Insomniac’s Spider-Man for PS4 is a very good game. Some would go so far as to call it great. This group apparently includes the Marvel executives who compare the game to the 2008 Iron Man film that kickstarted the now mythical – and unbelievably lucrative – Marvel Cinematic Universe. That comparison has naturally inspired some to consider the increasingly likely possibility that Marvel may use Spider-Man as the basis for a Marvel games universe.
I sincerely believe that Spider-Man can be the foundation for a Marvel gaming universe. However, if Marvel is serious about such a universe succeeding, then the company needs to learn from the mistakes it made when creating its cinematic universe.
When you look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you quickly remember that things didn’t really get cooking until the later phases. That doesn’t mean that the movies in phase one were terrible. Iron Man was incredible, Captain America: The First Avenger was at least interesting, and The Avengers was revolutionary. However, phase one (and two) also contain some of the absolute worst MCU movies.
Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World…there is a quality that unites the creative failures of that time period in the MCU, and it is complacency. When Iron Man became a surprise critical and box office hit, Marvel undoubtedly took some time to think about what it had on its hands and why it worked.
In the process, the studio did what every company on Earth does when it finds success: Marvel tried to replicate that success. Many of those early bad MCU movies suffered because they followed a formula of action, visual design, and dialogue/plot structure that resulted in diminishing returns. Marvel mistakenly believed that its name value and the name value of the characters who starred in these films were enough to keep the gravy train on its tracks. What the studio didn’t seem to realize – or appreciate – at the time was that Iron Man was widely successful because it was different from comic book films that came before and because it was good.
I mention this in relation to the theoretical Marvel games universe because it’s already easy to see how Marvel could become complacent with what Spider-Man delivered. I really liked Spider-Man, but the reason I didn’t necessarily love Spider-Man is that it played things very safe. Its core design was very similar to 2018’s God of War in many respects, which was, itself, very similar to many other games released over the past few years.
Large worlds, lots of side quests/collectibles, upgrade systems, gradual map unlocking — all of these aspects can be good on their own, but the problem is that more and more developers are combining them in a very specific way that’s resulted in the same basic product. Insomniac threw in a few special ingredients (the charms of Spider-Man, an excellent web-slinging system, a very good story), but the developer ultimately chose to adhere to a somewhat strict formula regardless of whether or not certain elements (radar towers, lengthy stealth sections, several upgrade options) really belonged in the game.
It would be very easy for Marvel to point to Spider-Man and tell Insomniac – or another developer – “We want this game, but with Iron Man/but with Thor/but with Captain America/but with the Incredible Hulk.” To Marvel’s credit, those games would probably sell very well. After all, even most of the “bad” MCU movies performed well at the box office. What’s going to eventually happen, though, is the same thing that happened with the MCU and what is currently happening to the DCEU (to a certain extent). Fans are going to start gradually mistrusting the value of the Marvel games universe if it starts to deliver experiences that are similar to — but not as refreshing as — the game that kicked the whole thing off.
Fortunately, Marvel already knows the solution to this problem because it’s already employed it to save the creative future of the MCU. The studio just needs to make sure that MGU games represent the voices of their creators.
Much like Taika Waititi lent Thor: Ragnarok an almost anime-like world and scale, let Devolver Digital produce a Deadpool game worthy of the hero’s passion for the absurd. Much like James Gunn turned sharp dialogue and perfectly placed music into lethal weapons in Guardians of the Galaxy, let Naughty Dog make a Captain America game that captures the hero’s almost film serial-like sense of adventure. Let Blizzard make an X-Men action game, let Ninja Theory take a stab at Daredevil, and let Epic Games have a crack at the Incredible Hulk.
Marvel needs to give multiple studios the chance to leave their own creative mark on the Marvel games universe. Granted, that’s a scary path that could lead to failure. We’ve seen Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite struggle, Telltale’s Guardians of the Galaxy prove to be something of a bust, and there’s still that mysterious Square Enix Avengers project we’re waiting to hear more about. There are reasons for Marvel to be wary of allowing multiple studios to pitch so many ideas.
However, just as movies like Black Panther, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Avengers: Infinity War set new standards for MCU excellency by reflecting a particular creator’s skills and sensibilities, Marvel needs to trust other game studios the way that it trusted Insomniac. The company needs to believe that multiple, capable creative voices have more long-term value than the repetition of a formula. Otherwise, you get EA and Star Wars.
I liked Insomniac’s Spider-Man, but I hope I don’t see too many future Marvel games like it.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.