In Spider-Man — the PlayStation 4 game released last week — there are heroes, there are villains, and then there’s the New York Police Department.
Spider-Man, you might have guessed, is the hero. He swings around Manhattan, pummeling criminals with dazzling athleticism, hurling cheerful quips at his friends and enemies alike. In addition to his Spider-Man alter ego, the web-slinging Peter Parker assumes a goofy, secondary persona he’s named Spider-Cop. “Spider-Cop” is a rogue NYPD investigator who exists only in Spider-Man’s conversations with his irritable NYPD liaison, Yuri Watanabe. Spider-Man belabors the Spider-Cop gag as he belabors most jokes: by spewing hardboiled-detective tropes and referring to himself in the third person as Watanabe begs the wise-ass Peter Parker to shut the hell up.
The gag underscores the game’s strange optimism about modern policing. It’s a reactionary outlook that some skeptical players might highlight as copaganda, a term coined to describe media efforts to flatter police officers and spare them from skeptical coverage. But the game’s characterization of the police gets a bit more conflicted, bewildering, and fascinating. In the game, Spider-Man interrogates thugs, solves mysteries, and stops crimes. There’s a core story line that pits Spider-Man against his rogues’ gallery, including Kingpin, Doctor Octopus, and Mister Negative. But Spider-Man is an open-world game, designed to lure players into freewheeling exploration. Ideally, the player will break from the core story line every now and again to patrol Manhattan and stop crimes in real time. From Harlem on down, Manhattan is Spider-Man’s mega-precinct. So he swings from one active crime scene to the next, thwarting burglaries, muggings, narcotics deals, bomb threats, and hostage standoffs. Then he reports his findings to Watanabe and transfers his roughed-up suspects to police custody.
Peter Parker romanticizes policing, and so Spider-Man asks the player to humor the character’s law-and-order obsession through its narrative and gameplay. To reveal portions of the game’s map, players must bound across Manhattan and repair the dozens of surveillance towers that Oscorp Industries — a devious conglomerate — has installed to serve the NYPD. In fact, the towers resemble surveillance equipment that the NYPD now uses, in real life, to sort suspects and other people of interest by physical tags, including skin color, based on closed-circuit footage. Spider-Man does occasionally hint at the potential for civil rights abuses — it’s Oscorp technology, after all — but the game has rendered ubiquitous surveillance stations and drones as an otherwise benign, irresistible fact of modern life in a big, crime-ridden city.
It’s unclear who the fictionalized NYPD serves in return. Spider-Man forges an unresolved disparity between its hero’s regard for the NYPD and the department’s cowardly absence from wherever guns are drawn, even when a full terrorist cell is ripping rockets through Times Square in broad daylight. From an endangered citizen’s perspective, Spider-Man — Spider-Cop — is the police department. The actual police are too frequently late, ineffective, and, worse yet, corrupt. They also seem to resent Spider-Man: In the wild, police officers will greet Spider-Man enthusiastically, and they may even ask him for an autograph, but then Watanabe will repeatedly stress the department’s distrust of his contributions to the profession. So the story suggests some tension between Spider-Man and the police. The Spider-Man character is saddled with so much urgent police work that the player may begin to wonder what the fictionalized NYPD even does.
The game subjects its criminal suspects to an equal but opposite simplification. On patrol, Spider-Man mocks the motivations and intelligence of every suspect he encounters. The game’s developers have rendered Manhattan in astoundingly faithful geographic detail, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block; but then the game disregards the social details that should inform criminal activity, such as local poverty or a neighborhood’s unique relationship with policing. The core story line further simplifies matters: In the game’s most chaotic mission, Spider-Man swings through Rikers Island to suppress an armed prison uprising. The game’s island is a hellscape, overrun with liberated meatheads who all relish the opportunity to pummel Spider-Man and the prison administrators to death. In fact, Rikers Island hosts a great share of nonviolent offenders, pretrial detainees, and teens — people unrepresented in the game’s undifferentiated characterization of suspects and criminals as rabid superpredators. The disastrous scene at Rikers bolsters Spider-Cop’s enthusiasm for law enforcement. The inmates are torching the asylum, and, through brute force, applied indiscriminately, only Spider-Cop can tame them.
Spider-Man is superhero mythology, and the hero’s indispensability is, of course, a classic contrivance. But the game struggles to justify the police department’s existence, much less its illiberal innovations and its false valor. The fictional NYPD is a shambles; in the game’s freelance mode, Watanabe and the dispatchers refer Spider-Man to active crime scenes in his vicinity. Like most superheroes, Spider-Man proves too extremely indispensable: If he doesn’t stop the randomly generated felony in progress, then it’s just not getting stopped. If Spider-Man doesn’t stop the game’s dueling criminal organizations from gunning down civilians at every other intersection, then the police sure as hell aren’t going to win the gun battle. Sometimes they won’t even bother to arrive until after Spider-Man has webbed up all the shooters at the scene. Effectively, there is no NYPD. There’s only Spider-Man and his partners, Mary Jane Watson and Miles Morales, who both do more crucial police work than the NYPD’s avatar, the micromanager Watanabe.
In general, the Marvel Cinematic Universe disgraces its fictional cops. Marvel’s television shows for Netflix — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders — often characterize the NYPD as a seedy reserve corps for any criminal mastermind seeking henchmen and moles. The dark characterization of law enforcement goes only so far; the cops are bad only ever because someone has paid them to be bad. There’s no thoughtful accounting for how factors other than bribery, such as bigotry, might also complicate and disgrace policing. The bad cop is necessarily a crooked cop, and the crooked cop’s motivation is simplistic: crime pays. In the first season of Daredevil, Kingpin pays a great portion of the police force to assist his criminal enterprise; the season ends with a corrupt cop murdering a decent cop to free Kingpin from the back of a transport vehicle, his police escort overthrown by a rush of corrupt cops, their guns blazing, their client secured. Occasionally, there are good cops, but the good cops are so rare, and so overwhelmingly outnumbered by crooked cops, that they become the great exception to the overall police force. In Luke Cage, the intrepid detective Misty Knight becomes a superhero in her own right.
So Spider-Man can seem to be a late and overcorrective effort to repair Marvel’s regard for police. The NYPD is a beleaguered organization with a hyperactive PR department. Recently, the NYPD hired Spike Lee — a flamboyant critic of the department and civil rights advocate — to consult on advertisements. The NYPD didn’t pay Marvel for the courtesy of turning Spider-Man into Spider-Cop. Still, it is easy enough for the player to observe the advertisements for themselves: the helpful surveillance towers, the Spider-Cop routine, the hero cop memorialization. The character Spider-Man may flatter the NYPD, but the game Spider-Man presents a police force so extremely benign and uncontroversial, if only because it barely exists. The characterization isn’t subversive, exactly: The subtle slights are numerous, but they’re also, apparently, unintentional, produced by a skeptical subconscious forced to develop a dubious text.
The result is an alternatively naive and dismal outlook on modern policing. Spider-Man is a copaganda artifact that somehow does the NYPD no favors. It’s a thrilling game, but a messy and unfinished portrait of a city, its criminal underbelly, and its dysfunctional police force. The surveillance towers are a reactionary glitch. The superpredators are another. They’re not the whole story. The many nuances and inconsistencies don’t absolve the game’s fundamental recklessness, but they do, ironically, reveal the abstraction required for Spider-Man to lavish such a fearsome profession, and such a controversial police department, with uncomplicated praise. The player may well smile upon Spider-Cop’s unconditional loyalty to the police and his thoughtless manhandling of criminal suspects. They might also wonder why Spider-Cop serves an institution that disavows him, eventually targets him, and neither serves nor protects anyone in the process.