This past weekend, I finally finished Insomniac’s Spider-Man video game for PlayStation 4. Not only is the gameplay a blast with the design making it feel like the true successor to 2004’s Spider-Man 2 (one of my favorite games), but Insomniac’s story department knocked it out of the park with a true understanding of Peter Parker’s ethos and ways to challenge that ethos in new and unexpected ways.
Spoilers ahead for Spider-Man.
One of the cleverest things that Spider-Man does is turn Dr. Otto Octavius from a nemesis to a mentor, so you spend most of the game waiting for Octavius to turn, but until you get to that point, you see the bond and friendship between Peter and Otto. You know that the turn is coming, but there’s a lot of sympathy built in so that you feel what will be lost when Otto eventually becomes Doctor Octopus. The story makes an incredibly smart move by making it seem like Peter and Otto are on the same page with regards to responsibility, specifically that because they’re both gifted with scientific genius, they owe it to others to use that genius to help people. The entire game carries through the weight of this responsibility as we see Peter unable to catch a break, even getting kicked out of his apartment and becoming homeless because he can’t pay his rent.
When Octavius finally becomes Doc Ock, Peter thinks that his life as Spider-Man is still a secret, and that there’s a way to fight his mentor and still save him. But in a great reveal, Peter’s belief is shattered when an egomaniacal Ock reveals that he knew Spider-Man was Peter and tried to kill him anyway. That’s when Peter absolutely loses it and becomes unleashed on Ock. Peter wins their battle, and in a final conversation, Ock reveals that it’s their responsibility not to help people, but that those beneath them must be governed by the strong. Peter, disgusted, leaves a beaten Octavius to the police.
What makes this such a smart conclusion is that traditionally in the comics, Peter’s sole mentor figure is Uncle Ben. Yes, he may get assistance from Dr. Conners and others, but there’s rarely been an emotional bond that specifically speaks to Peter’s belief about responsibility. That belief comes into stark focus in his relationship with Ock because it shows that mentors can let us down and betray us. The thing about Uncle Ben is he basically died a saint. For the Peter Parker mythos to function, Uncle Ben’s words must be beyond reproach because “With great power comes great responsibility” is at the core of Spider-Man. It’s essential to what makes him a hero.
Octavius represents a betrayal of that responsibility. In Insomniac’s Spider-Man, Doc Ock is a monster that Peter helped create because of his blind trust and belief that Octavius held the same respect for responsibility when it was clear that Ock was driven by rage and vengeance. Peter thinks he and Ock are kindred spirits, but continually misses his own selflessness (not just in how he saves people constantly, but also how he lives a crummy life in order to do so) and Ock’s need for validation and revenge.
But it’s not just enough to defeat Ock in battle; Peter must also defeat Ock’s ethos and the challenge it presents to Peter’s belief about responsibility. That brings us to a scene with Aunt May dying in a hospital bed after being infected with the Devil’s Breath bioagent, and Peter possessing the antiserum that will save her. However, he’s told if he uses the antiserum to save Aunt May, there won’t be enough to save everybody else.
In a lesser narrative, killing off Aunt May would be a cheap ploy for sentiment, but Spider-Man earns it because Peter is faced with the choice of saving Aunt May at the cost of everybody else or letting her die. And that’s the great responsibility of his character crystallized. It’s not about beating up drug dealers or Sable Agents on the streets of New York. It’s about knowing that the need to help as many people as possible, no matter the personal cost, is what makes Peter who he is.