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Games like Spider-Man can, and should, ignore comic continuity

There’s nothing more comic booky than a reboot

Insomniac Games/Sony
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Here’s an idea that’s going to seem heretical to a lot of comics fans: A lot of the time, strict adherence to continuity is ... bad.

At its best, continuity makes a story feel like there are fascinating things happening just outside every inch of its boundaries, and entices the reader to go explore them. But way more often, I’ve watched continuity fall into the wrong hands, becoming a Mosquito buzz in the ears of new fans.

Unlike a lot of its comic book contemporaries, Spider-Man on PS4 wields the double-edged sword of continuity like a surgeon’s scalpel. In some ways, the game fundamentally depends on continuity, but it mostly throws established Spider-Man ideas out the window entirely — and the game tells a better story than a lot of Spider-Man comics because of it.

[Warning: This post will contain some minor spoilers for Spider-Man on PS4.]

Spider-Man PS4 knows when not to tell a story

Taking a page from Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-Man doesn’t spend a single moment of its main plot rehashing Peter Parker’s superhero origin story. And Insomniac is 100 percent right here: Since the debut of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002, we’ve had four Spider-Man cartoon shows, a Broadway musical, five more Spider-Man movies in two more franchises and more than half a dozen Spider-Man games for consoles alone. We know about the spider bite, we know about Uncle Ben, and we know all about the symbiotic relationship between responsibility and power.

As my colleague Ben Kuchera has talked about at length, Insomniac got a huge head start by simply relying on its audience to know basic facts about Spider-Man. But I’m going to go one step further: It was also vitally important that Insomniac knew when to jettison commonly known Spider-Man facts entirely.

Adaptations and reboots are basically the same thing

Make Norman Osborn mayor of New York. Make Miles Morales a tech wiz. Make J. Jonah Jameson into a right-wing podcaster. And in maybe the game’s biggest about-face from what is popularly known about a character, transform Mary Jane Watson from a model and actress (and recently an executive administrator at Stark Industries) into an investigative reporter.

In doing so, Spider-Man gives Mary Jane the connection to the Daily Bugle that is usually Peter’s purview, and gives a much needed perspective on their relationship: Mary Jane’s perspective.

This sort of sudden character evolution is something that’s intimately familiar to DC Comics fans, but perhaps less to folks whose first comics were Marvel. After all, DC Comics has done this twice in the past five years alone. We call what DC does a “reboot,” while Spider-Man’s changes are “adaptations,” but the narrative effect is the same.

Following 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths and 2011’s New 52 reboot, DC editorial put their heads together to remake the entire universe from scratch. The goal was for strong ideas to be kept and weak ideas to be discarded — no matter how “important” those weak ideas had been in the previous continuity.

Superman is still a reporter at the Daily Planet, but forget about mad scientist Lex Luthor. He’s a ruthless billionaire now, just in time for the high Wall Street madness of the 1980s. Dick Grayson is still Nightwing, but relearn what you know about circus orphan Jason Todd. Now he’s a Robin with a streetwise edge and a dark past.

Sometimes an idea that comes out of a comic adaptation can be so compelling, it gets put back in the comic. In Batman stories alone, we have various adaptations to thank for Batgirl and Harley Quinn, as well as our modern versions of Mr. Freeze and even Alfred.

Marvel reboots its continuity too, of course, but on a more individual scale. Reboots, relaunches, retcons and retoolings are the bread and butter of comics continuity, and a big part of why continuity is so complicated.

But these re-dos are as necessary as the forest fire that clears old growth trees to make space for new saplings. They make comics more relevant to the lives of an ever-evolving audience — or are better choices for the medium of video games and a media environment saturated with Peter Parker’s origin story. Think of the trees as Spider-Man facts and the forest as Spider-Man continuity, and the story team on Spider-Man as the forest fire.

Every creative team that adapts a story from one medium to another has to make choices about how the story will be different. Spider-Man had an advantage, though — that superhero comics are already constantly adapting on their own.

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