Masculinity Detox Case File #1: Spider-Man PS4
The Masculinity Detox Case Files will reinforce positive, non-toxic depictions of masculinity and manhood in pop culture.
I have wanted to write about Spider-Man PS4, but I didn’t want to just review a video game. I don’t know enough to review a video game. I feel like an idiot when I describe gameplay, especially because I am the worst kind of gamer. I will totally forgive average gameplay if they have a cool story. I was as invested in the ongoing adventurers of Nathan Drake as I was Breaking Bad. So, I needed to distill Spider-Man PS4 down to an essential element I wanted to talk about. I have also wanted to talk about toxic masculinity, because it is rampant. Lots of people are writing about it tackling it head on, and I wanted to do it differently. Mostly because I am not smart, interesting, or insightful enough to break it down. I’m just a guy who likes liking things and sharing my thoughts about those things. So, like Rose Tico, I’m not going to fight the things I hate. I am going to save things I love. That doesn’t make this a #NotAllMen bullshit excuse. This is to supplement some very valid call outs.
Spider-Man PS4 is the best Spider-Man movie ever. Social media has already fawned over this game so much that that is already cliche of me to say so. It is almost worse than saying “New York is it’s own character in this game.” But it is true. I’m not sure if many superhero movies have the balls to pull off the narrative twists that this game pulls off. SPOILERS obviously. There are multiple suicide bombings at one political rally in New York City, where the police officer father of Miles Morales, a predominant character in the games, is killed. This leads to a paramilitary security force being hired by the mayor, Norman Osborn in this game, to basically execute marshall law. Just as a reminder, Spider-Man is a happy-go-lucky Saturday morning cartoon character in a colorful costume. This game gets dark, and that is where the game sort of shines. It is hard to be Peter Parker.
Peter has always been shown to be poor. He’s from at-best a lower middle income family which lost its primary breadwinner. Twice, if you consider the biological parents we’ve never really met. Peter has seen his fair share of eviction threats, but in this game, he is literally homeless. He is also overeducated and underemployed, struggling to make ends meet working for Otto Octavius’ teeny tiny upstart tech development company, while also swinging around from inventions that anyone else would just patent and sell. Meanwhile, in his personal life, he looks like a flaky, unreliable asshole all the time because he is constantly answering police radio calls. And yet, he is the hero. He is our rock, our beacon, in all of the madness because he knows what’s worth fighting for and easily sacrifices for it. He is the type of guy who never expects you to do more than you can, but, when you can sense danger, lift a car over your head, and cross the entirety of Manhattan in less than 20 minutes, you need to do more. With great power, comes great responsibility.
So, despite it all, Spidey makes it his responsibility to help as much as he can, and yes, it does often take the form of the usual superhero nonsense. He captures thieves. He takes on the mob and mercenaries. He fights guys with silly pirate nicknames in Halloween costumes who could level city blocks with their science-run-amok powers. He pulls crazy stunts to stop runaway trains and falling cranes (I did not mean to rhyme).
But he also catches birds! One of the most derided parts of this game involves a side mission where Spidey catches carrier pigeons and sets them on the path back to their home. It starts pretty early in the game. You are coming out of the homeless shelter that Aunt May is running when you are flagged down by one of the shelter residents. He is a older man standing on a rooftop who tells you about how his pigeons broke out of their coop. Spidey promises to keep an eye out, and every so often while swinging aimlessly suddenly you’ll spot one of these birds and have to track it down. The more you catch, the more story you get on our bird-keeping friend. Like how they aren’t his birds. They’re his wife’s birds, but she has passed away. Now, the birds are even more important.
It hasn’t necessarily gone over well with fans because it is very low stakes even for a side mission. People are sort of wondering where the likes of Mysterio and the Lizard are. How come there are more birds than rogues to catch? At first, it sounds like a decent complaint, but how different is this really? It doesn’t matter what you are chasing, the gameplay is the same. Something needs to be caught, and you, player, need to get better at web-swinging if you want to catch them all. Or, at the same time, you can practice web-swinging during these missions so you’re better in other. You could make that part of Vulture’s fight. Change them to vampire bats and have Morbius at the end. It might be more satisfying to the nerd in your heart to see one more comic reference jammed in there, but that is a shallow change. Instead, you have Spidey just doing a nice thing for someone. He might as well be saving cats from trees. It is essentially the same thing.