Over the last ten years Marvel Studios has built a cinematic empire, crystalised in “the most ambitious crossover event of all time” – a two-part epic which concluded in what’s now the highest grossing films ever.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a cultural zeitgeist on par with Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad. Superhero films are exciting again, with each standalone movie carrying a larger plotline across multiple movies featuring different heroes. However, its video game counterpart isn’t nearly as ambitious.
Looking back at the history of Marvel games, there have been over 100 different games in the last three decades, but few have been genuinely good. Talking to anyone who played couch co-op in the early ‘00s, you’d be hard pressed not to hear someone go off about Marvel Ultimate Alliance, the Diablo-esque action RPG featuring the X-Men, Avengers, Defenders, and more. Prior to Super Smash Bros on the Wii U, Marvel vs Capcom was the most ambitious crossover event in video game history. And, of course, Treyarch’s Spider-Man 2: The Game perfectly captured the iconic thwips of Spider-Man’s web shooting by introducing a freerunning web slinging mechanic in a fully realised New York City.
But again, these are exceptions. In the last decade, we’ve had a number of bland, lifeless movie tie-ins that lack the charm and goofy flair of Marvel films. Instead of the belovedly punchy Saturday morning cartoon aesthetics of previous games, Marvel vs Capcom now dons a realistic, gritty look. Most Marvel characters are now locked to mobile games with microtransactions and gatcha-like gameplay. Much like the 20th Century Fox film franchise, the X-Men have been tossed around with mediocre video game adaptations, too, including the abysmal action RPG X-Men Destiny, which promised so much and yet delivered a rushed, clunky open world with unimaginative characters and button-mashing combat.
After the success of the MCU, it’s hard not to be disappointed in the current Marvel Video Game Universe. With the MCU, Kevin Feige created a stupidly ambitious and strategic marketing campaign that somehow made a living tree and a raccoon memorable icons of pop culture. Even people who’ve never read a comic book can tell you how they felt seeing Bucky, T’Challa, and Spider-Man turn to dust. Understandably, having a video game universe as well could feel daunting and cause extreme Marvel fatigue, especially post-Avengers: Endgame. But with Marvel Studios’ next phase looking to diversify its roster and divorce itself from the iconography of the previous ten years, now’s the time for some good Marvel video games.
But, just what exactly would a video game equivalent of the MCU look like? If Square Enix’s recently unveiled Marvel’s Avengers is the first game to kick things off, it looks like it’ll be very similar to the MCU. Announced at E3, Marvel’s Avengers is an ambitious game featuring a story and visuals eerily similar to its cinematic counterpart. When Marvel and Square Enix first soft announced their video game partnership, the project was said to mark the beginning of a number of Marvel games, including Eidos Montreal’s forever rumoured Guardians of the Galaxy.
Marvel’s Avengers follows a disjointed Avengers team made up of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and Black Widow after a cataclysmic event destroys San Francisco, and Captain America – who keeps the group dynamic together like social glue – suddenly vanishes. This decisive moment makes the world lose faith in the Avengers and even the notion of heroism. After the iconic dusting of half of Marvel’s lovable heroes and with a core Avengers team almost identical to the film versions, it’s a bit too on the nose. And, as the internet quickly called out, they look like Chinese knock-off toy versions of their on-screen counterparts.
It goes to show that Marvel isn’t really willing to detach itself from the cinematic brand and make its own video game universe. Even Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, a game that already has a huge following and roster of cartoon characters to base itself on, has you play as Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and X-Men members racing Thanos and his Black Order to the Infinity Stones. The purple galactic fascist and his underlings have been the face of pop culture for years now, and it’s about time Marvel turns to other worlds and villains, including in its games.
It’s why Marvel’s Spider-Man feels so fresh and compelling. Insomniac Games’ web shooting adventure feels authentically grounded in its own universe, brimming with personality, charm and life. Instead of Peter Parker being a high schooler like Tom Holland, he’s a college student in his mid 20s and has already established himself as a hero. He’s juggling grief, multiple jobs, his internship with a supervillain, and trying to salvage his broken relationship with Mary Jane. Moments where you play as MJ feel like espionage missions in a third-person action game, and are something you couldn’t imagine seeing in a game set in the MCU’s epic action set pieces. Spidey’s friends are dealing with adult issues, he has his own protege in Miles Morales, and he fights villains not seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It all feels distinct and with a post-credits scene that teases symbiotes and Green Goblin, it feels like a call back to the Amazing Spider-Man cartoon and Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man run in the comics.
After Marvel Studios announced that the next phase in the MCU would feature a cast of eternal legends of varied ethnicities and cultures – an asian superhero, a confirmed queer superheroine (all of which was long overdue) – and focus on absurd cross-dimensional stories to come out of the multiverse, I started to get excited about superhero movies again. It all feels completely detached from the Thanos saga, the consequences and story beats. But more importantly here, it made me realise that I just want to feel the same way about the future of Marvel’s video games.
Going forward, we can assumedly expect a sequel to Marvel’s Spider-Man, Marvel’s own forever game in Marvel’s Avengers, and Eidos Montreal’s rumoured Guardians of the Galaxy. If Marvel’s Avengers really is meant to begin a multi-title partnership with Marvel and Square Enix, for it to succeed and feel compelling, it needs to not be about the purple skinned brute and his quest for world domination. I don’t necessarily think Marvel – or in fact, the world – needs as many Marvel games coming out each year as we get Marvel films, but a shared universe with characters and worlds that react from the events, people and decisions made by Starlord, Gamora, and the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy would help sell Marvel’s Avengers. Don’t just give us cheap Avengers: Endgame action figures, give us Secret Avengers. Give us House of M. Give us Dr Doom. Give us more games like Marvel’s Spider-Man – games with their own heart and soul.