This is the obligatory preamble where I tell you how much I enjoyed Spider-Man: Miles Morales—Platinum’d it, if you care about that kind of thing—before getting into a more substantive critique. The game is thrilling, and it’s beautiful, and it’s earnest, and it’s definitely worth playing if you’re invested in the character, and especially if you’ve managed to get your hands on a shiny-and-matte new PlayStation 5. And this isn’t a review, so let’s leave that there.
Miles Morales has two big themes. For my money, one lands beautifully, and the other falls utterly flat. First, there’s the idea that a lot of people don’t see Peter Parker as their Spider-Man, and that those people deserve a Spider-Man, too. Critically, this is not because Peter Parker sucks—this version of Peter is a perfectly stand-up cat—but simply because he’s currently more interested in home repair in Queens than bodegas in Harlem.
Miles steps in to fill this gap, and first things first, he proves himself to his new neighborhood specifically (sometimes by beating up bad guys, sometimes by de-icing a crane). He forges friendships. He makes the community stronger. It’s heartfelt, and legitimately rousing.
If you play all the game’s side stories and other sundry side-stuff, then this theme culminates in the image of Miles, in a spiffy new spider suit given to him by the community, standing triumphantly in front of a Black Lives Matter mural.
This is where we run into the game’s second theme, the one that sucks and doesn’t work: Namely, trust the system. Do things the right way. Expose bad actors, and sunlight will be the best disinfectant. Give the system a chance, and it’ll redound to justice in the end. (Without spoiling anything, we can acknowledge that this is what Miles and the main antagonist are ultimately fighting about).
Crime and policing are, hopefully-hyper-obviously, the place where these two themes are (to put it gently) at odds. Our Spider-Man, the Black Lives Matter Spider-Man, can’t really be an incrementalist, an institutionalist, or a tough-on-crime Conservative.
Yet in this game, “ex-cons” are incurably addicted to mayhem-for-its-own-sake, and cops are… just sort of there. Miles’ now-dead policeman dad is a figure of near-sainthood and pure beyond-the-grave inspiration, a beacon of decency and bravery—but the game sort of refuses to take a position on how normal those qualities are among police officers.
Cops show up when Miles is brawling, but they don’t really do much of anything. They’re not brave or cowardly. They shoot, but they never seem to hit anyone they’re aiming at or anyone they aren’t. They’re never a help, and only occasionally a hindrance. They’re no more characterized than the rank and file New Yorkers wandering around going “Ooh, it’s Spider-Man!”—and like those civilians, or like children in an Elder Scrolls game, they’re unattackable.
There are no important cop characters, other than Miles’ dad. Nor do any of the folks you’re helping seem to have any particular opinion about the police. The carceral state is presented as a value-neutral fact of life. Moreover, in this world, prison is a place where people go because they deserve it. Look at that dastard getting perp-walked in the game’s ending. Ah-ha! Justice is served. If you clear out enemy bases after finishing the main campaign, Miles will crack wise again and again about how the bad guy is now in prison. Take that! The system works.
This despite the fact that another villain runs one of the game’s four main goon factions from prison for the better part of the campaign. It’s not that corruption is impossible in the game’s logic. Corruption exists, and it’s wrong, but corruption isn’t something wrong with the system. If a supervillain buys off a prison guard, we don’t ask what kind of prison guard could be bought, or how rotten-to-the-core the whole prison-industrial complex might therefore be. (There’s one would-be whistleblower cop in the game’s in-world social media feed, but he never goes past saying that “someone’s covering something up,” and then we never hear from him again).
Look, you can’t blame the system for what criminals manage to do within it! Criminals are just gonna do crimes until you stop them, because that—doing crimes—is what criminals do.
Like, I didn’t play the previous Spider-Man game, so I was not prepared for the very first bit of interactivity in this new one to be me, as Miles, beating the shit out of a bunch of “felons” in orange jumpsuits and radio tracking collars. For the rest of the game, this weird parallel crime-society runs around doing crimes because they just love doing crimes.
The majority of them are coded white, so there’s that, but… fucking fuck. Let’s take a step back.
One of the core assumptions in your average superhero story is an equivalence between keeping people safe and upholding the law, which is to say between heroism and crimefighting. Now, the two do align perfectly well if the villain’s plan is to blow up a city, say, or on a smaller scale, if a bad guy is assaulting someone. But when the villain’s plan consists of shady real estate doings, or deploying unsafe energy technologies, then there’s a decent chance that the the harm being done is perfectly legal, and indeed that the non-superhero arms of the law will be on the villain’s side. This is doubly and triply true of the specific villainies that Black Lives Matter was founded to address, and which Miles Morales utterly avoids addressing.
Let’s not leave it merely implied: In this game with a suite of stealth and observation mechanics, multiple enemy factions who fight each other as well as you, and a core conceit of Miles going wherever the trouble is, there’s no design reason why we couldn’t or shouldn’t be fighting cops some of the time. After all, the premise of Black Lives Matter, if you think of it as anything but an empty slogan, is that the police are exactly the kind of danger from which Spider-Man would have a duty to protect his city.
By casually assuming that superheroes and police are on the same side, we run the risk of conflating heroism with law enforcement, and goodness itself with the law. (Hopefully I don’t have to explain in too much detail that some laws are unjust, and that even just laws can be enforced unjustly). Worse than that, we run the risk of conflating superheroes’ fun, righteous, nonlethal violence with the often quite lethal, objectively unproductive, completely unjustifiable violence that police officers and prison guards commit constantly.
In reality, very few of the world’s problems can be solved simply by hurting the bad people. Making the world better tends to be less vindictive than that, and let’s be real, more boring than that. And I wouldn’t call you a cynic for expecting a combat-focused AAA video game to ignore that particular truth, but the thing is, Miles Morales doesn’t ignore it entirely. In one side story, you thwart a supervillain’s plan to shut down a homeless shelter, because “having a shelter in Harlem reduces crime. Like, a lot.” In the game’s logic, then, people become criminals for understandable, pragmatic reasons—even if at some point after crossing that threshold they become crime-crazed goons.
Film Crit Hulk asks whether it’s even possible to craft beat-’em-up gameplay that avoids what he calls “the goon problem.” He says that games “have an inherent problem because they have to maximize the goon quotient to absurd degrees.” Basically, our hero needs a steady supply of largely interchangeable enemies, and so the game can’t help but tell us that their motivations are unimportant, if only by the sheer frequency with which we beat ’em up.
But like, it’s all in the ’em, isn’t it? Some of the goons in Miles Morales are private security for an evil corporation. Some of them could easily have been cops. Miles stops small instances of crime while exploring the game’s open world map of Manhattan. He could easily have stopped confrontations between the police and the community, too. Violent cops fit comfortably into the broader taxonomy of goons: It doesn’t really matter why they’re doing what they’re doing; what they’re doing is wrong, and so stopping them is heroic.
But the figure of the goon-cop doesn’t address Hulk’s actual, somewhat stranger question, namely whether a game can be about beating a bunch of people up while simultaneously subverting the goon problem. To demonstrate that you can absolutely do that (and more interestingly, to demonstrate how) let’s talk briefly about the Yakuza games.
With the notable exception of the recently-released Yakuza: Like a Dragon (which we’ll have to save for another day), the Yakuza games are jam-packed and jelly-tight with beat-’em-upesque realtime street brawling. They’re structured around climactic one-on-one confrontations, but they’re also replete with interstitial goons. For everything quirky and bizarre about them—most famously the way they manage to shift tone from wackiness to melodrama with shocking cohesion—these are games firmly in the goon-heavy AAA tradition that Hulk is invoking.
The Yakuza games’s substories (the rough equivalent of Miles Morales’ side stories) could be as straightforward as a fetch quest or as involved as infiltrating a cult—but they virtually always contrive a reason for a fist fight at some point in the proceedings. Once you’ve exposed the cult leader as a charlatan, for example, you then get to beat him up. (These are good video games).
You do sometimes fight classical goons—which is to say, rank and file enemies whose motivations you don’t care about—en route to the end of a substory. But there’s always some reason for the main fight. That reason might be absurd, or it might be deadly serious, but right then, it’s worth fighting over, and our hero will reliably talk about it once the fight is over, by way of denouncement. Ridiculously, these fist fights are stories with morals.
Yakuza’s power fantasy isn’t just about beating the shit out of people; it’s about solving problems by beating the shit out of people. Shifty characters change their ways after losing a fight. Gangsters work out intimate, complicated feelings by fighting and end in a place of mutual respect. Even the most fungible, most classically goony of enemies give you a line or two of dialogue before or after the fight, some small explanation or apology or entreaty that characterizes and individuates them just a little.
The point is that it’s perfectly possible for a video game protagonist to beat up a whole lot of people whose motivations they nonetheless care deeply about. For an even more consumate example of this (and hell, one that takes place in New York), try Treachery in Beatdown City, where the ’em you’re beating up is a small ensemble cast of people in (though not necessarily from) the neighborhood. Every fight is some social issue or other getting worked out, some microaggression going decidedly macro, some polemic playing out via piledrivers.
And look, I fully understand that putting police violence in Miles Morales, to say nothing of focusing on the violent cops’ motivations, would undercut the breezy tone that the game is going for in its open world segments. Everyone who considers Miles their Spider-Man deserves an escapist blockbuster just as much as anyone else does. Everyone deserves to be pandered to every now and again.
But it’s telling that the game doesn’t think it’s violating its freewheeling tone by bringing Black Lives Matter into the text. What the fuck do you think we’re talking about, when we talk about Black Lives Matter, if we’re not talking about police violence? If there’s no rampant police violence in this New York, then why is there a Black Lives Matter moment? And conversely, if Black Lives Matter is necessary in this New York, then why aren’t their goals on Miles’ to-do list? The ending gestures at this maybe getting dealt with later, but when Miles says that “not letting them get away with it” should be on the spider-docket, the “them” is not the carceral state. He means corrupt private interests, not corrupt public institutions, as though the two are firmly separable in terms of how they operate or the harm they do.
Again, it’s all in the ’em.
Because Miles Morales refuses to conceive of a politically radical ’em, goon-cop or otherwise, the game’s Black Lives Matter mural doesn’t refer to anything or even make sense in-world. It’s a fourth wall break, a well-intentioned feel-good easter egg, like an especially undisguised Stan Lee cameo. To ask how Black Lives Matter relates to the PDNY, as distinct from the NYPD, is to approach the game on something other than its own terms.
The mural is pandering, and fair enough. Everyone deserves to be pandered to every now and again. But in addition to deserving to be pandered to, those who consider Miles their Spider-Man deserve a richer power fantasy—one in which Miles doesn’t merely fight but solves shit, real shit, by fighting.