Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a showpiece game for the PlayStation 5. While it’s available on PS4, and the packed in Astro’s Playroom is a more obvious tech demo of the console’s new features (many of which will almost certainly be left behind and forgotten by third parties), Miles is an important piece of the subtler factors that define the new hardware. Next to nil load times and the ability to start entire side quests instantly could seriously transform the way games are played. And it comes wrapped around a character who is just plain better to play as than Peter Parker.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has carved a very conservative modern view of its comic book counterparts: both politically and creatively. It forces characters into a mold and continuity that, while constant, doesn’t usually change very much. Compare that to stories where Daredevil is at times a guilty Catholic, a smug swashbuckler, or the demonically possessed lord of an undead ninja army. “Cape and cowl” comics are simply better when they reinterpret characters again and again, and are forced to reckon with the consequences of those never-ending layers of identity. At least if we’re going to keep telling stories about the same six dudes at all.
Miles Morales — one of two coexisting Spider-Men originally brought over from a dead universe — lives outside that rigid canon. Disney preferred to reboot the same white kid again than give the newer hero his shot in the world that it thinks matters. Grasping for straws of originality, it even took elements from Miles whole cloth (his best friend, his status as a younger hero which Peter hasn’t enjoyed for at least a few decades) and transplanted them onto the older character. Meanwhile Miles was relegated to the spinoff animated film, Into the Spider-Verse, where his presence wouldn’t complicate the already encyclopedic MCU.
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And it all worked out for the best! Spider-Verse (the movie, not the comic that inspired it, nor the game that inspired that) is fantastic largely because it experiments. Miles Morales is now as much of a household name as someone not in a Disney first property can be in American media. More importantly, his reinterpretations are more interesting, and force the characters around him to be more interesting, too.
That’s where Peter still has his place. His schlubby incarnation in Spider-Verse reckons with a long history of “Parker Luck” soaked into the comics. He’s beaten, broken, depressed, and still puttering along thanks to the opportunities afforded to a nominally middle class white dude. He’s also experienced. Because for better or worse he’s been allowed to play the hero time and again.
Miles, by contrast, has to work harder for less respect. The Insomniac game gets that. He’s “the other Spider-Man” or “the new guy.” There’s a racial undercurrent here that neither the movie nor the game really wrestles with enough. It feels especially absent in Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Its predecessor had a glowing interpretation of American police, including Miles’s own father. Meanwhile there’s a prominent Black Lives Matter mural permanently affixed to this game. The Black Lives Matter movement is specifically a response to the demonstrably racist and overmilitarized police force in this country — doubly so in places like New York City, where everything Marvel takes place.
But Miles also has more to overcome because he has more to master. “Venom powers” and invisibility are key parts of his superhero puberty. They’re also sick as shit. They let him pepper liquid lightning over his combos and escape back into stealth with ease. They’re perfect for the high-flying combat and sneaky breaks in the action Insomniac has crafted. Everything makes just a little more sense when you have bio-electricity to build up, heal with, and fire away as a player. Damn near anything can be explained away with “venom power.” And upgrading it works as a metaphor for growing into Miles’s role.
By contrast, anything more interesting Peter Parker did, in the previous game, was usually just “gadgets.” That works fine to show what a good little nerd he is, too, but doesn’t feel like a natural progression of the person or the power. They’re add-ons. They’re magic tricks. They come from without.
That has its place, too. Miles Morales cocreator Brian Michael Bendis once explained why his version of Peter sported mechanical web-shooters. Organic spinnerets were, at the time, more recognizable thanks to the Sam Raimi trilogy of pre-MCU Spidey films. Whereas Bendis wrote Peter’s parents as designing the compound used in his iconic webs — with that Spider-Man finishing the formula in his basement.
Bendis said it was to create a connection between the character and his deceased scientist folks. He wanted something tying them together. Big budget games are rarely that bespoke. They can work an emotional tie like that into a cutscene, but that rarely has the same oomph as something reflected in play. And if you’re going to play as Spider-Man, you’re going to swing around the city from the jump.
The powers Miles develops over his own game let him grow naturally — layered over the necessities of a game about these characters while giving room for variety. That often devolves into “punch a generator.” Insomniac struggles to find ways for his unique powers to solve unique problems… But overall it evolves around the game more naturally than “Peter invented a big web bomb or something.”
It looks great, too. That liquid lightning was probably meant to show off the power of the PS5 as well. Whatever the reason, I’m glad it’s there. Spider-Man: Miles Morales replaces much of the cruft of the first game with better combat, thanks to a character better suited to video games. It’s absolutely the showpiece it was intended to be, and then some.