We are in the middle of a bull market for Spider-People. 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home — which made nearly $2 billion at the box office — gave us three Spider-Men in Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, and Tobey Maguire. That movie’s three-pronged multiverse was a drop in the bucket compared to last summer’s Across the Spider-Verse, which built on the foundation of its predecessor by including no fewer than 280 Spider-People, including an anthropomorphic jeep named Peter Parkedcar. Even Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man-less Spider-Man movies have gained some traction with audiences (at least, the ones that are about Venom and not Morbius the Living Vampire.)
It’s into that increasingly crowded Spider-Verse that the PlayStation 5 exclusive Spider-Man 2 arrives. A direct sequel to Insomniac’s PlayStation 4 hit (and its 2020 spinoff Spider-Man: Miles Morales), the Spider-Man video games are carving out their own place in the canon, carrying the weight of the character’s 60-year history while finding new avenues to explore. “Our philosophy from day one has been that we want to respect the DNA of the franchise, but we don’t want to be afraid to mix things up,” said senior creative director Bryan Intihar in a recent interview.
Having twice nailed the core experience of an open-world Spider-Man video game, Spider-Man 2 is largely an exercise in getting a lot more of a good thing. Where the first two games confined you to Manhattan, this one expands into Brooklyn and Queens, adding a new flight mechanic to help compensate for the boroughs’ lack of verticality. The side missions are more intricate and varied, and often more intimate, offering more perspective on a day-in-the-superheroic-life. And building on the first game’s customizable wardrobe, Spider-Man 2 gives you dozens of unlockable suits — letting you zip through the game dressed as the Spider-Men from every major Spider-Man movie, along with highlights from the comics and some clever original ones.
And whereas each of the first two games left you playing as a single Spider-Man, this one juggles both Peter Parker and Miles Morales, telling two stories and inviting players to swap between them in real time. “When we made the commitment to put Miles and Pete in the same world, we knew that eventually a game would star both of them together,” said Intihar. “There were definitely times I said to myself, ‘Why did we do two heroes?’ But I think when we ask that, that’s how we know we made the right decision, because that’s what’s going to lead to a unique experience.”
The game begins with both Peter and Miles at a crossroads. Peter, as usual, is struggling to balance superheroics with his personal life, though a new job at his rich friend Harry’s startup hints at a possible future where he can change the world in ways that go beyond shooting webs at bad guys. Miles is close to graduating high school and struggling with the college essay he knows could determine his future. (Of course, this is still a Spider-Man video game, so they’re also going toe-to-toe with a series of familiar baddies, including Sandman, Kraven the Hunter, and Venom.)
I thought about Across the Spider-Verse a lot as I played through Spider-Man 2, and not just because Spider-Man 2 features a handful of Spider-Verse-inspired costumes, or because the video-game version of Peter Parker makes a crowd-pleasing cameo in the movie. Like so many Spider-Man stories, Spider-Verse’s plot hangs on the hero making a mistake with unexpected and devastating consequences. The twist, in the film, is that his mistake is preventing a tragedy.
When the multiverse-hopping Miles Morales saves a life in an alternate reality called Mumbattan, that reality’s Spider-Man, Pavitr Prabhakar, is spared the pain of losing someone. The problem — as another alternate Spider-Man named Miguel O’Hara explains to Morales — is that a Spider-Man story requires a formative trauma. By saving Inspector Singh, Miguel says, Miles has denied Pavitr a pivotal bullet-point on the path to becoming a real Spider-Man. Which means, in essence, that Across the Spider-Verse is a movie-length argument about how to tell a Spider-Man story.
If Miguel O’Hara was right, Insomniac’s first Spider-Man game passed the “real Spider-Man” test. By the time the credits on the first game have rolled, Miles Morales has lost his morally upright father after an attack by the supervillain Mr. Negative, and Peter Parker has lost his wise, generous Aunt May in the fallout from a betrayal by his mentor, Otto Octavius.
Both of those choices are notable deviations from Spider-Man canon, even if they play out more like variations on a theme than truly uncharted territory for Peter Parker and Miles Morales. “Spider-Man the franchise has been around for a long time. We’re all looking for ways to tell stories. No one just wants to play the same story they read in a comic, right?” says Intihar. But “you never do anything for shock value,” adds senior game director Ryan Smith. “There are opportunities to change things up, but it’s always, ‘Does this make sense for the character?’”
It’s here that Spider-Man 2 most benefits from the foundation laid by the first two games. Chances are gamers will come to this installment having already spent significant time with these versions of these characters, and the problems set up by the events of the first game haven’t gone away: as Peter grapples with how to pay for the house he inherited from Aunt May, Miles struggles with his thirst for revenge against the man who killed his father. And these versions of these characters can only get deeper with time; Spider-Man 2 ends, like pretty much all modern Marvel properties, with an explicit nod to what we can expect to see in a sequel.
Even a casual Spider-Man fan can probably rattle off a few Spider-Man stories that just haven’t worked. I’ll go to bat for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, but I’ll pass on both Amazing Spider-Man movies. The comics, like all comics, are littered with weird ideas like a story about Aunt May almost marrying Doctor Octopus, or a story about a demon stealing Peter and Mary-Jane’s marriage, or a different story about Mary-Jane dying of cancer due to his radioactive semen.
But the best Spider-Man stories have always toyed with the canon, finding spots where it can be bent without breaking. When Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy wrapped up in 2007, Miles Morales hadn’t even been created yet. 20 years later, he was at the center of Into the Spider-Verse, which is probably still the best Spider-Man movie ever made. That also happened to be the same year Insomniac’s first Spider-Man video game dropped, and if the story spread across these games is more a remix than a reinvention of Spider-Man canon, the medium of telling this story in an open-world sandbox game does something unique for the character.
Playing Spider-Man 2, I started wondering if video games might actually be the best vessel for a Spider-Man story. There are many, many stories in comics and TV and film about Peter Parker being overwhelmed by the demands of his day-to-day life. But it’s another thing entirely to experience the whiplash-inducing effect of interrupting a phone call with your girlfriend to stop a speeding car, then zipping across town to take a meeting about a job opportunity that might be the windfall you so desperately need, only to swing away and start the cycle all over again.
Despite the open-world sandbox, this is a scripted game with a traditional cinematic arc, and Spider-Man 2’s overarching story will be the same for everyone. (There is, after all, a canon to be upheld.) But it’s in the quieter moments that the game’s take on these extremely familiar superheroes begins to feel like something you can personalize. The game’s expansiveness means everyone who plays will experience it a little differently: in the way you traverse the city, the points you allocate to develop Peter and Miles’s unique skill sets, and in the parts of the game you choose to embrace or ignore.
A moment of apparently infinite appetite for Spider-People in popular culture is an ideal time for a game that lets you toy with what kind of Spider-Person you want to be — even if that’s a story that’s largely unfolding inside each player’s head. “The Spider-Verse movie said it: Anybody can wear the mask. I think that’s what we need to embrace, as storytellers,” says Intihar. Those dozens of unlockable costumes double as an invitation to each individual player to find the Spider-Man they want to be; by the end of the game, every player should be able to find one that feels like it fits.