In comics, long loved by Black, brown, and queer fans who never got that same love back, the conventional superhero upheld a mid-century America’s status quo: mostly white, mostly male, almost universally straight. Despite a costume that covered him top to toe, the whiteness of Spider-Man held fast for half a century, his Peter Parker alter ego as sacred as the red-and-blue tights to a generation of fans and most comic-book creators. That changed with Miles Morales. Created in 2011 by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man, the premise behind Miles was simple: Maybe in 1962, the average New York City teen would look like Peter Parker. But in the 21st century? Almost definitely not. So Miles Morales, the young Afro-Latino teen who could also do whatever a spider could, began having his own adventures parallel to Peter Parker’s, only to explode in popularity with the superb 2018 film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Likewise, video games are only just starting to reflect the diversity of people who play them. In Spider-Man: Miles Morales, the new PlayStation follow-up to 2018’s Spider-Man, one sometimes chafes at the overwhelmingly celebratory representation that Insomniac Games, a big-budget studio undergoing its own attempts to diversify, renders like an extended series of high fives and winks for its friends of color: Miles speaks bad Spanglish, and he invites his friends over for a nochebuena feast of incredibly rendered pasteles, tostones, y arroz con gandules. Being pandered to is nice, but it raises questions of depth and intent — questions Miles Morales doesn’t always have answers to. But even when it frustrates, it’s a fun game that knows where it came from — and provides hints of where it needs to go.
In the game, you play as the rookie webslinger, who’s being trained by Peter Parker. Then, Peter leaves town for work and leaves Miles as the city’s sole webslinger. Our backup Spidey starts in off-the-shelf athleticwear and a Spider-Man mask, not even fully aware of all of his powers. By the time you’re done with the game, though, you probably won’t care if Peter returns. Rooted in an attempt to portray a real New Yorker circa 2020, and not some updated ’60s ideal, New York City takes on a different character, one that’s interested in reflecting Miles’s Blackness and Latinidad. His mom is Puerto Rican, and he has an abuela back on the island. His late father is Black, and he left behind both a legacy as a distinguished NYPD officer and his Art Blakey records. The soundtrack infuses generic blockbuster movie strings with hip-hop beats, bombastic horns, and the occasional Kid Cudi–Jaden Smith track. Miles speaks ASL with a neighbor. You can even pet (and eventually, borrow) a bodega cat. There’s a level of cultural specificity that is still hard to find in big-budget games, especially for a superhero title.
Despite all the fun — the food, the art, the music, the language — that defines the experience of Black and brown New Yorkers, it still feels like a tourist’s notion of a game about New York City. His relationship with his father is a complicated bit of subtext the game isn’t interested in parsing: A real-world Miles is astonishingly likely to have had at least one bad run-in with the cops, but in the game they only come around to apprehend the criminals you stop and offer bits of canned beat-patrolman dialogue. A Black Lives Matter mural in a highly trafficked part of the city is a commendable gesture from the game’s developers in an industry accustomed to silence, but it’s not a phrase any main characters ever utter. At the level of gameplay, Miles moves differently from Peter, but he doesn’t control any differently: The same buttons execute the same perfect-feeling web-swing and generate the same sort of small talk. These are the limits of big-budget video games. In order to conserve labor-intensive resources, the character of color is propped up by scaffolding built for the white one that came first.
And when the populace is threatened in Miles Morales, it’s by corporate goons who want to open the game’s equivalent of Amazon HQ2 in Upper Manhattan, not the institutional rot that has set in all around them. In a side story, a Harlem charity from the earlier Spider-Man, F.E.A.S.T., is about to have its combination soup kitchen and shelter shut down by the city after a plumbing issue. After a little web-slinging, you find out hired goons sabotaged the shelter’s water supply. Pull a little more thread, and you eventually learn that Harlem is being actively undermined from prison by Wilson Fisk, the locked-up (white) Kingpin of Crime, who is looking to tank the neighborhood for his own purposes. And his plan would’ve worked, after all; you don’t have to visit F.E.A.S.T., and the game doesn’t force you to help with their problem. Presumably, the shelter would otherwise just shut down, a neighborhood tragedy in a city full of them. Most of the game’s energy is spent on easy targets like the megacorporation Roxxon and the Tinkerer, a high-tech masked gang leader, but the New York of Miles Morales suffers from more than just corporate greed and costumed crime.
It’s not that Insomniac Games’ take on Peter Parker is bad — 2018’s Spider-Man is perhaps the best interpretation of the character in recent memory, a version that fully understands what makes the character tick and why he’s so beloved. Spider-Man is the ultimate New Yorker, completely anonymous and also unforgettably colorful, and his method of transit — web-swinging and wall-crawling through Manhattan’s skyscrapers — is a set of superpowers as pure NYC wish fulfillment. Miles Morales, however, is burdened with the legacy of the previous game, one that saw the Peter Parker version of Spider-Man as a totemic figure, an avatar of nobility that anyone can relate or aspire to. He’s a blank canvas, and his New York City feels blank as a result. That blankness might have worked when Spidey was an “Everyman” who defaulted to whiteness, but the thin canon for a character like Miles demands more.
This is a Spider-Man story, where power and responsibility are never far from the mind, and more than most comic-book characters, Miles Morales’s story is still being written. Spider-Man: Miles Morales does an admirable job trying to tell its story responsibly even if, like its gangly teen protagonist, it frequently stumbles.