In Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, Spidey is a firefighter, a city engineer, a one-man medical airlift, an open-source GMO chemist, and a protector of New York’s precarious bee community. But there’s one thing this Spider-Man is not: a cop.
This is a momentous career shift for Peter Parker, who didn’t help the police in the original Spider-Man so much as he was the police.
To unlock the 2018 game’s map, Spidey powered on NYPD surveillance towers. He arrived first to every crime, with the actual NYPD officers always arriving late — if at all. He jokingly went by “Spider-Cop” and did impressions of hard-boiled detectives. I’m not here to litigate that creative decision (plenty of thoughtful writers have done an excellent job already), but I am here to celebrate the change in the sequel, which is immediate and affecting.
After the game’s opening sequence, in which a kaiju-sized Sandman demolishes chunks of NYC, Spider-Man gets to the most pressing issue: supporting the survivors. He runs up an avenue covered in dust and smoke, shocked office workers, and first responders tending to fires and the injured. Then he helps transport a certain familiar face to the nearest hospital. The moment is a tone-setter: Peter Parker and Miles Morales now use their gifts to heal communities.
The Spidey pair sling people onto their shoulders and deliver them to hospitals. They learn from neighbors that laws aren’t inherently helpful, and can even punish those who need help. They repeatedly engage with overlooked members of their community (particularly the elderly), and show them the simple kindness of listening. And they fight the prejudicial assumption of recidivism, quite literally spending the bulk of their time protecting reformed supervillains who’ve served their time and just want to get back to normal life.
Hell, Spider-Man’s web now seems to have magical cauterizing and healing powers, along with the ability to extinguish flaming buildings.
I’m especially fond of what the Spideys do for Sandman immediately following history’s most destructive panic attack. Throughout the city, Peter and Miles find shards of Sandman — fire-bejeweled sand, you see! — which, as MJ lets us know over the phone, helps his human alter ego, Flint Marko, recover in a hospital bed across town. I won’t spoil the outcome, but it’s telling that halfway through this smattering of otherwise silly side quests in which Spidey fights little Sandmans, Peter Parker is actively rooting for Marko to rally and reunite with his family.
I can’t recall another AAA game so clearly and self-critically in conversation with both its predecessor and its critics. Earlier this year, Eurogamer spoke with Spider-Man 2 senior creative director Bryan Intihar about the discourse ignited by Spider-Man’s relationship to the police in the first game, which many critics suggested carried a pro-cop message at a time when law enforcement was under intense scrutiny. “You know, obviously that wasn’t our intent,” Intihar said. “I think, just going forward, we think about things.”
Having played much of the game, I can sense how Intihar and the team did the work, sometimes to a charmingly on-the-nose degree. A very early mission has Peter Parker rhapsodizing on why we should ban guns, and give hugs instead. He wallops goons in front of a building labeled “City Gun Club.” When Spider-Man restores a rooftop garden laboratory, he opines to himself, “Can’t believe EMF is making these GMOs open source. Profit shouldn’t be part of the equation when it comes to basic human necessities.” Peter Parker asks a fellow superhero if she has any tattoos. “Just the one of Spider-Cop’s gravestone,” she replies.
The game’s creators have imagined New York as an anti-Gotham City, full of light and love where the criminals have the pleasure of paying absurd apartment rents rather than living behind bars in an asylum.
It balances cheese, sincerity, and a genuine belief in good that recaptures that moment in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 movie when subway passengers pass a vulnerable, unmasked Peter Parker to safety. Miles Morales solves a puzzle by discovering secret messages in the public art of local BIPOC artists, and helps a friend by guiding his favorite pigeons away from the crowded piers of Manhattan’s Battery to a tree-filled park in Queens. Rather than work for J. Jonah Jameson, you take photos of “the real New York” for crosstown editor Robbie Robertson, who muses about beautiful murals, backyard get-togethers, and the mythological NYC spirit.
This is the Spider-Man I adored as a child. As a kid, I couldn’t imagine, let alone relate to, beating up bullies. But lending a hand? That, I understood.
I grew up around firefighters and paramedics. My dad was a chief in the town’s fire department. I’m ashamed to confess that, only this month, while working through this game, did it hit me why Spider-Man was my superhero: He’s just like my father. Selfless. Constantly putting himself in harm’s way, but never talking about it. He too struggled to balance the job’s hours with his home life, but whenever he was around, he offered a big smile, a listening ear, and unflagging energy to help with the problem of the day. Even if that problem was just some tricky algebra homework.
Superheroes were created for their moral clarity: Good Guys beat Bad Guys. But the world is increasingly complex, so creating a “good superhero” isn’t as simple as giving someone a mask and telling them to kick a bunch of ass. That’s half the job, and one both Spider-Mans still embody. The game — like practically any Spider-Man text — still believes that the state should have a monopoly on violence.
But every hero has a second half to their job: what they do after all the ass-kicking. And it’s here where superheroes (and first responders) have the opportunity to serve people, not just a notion of justice.
I’ve always been grateful for my dad’s mentorship in life, but now I can look back deep into my childhood and see that every time we read Spider-Man together, he brought himself to the text. And he taught me, on a gut level, how to see the best in Spidey.
That’s who I see in Spider-Man 2.