There’s a new cop in town, and he’s proven very divisive among fans of Marvel’s excellent new Spider-Man game for PS4. In all seriousness, some people are totally bugged that Spider-Man seemingly loves authority and supports the efforts of the NYPD — even when their surveillance tactics seem unethical and invasive.
Insomniac Games released Marvel’s Spider-Man earlier this month, and the game’s portrayal of the NYPD — and Spider-Man’s relationship with the police — make for the only bit of controversy surrounding the game.
The symbol of this controversy is no doubt Spider-Cop.
But what — or who — is Spider-Cop?
Throughout Spider-Man, Peter Parker’s main source of human connection comes via his relationship with NYPD captain Yuri Watanabe. They’re in constant communication about everything from random crimes to the game’s more prominent story missions. Often, Spidey will mop up a group of bad guys and call Yuri so she can send some officers to take them away. Spider-Man does all the hard work, and the police are mostly on clean-up duty.
Spidey and Yuri’s banter about the state of crime in New York City is the main narrative throughline of the entire game. Yuri’s often super-serious, so one of the best running jokes that Spider-Man uses to lighten the mood is “Spider-Cop,” a fan fiction about himself as a grizzled NYPD veteran, performed via third-person narrative in a deeper voice.
The joke, in its entirety, runs only about four minutes in a game that could take players close to 40 hours, but plenty of critics have latched onto poor Spider-Cop as some king of scapegoat and symbol of the game’s supposedly problematic portrayal of the NYPD.
Writing for The Ringer, Justin Charity critiques what he simply calls “The Spider-Cop Problem,” noting the game’s “strange optimism about modern policing” and calling the game “copaganda” in its efforts to “flatter police officers and spare them from skeptical coverage.” Whether he’s called Spider-Man or Spider-Cop, Peter Parker essentially does the NYPD’s job for them in the game because it presents a “police force so extremely benign and uncontroversial, if only because it barely exists.”
But this fails to note that even in the game’s opening mission, plenty of crooked cops work directly for Wilson Fisk. Many of the so-called “good” cops fall prey to J. Jonah Jameson’s smear campaign on his radio show, coming off as an anti-Spider-Man, vitriol-fueled Alex Jones parody. In one side mission, Spider-Man works with a skeptical officer who ultimately admits that Jameson was wrong about Spidey.
Charity also acknowledges the corruption and ineptitude that pervades the NYPD, both in the game and real-life, most noticeable in the use of high-tech surveillance.
An important early mission sends Spidey on a quest to repair and hijack NYPD surveillance towers around the city, something that other writers living in the real New York City have found unsavory — especially when the NYPD already has similar technology. You could easily write Spider-Man’s surveillance towers off as an invasive breach of privacy, but remember that this is a fictional universe and not meant to be an actual depiction of New York City. They serve a practical in-game purpose that functions within the narrative of the game and as a ubiquitous mechanic in open-world games.
A major point in Charity’s essay takes issue with a massive prison riot that happens later in the game, “a hellscape, overrun with liberated meatheads who all relish the opportunity to pummel Spider-Man” and shoot at him with rocket launchers. Charity wonders where the underrepresented “nonviolent offenders, pretrial detainees, and teens” being held in real-life Rikers are in this game. Yet he skips over the fact that just up the river in Spider-Man is the Raft, a massive high-tech prison housing a giant man that runs around in a rhino costume and another that can fly and channel electricity through his body.
Is it fair to demand more representation and authenticity from video game worlds that so obviously present fantastical alternate realities? Peter Parker’s New York is totally fictional, so why do people hold it at such high standards? We should care more about comparing this video game world to that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or its deeper origins in Marvel Comics than to anything resembling reality. Spider-Man doesn’t care about anyone’s issues with the real-life NYPD because this game quite simply does not take place in reality — so why are we applying real-life social analysis here?
These many criticisms also fundamentally misinterpret the nature of Peter Parker and Spider-Man.
When I play Spider-Man, the “Spider-Cop” bit is less a piece of the broader “copaganda” and more a biproduct of Peter Parker’s hilarious awkwardness as Spider-Man. It’s a bad joke that’s funny and formative in its depiction of the character.
At one point in the game’s latter half, Spidey makes a terrible quip to Mary Jane and she basically scolds him. He apologizes, saying he makes awkward bad jokes to break the tension. This behavior is a psychological compulsion for Peter when he has the Spider-Man persona active.
Spider-Man’s efforts do directly support the existing power structure of the city, but from his perspective, this is a good thing. This Peter Parker’s been Spider-Man for eight years, so he’s basically a veteran superhero, but we’re reminded often that he’s still very much so an idealistic, naive 23-year-old kid who believes in people and in the system. He’s not some fascist icon reinforcing the system (a legitimate analysis that’s out there.)
The game’s story goes to great lengths to paint Peter as an idealist who sees only the good in people, who earnestly believes that society’s structures can and serve their functions.
He’s not a burned-out Millennial subsisting in the New York City of Trump’s America. He’s a hopeful and endearing character who works in science for a day job because he wants to make the world a better place. And he wants to be called “Spider-Cop” because he loves his city. He has no qualms about policing it, especially when the real police aren’t capable of handling the threats he can.
Marvel’s Spider-Man is currently available exclusively for PlayStation 4.
Watch us stream the first 30 minutes of the game right here: