“Those slavering jaws; the lolling tongue; the rime of saliva on the grizzled chops.”
This is Angela Carter, not on Venom, but on the wolf from “Little Red Riding Hood” in The Bloody Chamber, her collection of reimagined folk and fairy tales. It’s actually from “The Company of Wolves,” which is one of three retellings of “Little Red Riding Hood” in the collection, each with its own spin on the familiar tale.
Retellings are compelling because they allow writers to toy with readers’ preconceived notions of how the story “should go,” both in terms of genre conventions and in terms of plot. We know Little Red Riding Hood will go to her grandmother’s house, where she will find that her grandmother has been eaten by a wolf, just as we know Spider-Man will be bitten by a radioactive spider. The fun, both for the author and the reader, comes in deviating from those norms — in finding new ways to tell old tales.
With Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, Insomniac Games attempts something similar.
Mainstream Spider-Man stories are increasingly Spider-Men stories, and Spider-Man 2, the third Spidey game from Insomniac, is no different. You play as both the yassified Peter Parker from Spider-Man Remastered and Miles Morales from his eponymous debut in 2020, switching between the two at your leisure with all the speed afforded by the PlayStation 5’s SSD.
In fact, speed is one of the primary improvements on display in the first PS5-exclusive Spider-Man game. New to the series are web wings, which allow the Spider-Mans to fly through the city, gliding over rooftops and gaining speed from wind tunnels without needing to rely on buildings, bridges, or other anchors for web-slinging. (They’re especially useful when crossing the East River into the newly added Brooklyn and Queens.) Web-swinging is faster now as well, enhancing that ineffable feeling of being Spider-Man as you glide through New York with ease. Whether you’re playing as Miles or Peter, traversing the three available boroughs is an undeniable joy — so much so that I found myself using fast travel less frequently than in the previous two games, because movement felt that much more fluid.
Narratively, juggling two Spider-Mans requires a different kind of deftness. Two villains new to the series take center stage — Kraven the Hunter and Venom — as well as a returning cast of nearly every villain from the previous two games. Without delving into spoilers, a large majority of that cast is sidelined early on, leaving Kraven and Venom as our principal antagonists, albeit with large roles for returning villains the Lizard (who made a brief appearance in Miles Morales) and Mister Negative. There are others besides them that should delight comic fans, setting up future conflicts for either expansions or the presumed Spider-Man 3 to tackle. If what you come to Spider-Man for is spectacle and villainy, Spider-Man 2 has the goods and then some.
As for our heroes, Miles and Peter return from their individual outings for a dramatic team-up. Their two stories are threaded together, allowing for randomized encounters where Peter might show up while you’re playing as Miles (or vice versa), with the two of you tag-teaming a random criminal and slamming them into the ground in what feels like the world’s least fair fight. And yes, they do the Spider-Man-pointing-at-Spider-Man meme in-game. And yes, it is charming the first time (though maybe less so the second). The main story sometimes swaps Spider-Mans mid-mission, as in the dramatic opening sequence where Sandman coats the city in dust as Peter and Miles rush to help firefighters and first responders, with eerie echoes of 9/11. Side missions often allow either Spider-Man to tackle them, but the main story beats require one or the other, as each hero is allowed his full particularity as a singular Spider-Man.
Peter’s plot involves a retelling of the Venom origin story, with beats that will be recognizable to those even passingly familiar with the Spider-Man mythos. If Spider-Man 2 is a game of retellings, Peter’s story clings most closely to the canon. If you’ve seen Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, you’ll know the gist of what to expect when the symbiote finds its way to Peter. It isn’t until the late game that Peter’s story starts pushing more strongly against our canonical memories and into something more unique to Insomniac.
Miles’ story takes more liberties. Hailey Cooper, Miles’ love interest from his solo game, returns here, taking more of an MJ-esque role and carving out her own identity separate from Miles’. American Sign Language is featured heavily throughout Miles’ missions because of Hailey’s presence, feeling as natural and integral to the story as anything from the canon. One of the Miles-specific side quests involves learning about the artistic history of Harlem, and it entwines the real-life histories of Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, and Charlie Parker with the fictional history of SHIELD and other Marvel properties. An early mission shows off Insomniac’s technical chops with a section that cleverly borrows a trick from Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. Of the two Spider-Mans, it’s Miles who feels more alive with the possibility to break free of expectation and canon.
[Ed. note: Spoilers follow for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.]
The recent Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse has an obsession with “canon events,” pivotal moments in a Spider-Man’s life that the film’s villain, Spider-Man 2099, is dedicated to maintaining across the multiverse. Whether it’s the upside-down kiss, the death of Uncle Ben or Jefferson Davis, or simply the spider bite that starts it all, Spider-Man 2099 believes that upholding these canon events, even the painful ones, is key to preserving the stability of each strand of reality. Miles disagrees, believing it is Spider-Man’s job to resist the seemingly inevitable — to always do what’s right, not simply what’s preordained. The film ends with a promise of pushing back against Spider-Man 2099, and with it, the established canon.
I was hungry for Spider-Man 2 to push back in a similar way — to treat the established story like Angela Carter repurposing “Little Red Riding Hood” to her whims, like Michael Cunningham plumbing “Rumpelstiltskin” for a story about the desire to have a child, or like Helen Oyeyemi and her body of work. Or, to give a more mass media example, like Star Wars: Visions, which gives creative leeway to a variety of animators and storytellers to play with the very basics of what makes Star Wars Star Wars.
Spider-Man 2 doesn’t go quite this far, but where it does go is still satisfyingly slant. Wrinkles to critical characters and plot points will keep even seasoned Spider-fans on their toes. Moreover, it plays like a dream, with smart additions to combat that enhance the power fantasy of being Spider-Man. Each Spider-Man now has a full arsenal of special moves and gadgets that complement one another, making even the most basic combat encounter feel like a choreographed ballet of kicks, thwips, and zaps. The game is beautifully rendered, taking full advantage of the newest PlayStation, with such detailed textures on each unlockable suit that you’d swear they were real, and ray-traced window after ray-traced window in a loving rendition of New York. (If you can get past the Frankenstein-ification of the boroughs, that is. RIP Chelsea.)
There are hints of greater thematic aspirations within Spider-Man 2. Questions about mass incarceration, recidivism, and reintegration into society for formerly incarcerated people; worries about the surveillance state and what we give up when we engage with modern technology. These things appear, however fleetingly, in Spider-Man 2, but there isn’t enough time to elaborate on any single one in the unrelenting march of set-piece after glorious set-piece.
But I’m glad they’re there, anyway. Because if we’re going to retell a story, we ought to retell it anew. Canons were made to be broken, and Spider-Man 2 swings in that direction. With a sequel teed up by the game’s final act, I’m eager to see where Insomniac goes with that momentum. Next stop: the Bronx.
Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 will be released Oct. 20 on PlayStation 5. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.