Insomniac’s Marvel games succeed where Marvel’s Avengers failed

Insomniac Games announced not one but two Marvel projects at Sony’s PlayStation Showcase on Thursday: Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 and Marvel’s Wolverine. This comes after the original Spider-Man in 2018 and the first spinoff, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, late last year.

With Peter Parker’s Spider-Man, Wolverine, Miles Morales, and potentially Venom in the mix of playable Insomniac heroes, the studio has started to carve out its own little chunk of the Marvel universe. But unlike Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix’s Marvel’s Avengers, Insomniac is keeping things intimate.

To truly know and appreciate a hero, apart from any teams they may eventually join, players, viewers, and readers need focused time. Lesser-known characters like Miles need some additional backstory to help fans understand what they’re working with. And even well-known heroes like Spider-Man and Wolverine need to establish how this version of Peter Parker or Logan operate.

That’s how the MCU handled it, and it paved the way for Phase 3’s incredible conclusions. Had Doctor Strange just popped up in Infinity War for the first time, his pivotal role in the movie wouldn’t have carried that same weight. Similarly, the Disney Plus shows help us focus on smaller characters that haven’t gotten their own movie to shine in. We learned more about Vision in WandaVision’s nine episodes than the numerous Avengers movies he appeared in.

But more important than Insomniac learning the lessons of heroic focus from the MCU, it’s avoiding a pitfall Marvel’s Avengers stepped right into. Every one of the game’s staple Avengers is like a half-step between a new character and an homage to the MCU version of the hero. Nolan North’s Tony Stark might have his own history in Marvel’s Avengers, but the game doesn’t spend much time revealing that, meaning there isn’t enough there to differentiate him from Robert Downey Jr.’s version of the character. Outside of newcomer Kamala Khan, Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t take the time to focus on any one individual hero. The scope is too wide, and almost every character suffers for it.

Miles shocks an enemy with his venom powers in Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Contrast Marvel’s Avengers with what Insomniac’s doing. There have been four major cinematic Peter Parkers in the past 20 years — five, if you count Chris Pine and Jake Johnson’s versions separately in Into the Spider-Verse. Yet the Marvel’s Spider-Man version of the character stands on his own. As does Miles Morales in the game he headlines, even though Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales includes plenty of homages to Into the Spider-Verse. Why? Because Insomniac has given its heroes a long runway — hours of solo-time with players, and plenty of unique story to separate them from the model that viewers already have of the characters.

Marvel’s Spider-Man is focused on Peter Parker. And while players also get to control both Mary-Jane and Miles, and get an intimate look at Otto Octavius, all of the characters play into Peter’s world. In Miles Morales, Peter shows up to mentor Miles, but it’s Miles’ game. He’s the focus, and Peter is just another character.

The team-up between Peter and Miles in Spider-Man 2 should feel more cohesive than the character team-ups in Marvel’s Avengers. The groundwork is already laid. I’ve spent hours getting to know these unique Spider-Men apart from one another, so I can appreciate them separately even when they’re working as a team — just like the team-ups in the MCU.

It’s way too early to speculate about whether Insomniac will ever put all of its Marvel characters in a single game. We’re not even sure if they exist in the same universe yet (though we’ve asked). But so far, Insomniac’s approach has been to let each of its versions of Marvel superheroes function as individual characters first, and potential teammates second. If Peter, Miles, or Venom pop up for a mission in Marvel’s Wolverine, it’s not going to feel weird or out of place. But Marvel’s Wolverine will be almost certainly be a game focused entirely on Logan, where other heroes are just characters.

A good universe filled with unique heroes takes time to build, but it also takes focus. Marvel’s Avengers feels like it tried to cash in on something massive and successful by spreading itself too thin — like a low-poly map that loses all of its texture at the street level. But Insomniac’s version of the Marvel world is so focused that even when you start to zoom out, you can still see the details.

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