This post contains spoilers for Marvel’s Spider-Man, but only when it comes to his love life.
Some might classify the new Spider-Man as an action-adventure game where you fight super villains to save New York City.
But they’d be wrong.
The greatest strength of Marvel’s Spider-Man is when you look at it more like a dating simulator, doing the vital work of teaching young men everywhere what it takes to become a good boyfriend to a badass woman.
Now, full disclosure, I definitely have a personal stake in my choice between Team Peter vs Team MJ. As a woman journalist with ambition, I’m well-versed in the trials and tribulations of finding a partner who won’t take you prioritizing your own goals and agency as a personal insult.
But it becomes clear that the story Insomniac Games is telling agrees with that perspective, too. It’s part of what makes this game, and this Peter Parker, so special — not as the typical superhero adventure story, but as one of the rare games that does right by its powerful women characters.
When we begin, Peter Parker is suffering from an affliction many of us Millennials can relate to: perma-adolescence. Caught in the awkward in-between of young adulthood, he’s kind of a bum — and I say that with love, because Spider-Man’s hapless humanity is exactly what gives him a special place in our superhero-loving hearts.
But struggling to pay rent, stuck in an underpaid internship, and feeling sorry for himself after getting dumped by his girlfriend, Peter’s in the throes of the dreaded quarter-life crisis.
MJ, on the other hand, is thriving.
Unlike many other movie and comic book portrayals of Mary Jane, the MJ of 2018’s Spider-Man is an actual three-dimensional character rather than the more usual girl-next-door bombshell who serves as the female prize for our nerd-turned-hero.
Instead, this MJ is a promising young journalist at the Daily Bugle. She, like Miles Morales, is even a playable character during certain stealth missions she embarks on to go above and beyond the call (and arguably even ethics) of journalism.
Before the game even starts, we learn she did the unthinkable of breaking up with the web-swinging boy wonder of New York City. They’re clearly still on friendly terms, but we are left as clueless about why she did it as Peter (and Peter is pretty damn clueless, as always.)
Peter must learn the great responsibility that comes with a great love.
But like Peter, we learn it had a whole lot to do with her valuing her own self-respect above all else.
The emotional battle that plays out over the course of Marvel’s Spider-Man is unlike the one we’re accustomed to seeing for the beloved hero, too. It’s less about Peter Parker learning the great responsibility that comes with great power.
More readily, Peter must learn the great responsibility that comes with a great love.
As a grown-ass woman with big aspirations, MJ doesn’t have time to coach Peter through the difficult journey of growing out of his man-childishness — regardless of how charming he might carry that immaturity.
There’s still hope that he’ll become the boyfriend worthy of her love. But he’ll have to get there on his own because a woman like MJ needs a Spider-MAN, not a Spider-Boy.
The problem is that, with the best intentions, Peter always saw MJ as someone to protect. Having suffered the trauma of losing Uncle Ben, the dire need to keep all his other loved ones alive at all costs is more than understandable. Like the best character flaws, it comes from a place of love but results in the ultimate rift in their relationship.
But from MJ’s perspective, the result is a boyfriend who treats her like a China doll, ready to break at any moment. In reality, MJ is an unstoppable force of bravery and cunning who takes care of her damn self, thank you very much.
Her stealth missions, while some of the more mechanically uninteresting gameplay moment, are always revolved around dire narrative stakes she handles with a collected competence. Hell, she defuses a biological bomb from detonating in Grand Central station, while commanding Spider-Man (her ex, let’s not forget) like he’s the well-trained attack dog in the situation.
Finally, women are getting to play out their power fantasies in video games, amiright?
The more subtle examples of how her maturity surpasses Peter’s is in every one of their more intimate interactions, too. Can’t we all relate to the difficulty of standing your ground and not giving in when the ex you still love keeps trying to go back to the way things were?
But MJ knows betters. She’s unwavering in her commitment to getting what she deserves, whether from Peter or at work. She can’t accept Peter back until he reconciles with what went wrong.
Yet as they work closer together as an occupational hazard of their jobs, Peter remains oblivious despite her dropping some major hints. Even in their first reunion during the Demons’ attack on the museum, she calls him out for acting like she’s the damsel only moments after she saved his ass.
Like many young men his age, that all seems to fall on deaf ears for Peter.
But as the game progresses, he does start to show small, promising signs of growth. Or at the very least, of being met with the consequences of not showing his badass (ex) girlfriend some goddamn respect.
The real turning point in Peter’s transformation into high-quality boyfriend material comes in the second act of the game, after MJ gets an exclusive with Jefferson Miles.
While she’s on the cusp of the scoop of her career, Peter returns home to discover he’s been evicted. He needs a place to crash for the night and ,of course, his first thought is his (ex) lady love.
But even as Peter swings to MJ’s apartment, he wrestles with the realization that he might be crossing some major boundaries. His reservations are finally confirmed when he sees her story published on the Bugle, and utters a sentiment straight out of an ambitious woman’s wet dream:
“I think I’ll find somewhere else to stay. She’s probably busy with work.”
Spidey’s journey to becoming worthy of MJ’s love isn’t quite over just yet, though. He still doesn’t have a good answer when she asks him (repeatedly) if he comprehends why they broke up. The lowest point for our arachnid bachelor culminates in him totally botching one of MJ’s stealth missions — which was going swimmingly until Peter decided to show up and “save her.”
That’s when Peter finally realizes, and perhaps only because she finally spells it out for him.
MJ got tired of being infantilized by her boyfriend. Because in the process of treating her as a liability, Peter forgot to treat MJ like a person — a person who, mind you, has proven herself more than capable of being as great a hero as he is.
It’s a testament to Insomniac Games’ narrative that, ultimately, Spider-Man and MJ’s arc is unlike the one we’ve seen a million times before. Usually, MJ represents the real-life responsibilities that keep “getting in the way” of Spidey’s heroics. She’s the classic ball and chain, demanding he put her needs before the city’s.
Just look at Kirsten Dunst’s MJ in the original Spider-Man movie trilogy. While she seems to understand his duty to the city in the second movie, the third movie seems to throw her agency under the bus to give Peter that arc. She becomes a pawn for his enemies, and a victim for him to continually save. She is the liability, so the question of proposing to her becomes a battle between choosing his responsibilities as Peter vs. Spider-Man.
But Insomniac Games’ version casts MJ as the fundamental partner Spider-Man needs to become the best superhero he can be.
MJ doesn’t have superhuman abilities. But she was always the perfect partner for Peter because she understood she didn’t need them, instead learning to use nothing but her own wits and cunning to do her part for New York City.
In contrast, Peter continually failed her as a partner by failing to recognize her heroics. So she had to choose her own self-worth above her love for him.
MJ is the fundamental partner Spider-Man needs to become the best superhero he can be.
Until, that is, Peter finally realizes that MJ was never just part of his long list of responsibilities he gained once he chose to answer his calling as Spider-Man.
All she wanted was for him to allow her to answer that call alongside him.
MJ, along with Yuri, Miles Morales, and Jefferson Miles, continually play huge roles in ensuring Spider-Man is able to be successful.
MJ pulls an unconscious Peter from danger after the attack that kills Jefferson Miles. MJ’s investigative work constantly provides Peter with the information he needs. MJ discovers the backstory behind Devil’s Breath creation, and its antidote. MJ constantly does the unpleasant work of speaking truth to power through her reporting, arguably doing more to fix the systemic issues that plague New York City than Spider-Man himself.
And Peter finally shows he’s learned the proper way to date such a badass when he stops chastising her for doing this dangerous yet vital work, and instead starts giving her tools and gadgets to help ensure her success too.
At it’s best, Marvel’s Spider-Man focuses on the heroism of the people behind the mask. Whether it’s Miles, Jefferson, MJ — or the heroics of a man learning to earn the love of a great woman.
Peter Parker becomes a worthy hero by realizing women don’t need saving. Yet arguably MJ’s the greater public servant, for the patience of making him (and the demographic who idolizes this infantilizing kind of male heroics) face the facts.