One thing I love so much about Spider-Man is how so much of the narrative can be stripped down to its archetypes. Peter Parker is an unlucky kid who’s suddenly had this great power thrust upon him. Otto Octavius is a genius scientist doomed for tragedy. And Mary Jane Watson is the girl next door.
A lot of the fun of the various incarnations of Spidey, be it different adaptations or reimaginings across the multiverse (see: Spider-Punk or Spider-Ham), is seeing how the play with the familiar narrative. Spider-Man is so deeply embedded in the popular consciousness that it’s a barrel of fun seeing what each new story will do.
All this to say I absolutely love Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man in the eponymous video game. Peter is a wisecracking twenty-something who always seems at the very end of his rope. Octavius is a down-on-his-luck scientist who genuinely wants to make the world a better place. And Mary Jane, well she’s a particularly great part.
The classic Spider-Man mythos is has a bit of a problem with its women. Gwen Stacy was, up until recently, best known for getting fridged by a death that haunts Pete. Mary Jane’s primary feature is that she’s the hot girl Peter has longed for for ages. This has been rectified a bit recently: an alternate universe Gwen Stacy was the one who got bitten by a radioactive spider and, upon finding out about the main universe’s Gwen’s fate, outright expresses disgust at being, and I quote, “fridged off a bridge.” The Spider-Gwen comics also had her confronting the fact that so many versions of Gwen Stacy die falling from a bridge and reclaiming that aspect of her character’s history. It’s all really cool and Spider-Gwen has long been one of the comics I most look forwards to.
Insomniac’s Spider-Man does work to make MJ more of an interesting character (though not to the extent that Spider-Gwen remains instructs Gwen Stacy). In this story, she’s not a model or actress, but rather an investigative journalist for the Daily Bugle. She’s someone who’s decidedly good at what she does, and her job gives her opportunity to get up close with the action.
In fact, it’s some such investigation into the rise of a new gang in the city that leads to her and Peter running into each other again. You, as player, are also given the opportunity to play as Mary Jane as she sneaks around. So not only is she given a more active role in the narrative, but the mechanics of the game are used to put MJ front and center. In games like Spider-Man playing as ay character is an important thing. Strong characterization is mixed with the immersive nature of games; the goals and fragility of the character become your own (consider how powerful it is in The Last of Us to play as Sarah during the opening).
Gameplay-wise, the MJ segments aren’t perfect. Compared to webzipping Spidey, MJ’s sneaking and waiting varies a lot in how good it is. Much of the action is very scripted, with there usually being one way to get through the stage which leaves little room for player creativity or choice. But they are heavy in atmosphere and shine the spotlight on MJ who, as it happens, is quite wonderful.
Her journalistic chops and contacts make her a valuable ally of Peter’s (she knows he’s Spider-Man in this one, which also means for a complex and interesting dynamic). She’s a bold character, someone who willingly sticks her nose in trouble, even when it’s inarguably a bad idea. Her relationship with Peter is a complex one; they were together for a while and have been broken up for a while when the game begins. What’s real neat though, is that even still there’s a mutual attraction; MJ isn’t some unattainable goal for Peter, they’re both really into each other and things just didn’t work out last time. This distinction is important: MJ’s not the prize for Peter being good at Spider-Man and/or life, she doesn’t date him because he does x-y-z to impress her; she’s into him, she likes him for, well, him. Their whole chemistry is very mutual. All in all, she’s an interesting character and is a delightful reimagining of her.
It’s always interesting to see how stories reinvent themselves. You’ve the retcon of how Captain Marvel got her powers from a few weeks ago that was really cool, for example. And Insomniac’s Spider-Man puts a spin on Mary Jane that made her into one of my favorite characters in the game. Her and Spider-Man’s friend in the NYPD, Yuri Watanabe. Also Aunt May’s really cool in the game too.