Let’s Discuss Marvel’s Spider-Man’s Ending

My fellow fanatics, by now it is no surprise Marvel’s Spider-Man for PlayStation 4 is a truly spectacular game. A triumphant experience crafted to a perfect representation of the wisecracking wallcrawler thanks to the talent at Insomniac Games. A studio who set out not just to adapt Spidey’s world to the modern day, but to tell the most iconic Spider-Man story they could with the character in his prime.

And with the final bit of downloadable content wrapping up the “City That Never Sleeps” trilogy of bonus content now available for all players to enjoy, I think it’s prudent that we truly observe and appreciate the pivotal sequence of Marvel’s Spider-Man, one that made it not just an award-winning game of the year of 2018 (I don’t care what The Game Awards say!) but finally pushed forward the character of Spider-Man in a way that the comics have been shied away from for decades. A scene that somehow went completely undiscussed by major gaming outlets, the coverage mostly focusing on J. Jonah Jameson being re-imagined as an Alex Jones-esque talk show personality and the Stan Lee cameo, so in clear defiance of topicality and the clickbait mentality that keeps this site’s lights on I want to discuss it now.

Of course this also means that this piece will be discussing serious plot spoilers. If you haven’t played Marvel’s Spider-Man yet or are going to be angry at story spoilers, this is your chance to get out now. Check out the newest Full Circle if you haven’t yet. Go on, I won’t hold it against you.

So everything leading up to the final act of Marvel’s Spider-Man is a daunting challenge that brings Peter Parker to his limits. All of his greatest enemies have broken out of prison to form The Sinister Six. The city is being ravaged by a horrible virus known as Devil’s Breath, and the only known cure for the disease is in the hands of the leader of the Six, Doctor Octavius. Martial law has been enforced, the city is on the brink, and Spidey is caught in the middle of it.

Emotional stakes are also at their breaking point. Doctor Octavius has been meticulously portrayed as a sympathetic individual: a scientist continuously brought low by lack of funding or recognition. He even develops a surrogate father relationship with Peter, who had been serving under him as a laboratory assistant at the beginning of the game’s story. But, when he finally has the chance to change the world with a new neuroprosthesis, something that Peter had a hand in creating, it is used to carry out revenge against those who have wronged him in the form of giant robotic tentacles controlled by his mind.

And if things weren’t bad enough for our protagonist having to face the demon of a man he once respected while the fate of New York hangs in the balance, there is also a large ticking clock hanging over proceedings. Among the infected patients with mere hours to live is Aunt May.

Fast-forward to the game’s final battle against the now full-on supervillain Doctor Octopus and, despite it being mechanically simple: dodge attacks then counterattack, a lot of the emotional beats are struck with bravado. Starting with a more traditional superhero vs. supervillain beat down with tentacle arms and web fluid flying until it finally devolves into a brutal and nasty fistfight with suits being destroyed and declarations of a friendship fundamentally destroyed.

Then… we finally get to the scene. Spider-Man has gotten the antidote from Doctor Octopus, but Aunt May only has minutes left to live. There is enough of the cure to save her right now, but then there won’t be enough for the doctors to mass produce for the rest of the city.

So… Peter is forced to make a big choice: save his Aunt or save New York.

Then the scene goes from tragic to unrelentingly heart-destroying when May asks for her nephew to take off the mask. That she has known for a while that he is Spider-Man and that she is so proud of him for all of the lives he’s saved.

And that he knows what he has to do. And the scene ends with Peter crying over May as she finally dies.

So… there is a lot to unpack here. I have been a fan of Spider-Man for as long as I can remember. I know his most iconic stories, I’ve watched most of the cartoons starring him, and have fond memories of playing games with him in it. But this ending of Marvel’s Spider-Man actually had the guts and the confidence to kill off one of his closest supporting characters… and made it work.

In a way, this is thanks to Insomniac Games’ updating of the character. From the minute the game starts, it is very clear that this is the Millennial generation’s Spider-Man. Peter has already had his powers for about eight years and has been fighting crime, putting him in his mid-twenties. He’s not selling photos of himself to the Daily Bugle but is actually applying his scientific mind as an assistant with the aforementioned Doctor Octavius. He maintains a completely believable student/teacher dynamic with supporting character Miles Morales throughout the plot. And the majority of the game’s side missions and activities is some form of environmental or technological ill the city is suffering from, one caused by neglect or ignorance by those in charge.

In a lot of ways, Peter Parker is taking the famous words “with great power comes great responsibility” to an even higher standard. As the tagline for the game states: Be greater.

All well and good for making a gaming narrative feel bigger and more important…but Spider-Man hasn’t exactly had the best track record with actually following through on things. The comics have always found a way to have their cake and eat it too with Peter Parker’s development. The death of Uncle Ben is what ultimately makes him become a superhero, an origin story right up there with Superman and Batman in terms of general familiarity. The soft reboot of the character going into what people know as the Bronze Age of comics came with the death of his girlfriend Gwen Stacy and the death of his greatest archenemy, the Green Goblin. But no matter how bad things get, Aunt May is still around and continues to be a support structure for Peter when things get unbearable.

For a while, it helped give the character a level of hope, but I also noticed it developed a level of implicit entitlement. That having Aunt May around is some form of cosmic reward for all of the sacrifices Peter makes as a superhero and a man trying to do good in his everyday life. In fact, that level of entitlement became pronounced in the fanbase when they actually tried to kill off Aunt May in the 90s… then retconned it with a convoluted plot involving clones and fake-outs when the fan reactions got too pronounced.

But the greatest instance of destroying potential character growth came with the maligned Spider-Man: One More Day. A controversial storyline where Peter Parker reveals to the world he is Spider-Man, then Aunt May is fatally wounded by an assassin hired by the Kingpin to kill our hero. And somehow in a universe full of reality-warping wizards, super scientists, medical geniuses, and the greatest minds to ever lived, all of which Spidey has active friendships with, no one can help save her. So, instead of taking responsibility for his actions and finally growing as a person, boldly stepping into a new phase of his life without his surrogate parents and starting a legacy of his own… Peter Parker makes a deal with the Devil to save Aunt May’s life and wipe the world’s memory of him being Spider-Man, giving up his happy marriage with Mary Jane as payment.

The key phrase there is “taking responsibility.” As in one of the central tenets to the character’s entire ethos. And we have a story where our hero is so scared of losing a mother figure, he effectively throws his wife under the bus and hits the rewind button on decades of development. To say that the writers of Spider-Man are scared of letting death stick with examples like these is like saying the ocean is wet.

Going back now to the Aunt May death in Marvel’s Spider-Man, and all of their bases are covered. There is genuine pathos here, she knew he was a superhero and quietly supported him the whole time until finally telling him on her deathbed. Drawing from Dan Slott’s legendary run on Amazing Spider-Man, this version of Aunt May runs a homeless shelter, in a way she is inspired by the good Peter has done as Spider-Man and wants to give back in her own small way. This wasn’t a poor frail woman getting by on positive thinking and delicate action but a spry woman active in community service during her olden years. The context for the death is both noble and tragic in the way the best Spider-Man stories are, you have to sacrifice something you love for the greater good, and Yuri Lowenthal absolutely sells how much losing her hurts…but he makes the right decision anyway.

And despite what the writers of the comics think, the denouement that follows shows nothing but potential for the future. Peter and MJ’s relationship becomes more certain. Miles Morales reveals he has spider powers as well, letting Peter fully embrace his new role as teacher. But above all, something happens that the core source material has been scared of: it lets Peter finally grow up completely into his own.

2018 has been full of amazing moments in gaming. But I want to be sure that this scene and this ending doesn’t get overlooked. A fantastic moment not just as interactive entertainment, but a continuation in a beloved character’s overarching narrative that some have been waiting for years to happen. We may have had the sad subtlety of God of War or the grandness of Red Dead Redemption II, but I will always remember this year as the one where Aunt May died.

And the fact that I loved it even as it tore me to shreds makes it even better.

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