more powerful machine. There’s a real sense of awe playing the game — even small things, like the thread count and pilling on a sweater, have a certain wow factor to them. Swinging around New York City with a swagger that only Miles knows is a balm for the cooped-up woes of social distancing. Fighting as Miles Morales feels better too, thanks in no small part to the DualSense controller’s versatile haptic feedback and a deep combo system that allows you to play with your environment. Never mind the pure delight of saving the day with a friggin’ bodega cat strapped to your back — Timbs in tow, of course.
The love and care for the source material and its setting is apparent from the moment you turn on the game and watch Miles silently scroll through his phone on the subway, like a real New Yorker. When Miles is shown standing proudly in front of a Black Lives Matter mural, I get the sense that this young man reflects the future of the city better than a standard Peter Parker ever could. There’s hope in that.
What we’re getting to experience right now in video games is what the Marvel universe has had in its pocket all along, anxious and ready to spill out and show the world what it’s made of. Here, our world-saving superhero is allowed have a fresh fade and speak Spanish. I could cry.