Remember that really good Spider-Man game from a couple of years ago? Well, there’s more of it now. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales might have the most proper nouns in a title since Mary Marcy May Marlene (which starred Marvel’s Scarlet Witch: Wanda Maximoff, of course), but that’s about the only unwieldy thing about it. Pitched somewhere between a sequel and a DLC expansion, this abbreviated Spider-Man adventure takes place in the same New York as the original game, and after its story wrapped up. It brings back everything good about that game, while also serving as a fantastic introduction to the new hardware of the PlayStation 5. (Don’t worry, there’s also a PlayStation 4 version.) And it includes one major change that impacts the entire tone and tenor of the game in a positive way: instead of Peter Parker, it focuses on Miles Morales, the teenaged Spider-Man who’s part Black, part Puerto Rican, and entirely more interesting at this point than the Spider-Man we’ve known for the last 58 years.
I’m not trying to knock Peter. Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s original Spider-Man is still about as perfect as superheroes get—a hard-luck, hard-working, guilt-ridden self-insert character whose initial insecurity and nerdiness should be relatable to pretty much every reader, regardless of their race, gender or socioeconomic background. The thing is we’ve had almost 60 years of Peter Parker stories, and the well went dry long ago—probably either when they had him get married back in the ‘80s, or when they had him make a deal with a devil to undo that marriage in the ‘00s, depending on your POV. It’s time for Peter to cede the videogame spotlight to somebody younger, more modern, and who hasn’t already starred in every possible story at least three times over by now. And yes, it helps that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which came out three months after that Spider-Man game, blew Miles Morales up from a cult favorite comic book character to a firmly established mainstream hero. If Sony was unsure about Morales as the lead of a blockbuster game back in 2018, that movie should have settled any doubts.
Miles shares a lot in common with the canonical depiction of Peter Parker—which explains the quick friendship they establish in these games. Miles is a brilliant kid who has to deal with the loss of a loved one and the unexpected emergence of superpowers while also learning how to become comfortable in his own skin during his tumultuous teen years. The game adds onto his adolescent stress by placing him in a new home—he and his mother just moved from the Bronx to Harlem, where she’s running for city council—and forcing him to confront how childhood friendships can change and get complicated as you grow up. This is all told with writing and voice-acting that’s a little more subtle and human than what you might expect from big budget action games. It’s also smartly set during the Christmas holiday, which doesn’t just make it visually distinct from the last game, despite taking place in the same virtual recreation of New York City, but also adds a welcome bit of warmth during a real-life moment when the holidays are poised to feel very different than they usually do.
Despite there being no sign of a pandemic, Miles Morales feels far more in tune with the real world and the current political moment than the last game did. One of the main themes is gentrification and how so-called “progress” tends to destroy disadvantaged communities for the benefit of the privileged. Roxxon, the almost comically evil oil corporation that has loomed large in Marvel stories since the ‘70s, has developed what they tout as a miracle energy source that generates clean, sustainable, affordable energy. They plan to build the first reactor at a massive new facility in Harlem, just down the street from Miles’s block. Of course that energy source turns out to be deadly to anybody who lives near it, so although it might power much of Manhattan, it would spell almost certain doom for the people of Harlem.
Miles doesn’t just have to contend with Roxxon, though. A new urban terrorist squad called the Underground are squarely focused on taking Roxxon out, and despite supposedly doing this for the good of the people of New York, they don’t seem to care all that much about collateral damage—up to and including the deaths of innocent bystanders. The Underground sport fancy high-tech gimmicks designed by a new version of the classic Spidey villain The Tinkerer, and come off like an armed and far more organized version of what real-life right-wing fearmongers want you to think antifa is—namely, a violent militia of anarchists. If you’re familiar with the last Spider-Man game, both the Underground and Roxxon represent new factions that you’ll fight regularly throughout the city, much like the escaped convicts, street gangs, and Inner Demons you’d fight in the first one.
If positioning both an explicitly evil corporation’s private army and a group who is clearly a stand-in for antifa as being equally bad gives you pause, well, it probably should. There’s absolutely a streak of bothsidesism in this game. It goes out of its way to establish that the Underground actually started as an apolitical criminal gang, and was then given the veneer of a political motivation by The Tinkerer, who’s using them for aims that are more personal than political, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Underground initially represents a faulty concept ripped straight from conspiratorial dead-enders and disingenuous partisans like Tucker Carlson or Newsmax. It’s not nearly as odious as what happens in, say, Bioshock Infinite, but it’s not entirely removed from that scenario, either.
That uneasy relationship with real-life politics is the biggest sticking point in a game that’s fun, well-designed, and powerfully written. Miles Morales wants to comment on politics but can’t—or isn’t allowed to—say much that’s honest or perceptive about the world we live in. As former Paste editor Gita Jackson writes at Vice, when Miles Morales pays tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement—a choice that’s both commendable and perfectly befitting the game’s characters and setting—it doesn’t have the courage (or the corporate permission) to actually engage with the societal issues that make that movement necessary. It strips all depth out of the game’s worldview, making it feel less like the timely, grounded superhero story it wants to be and more like every other comic book that doesn’t want to offend anybody.
That doesn’t completely undermine Miles Morales, though, for three main reasons. Mechanically and structurally, it’s as exhilarating as its predecessor, with the simple act of moving through the city providing almost endless enjoyment. Secondly, this is one of the most visually staggering recreations of New York seen in games—at least on the PlayStation 5, and when running at 4K in HDR. This is probably the best single example yet of the graphical power of the new console. Finally, and most importantly, although the story can’t commit to its political ambitions, it is genuinely emotional and moving in how it depicts Miles’s relationships with his friends, his family, his enemies—and even those who are all three.
Still, simply acknowledging real world problems isn’t enough, even if most games refuse to even do that. If Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is going to raise real-life issues, it needs to treat them with the respect and thoughtfulness that they deserve. As good as this game is, it could’ve been something genuinely special if it was as brave and confident as the comic book hero it stars.
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales was developed by Insomniac Games and published by Sony. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available for PlayStation 4.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.